A Note to Readers
“Lupa, I thought you wrote about animals! What’s with this whole plants thing? And fungi? Really?”
All right; I know this is quite different from my previous books, which have almost exclusively focused on animal spirituality and related topics. So why this departure from the land of vertebrates and invertebrates into the kingdoms of chlorophyll and cellulose, mycorrhizae and mycelia? What’s so interesting about these living beings that don’t seem to move around much, not even when threatened with a weed whacker or hay thresher?
Well, it does start with the animals. Specifically, it starts with a couple of my bioregional animal totems, Scrub Jay and Steller’s Jay. These weren’t just individual bird spirits, but overarching deity-like beings that watched over their entire species, embodying everything there was to know about scrub jays and Steller’s jays, respectively. When I moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2007, within a week of my arrival these two totems introduced themselves to me and did their level best to help me get settled into my new home. Scrub Jay showed me around the city of Portland, helping me begin to locate important resources, from libraries to potential employers and even the best places to get a slice of pizza.1 Steller’s Jay went with me on my first forays out into the Columbia River Gorge, and initiated a fascination with the wildlands of Oregon and southern Washington that hasn’t abated since.
Ever since then, my time here has been spent putting down roots (if you’ll forgive the pun). I’ve lived in several places over the years, but not since my childhood home in the Midwest had I found a place I was so connected to. I knew from the beginning I was where I needed to be, and the land embraced me from the beginning with its two totemic emissaries. While I may not stay in Portland proper forever, this piece of the Pacific Northwest feels like Home with a capital H.
The thing about being so strongly connected to a place is that it makes me want to know even more about it. I don’t just want to have my daily experiences here. I want to know it from the ground up, from the stones of its foundation to the various living beings that have made their homes here over time, and the experiences of human communities past and present. I’ve studied everything from the geology of the land to the weather patterns in the sky, in both books and explorations on foot.
All this taught me to not be so prone to tunnel vision when I’m exploring something that interests me. For many years on my spiritual path I primarily worked with animal totems and spirits, and not all that much else. While it gave me a great deal of depth in that area of knowledge and practice, there’s a lot I was missing out on to include the context in which these beings exist. As I’m fond of pointing out when talking about bioregional totemism, animal totems don’t just float around our heads; they have their own spiritual ecosystems they inhabit.
Which brings me to the plant and fungus totems discussed in this book. They aren’t just the backdrop for the adventures of animal totems in the spirit realm. Instead, they are their own beings, with every bit as much influence and standing in their home as their animal neighbors. We’re just so used to being biased toward animals that we often forget the critters are only part of the story.
I’ve found that fungus and plant totems are a lot more subtle and quiet in their work than animals. Even as Scrub Jay, Steller’s Jay, and other local animal totems actively helped me to become more a part of the land here, I was also receiving help and lessons from Douglas Fir, White and Red Clovers, Black Morel, and many others. Trouble is, I wasn’t listening to them as hard as I could at first.
But when I did finally notice they were such strong presences in my life, it opened me up to an entirely new realm of spiritual practice. Suddenly the relationships among various animal totems made more sense, as their physical children relied on the living plants and fungi for their very survival; even the carnivores couldn’t live without them. These non-animal beings placed significant pressures on the animals, whether they were defending themselves from being an herbivore’s meal, creating a supply-and-demand chain for tasty, seed-bearing fruits, or manipulating insects into facilitating their pollination.
In the same way, the relationships among animal, plant, and fungus totems are intricately woven together. Brown Bear is often considered to be a healing totem because brown bears (among others) dig for roots, mushrooms, and the like, some of which are medicinal. While humans have long learned from other animals what’s good to eat, bears would sometimes uproot things that also had healing properties, and so Brown Bear became associated with medicines, as well as some of the most powerful shamanisms in various cultures.
Yet what are these fungi and plants the bears feast upon? Some are primarily valued for being edible, like fireweed and acorns, with no major medicinal applications. Others, like juniper berries and the hen of the woods mushroom, have additional qualities beneficial to human health. Can we explore their importance, not just in their physical manifestations, but through their totems? What can the totems Juniper and Hen of the Woods tell us about working with Brown Bear, and vice versa?
It’s questions like these that got me thinking more about accentuating my work with plant and fungus totems for their own sake as well as their integration with animal totems. Much of the work was already done for me, as the animal totems often led me to notice the plants and fungi they relied upon. It was then up to me to pay better attention.
And that’s where this book comes from: a guide to being more aware of plant and fungus totems. There’s very little out there on these totems, and I want to help my readers get to know them better. If, like many people, you’re new to fungus and plant totemism—or totemism in general—I hope you find what I write here to be an accessible introduction with many potential paths for further exploration. If working with fungi and plants is old hat for you, hopefully you will find some new ideas and perspectives to add to your tool kit. As for those of you already familiar with my writing, my intent is to use my usual “here are some ideas, now go play with them!” style to show you a different area of my practice and what I’ve learned over time.
No matter where you’re coming from, I do hope this book conveys at least a little of the wonder and joy I’ve experienced in working more deeply with the beings of fields, forests, gardens, and other biomes. I felt the need to share it with you; may your explorations be at least as fruitful as mine!
1 A quick note on formatting: Because I work with totems according to their individual species, I will use the entire name instead of shorthand; for example, no matter how many times I talk about Amanita Muscaria, I won’t shorten it to just “Amanita,” because there are several other species in the genus Amanita and they all have totems, too. Additionally, you may see me swap back and forth on capitalization and italics when it comes to scientific names for fungi, plants, and their totems. When the name is not italicized and starts with capital letters (like Amanita Muscaria) I’m referring to the totem. On the other hand, if I use italics and only start the genus name with a capital letter it means I’m referring to the species as a whole, as in Amanita muscaria. In short, I use it as a “proper name” when working with totems, and according to proper scientific form when speaking of the species. I hope this makes sense; if not, you’re welcome to email your confusion to me.