Upon hearing the word “totem,” many people think of animal totems, those archetypal spirits that embody all the qualities of their respective species. What fewer people realize is that plants and fungi also have totems that watch over us and moderate our relationships with other beings in the world. These totems are rarely touched on when people in Pagan and other earth-based spiritualities speak of “herbs” and the like. More often the spirituality and magic associated with plants deal with dried leaves, roots, and flowers, and the only fungi that ever get any attention are a handful of common psychoactive mushrooms.1 Individual plant and fungus spirits may be mentioned from time to time, but the overarching totems of fungus and plant species get comparatively little attention. I find this to be a shame; just like the complex places in this world, the totemic ecosystem offers many fascinating things to explore, and animal totems are but one part of that.
Human nature may explain part of why many people never get farther than working with the animals in the totemic ecosystem. People most often feel comfortable connecting with animal totems because we ourselves are animals. While we’ve evolved in some very different ways from other animal species, we are still mammals, vertebrates, made of flesh and blood and bone. So we resonate most easily with that which is most familiar; totems of big, impressive mammals are some of the most common totems people work with.
This leaves us with only part of the story. As I said in New Paths to Animal Totems, “animal totems don’t inhabit a vacuum—they are the spiritual manifestations of animals that live as interwoven parts of complex ecosystems.” (144) This book, while it can stand alone, also serves as a companion
volume to my previous text. I began working with animal totems on their own in the mid-1990s, and over time the animals led me to their other neighbors in their habitat, the plants and fungi, and the waterways and mountains among others. Plant and Fungus Totems, then, is the next step in a progression through the totemic ecosystem.
It’s not just New Paths to Animal Totems with fungi and plants plugged in, though. As I’ll discuss in chapter two, there are some fundamental ways in which fungus and plant totems differ greatly from their animal counterparts. They see the world differently than animal totems do, and some of their concerns for their physical counterparts don’t always make immediate sense to us animal sorts. Part of what I’ll be doing in this book is helping you adjust to working with these more unusual totems.
Also, while I will touch on more common topics like herbalism and working with individual plant spirits, this book predominantly concerns the totemic representatives of entire plant and fungus species. It’s meant to be a set of tools you can either use as is for plant and fungus totem work, or that you can adapt to your own practice as you see fit. There’s a dearth of information on this topic, and this is merely my contribution to its small (but hopefully growing) body of text.
Not surprisingly, I’m starting with the basics: what are fungus and plant totems, and how do I work with them? That pretty much summarizes the first two chapters, though it’s more complicated than inserting Plant Totem A into Meditation B. In order to understand what makes plant and fungus totems unique, we’ll be exploring some elements of their evolutionary paths and natural histories. Lesson one: despite their stuck-to-the-ground nature, fungi are not plants, which is why I’m not just calling this Plant Totems.
One thing I am bringing back from New Paths to Animal Totems is the series of three models of totemism: Bioregional, Correspondences, and Archetypal. This is because the most basic ways in which I work with animal totems mirror the most basic ways in which I work with plant totems. When I decided to write a book on animal totems that would appeal to both beginners and more experienced spiritual practitioners, I had to find a way to extrapolate my own practice into a form that would be more accessible and useful than saying “Well, I do this, and I do that, and sometimes I include these ideas over here, and occasionally there are sloths involved … ”
So I developed three models that explained how I work with animal totems. The Archetypal model delves deeply into your psyche to connect the totems to some of the deepest, most ancient human experiences and ways of being. The Bioregional model brings the focus back out into the natural world around us, whether the elk in deep wilderness areas or the ants walking on blades of grass in the cracks of urban sidewalks. The Correspondences model uses symbolism to bridge the gap between inner self and outer environment, allowing for personal interpretation along the way, as well
as the integration of other spiritual systems like runes or
It turns out that these models work pretty well for explaining the roots of my work with plant totems, too, and they’ll be making up the next three chapters. In the interest of avoiding redundancy I’m not going to be spending as much time in this book on the fundamental concepts behind these models, such as “Who was Jung and how did he come up with archetypes?” or “You mean there are directions besides north, south, east, and west?” You’re certainly welcome to read New Paths to Animal Totems to get this information if you like, but you can also use this book and the models therein as well. In fact, there are some exercises in that other book that you may be able to adapt to your work in this one, and conversely some of what’s discussed here may work just as well with animal totems. I did try to make these books complementary to each other.
For the benefit of those who have not read my earlier book, I covered the basics again in brief at the start of each chapter. I completely rewrote and in some cases updated the material, rather than copying and pasting! It’ll make it more interesting for those of you in need of a review.
There’s also a chapter on combining the models, two or all three at a time. While each model can be used on its own, keep in mind that all three of them were derived from my own practice, and so the ideas and concepts were originally developed as one single integrated system. There’s no one right way to combine them, of course, and if what you create doesn’t resemble the way I practice totemism, that’s okay, so long as it works for you. And if you want to add in work with animal totems, too, I’ll be talking about that as well.
After that will be some supplementary material you can incorporate into any of the models and elsewhere. I’ll spend some time talking about adding physical plant parts into your totemic work as well as multilayered practices that bring in both the totems and individual plant spirits. This won’t just be limited to wild places, either; gardens of vegetables, mushrooms and flowers, kitchen herb stocks, and even that stubborn dandelion growing on the side of an inner-city building are all potential partners in plant and fungus totem work. Don’t forget to check the appendices in the back, too; there are some important odds and ends that didn’t fit elsewhere but shouldn’t be missed.
What you won’t find here is a totem dictionary. Even though I spend time extolling particular virtues of some fungus and plant totems, please do not view these as anything more than personal examples—they are just some of the things I have learned while working with these totems. While there are a few authors who have written their own dictionary-style books with their own meanings and keywords for different plant and fungus totems, the definitions are far from universally true. Your experiences may be very different, and I encourage you to make your own relationships with these beings.
As with all my books, there is value in reading this one in order. I have a particular rhyme and reason for organizing the book the way that I do, a story of how I work with the totems. Don’t feel that you have to stick to that format, though. If there’s a chapter that really looks interesting, start with that. You can always go back and read the rest for context. You also don’t have to use everything in the book, either; if something just doesn’t work for you, that’s okay!
There are numerous exercises throughout this book, just as there were in my last book. I recommend reading the entire book before trying the exercises; this is mainly so that you have more understanding of why I include these practices, and how and why they work. Some of the exercises are meant to be done in order because the skills and observations from an earlier one may contribute significantly to a later one, so make sure you read through each one before trying them out, especially if you intend to skip any.
I always encourage you to experiment. If one of the exercises or concepts in this book sparks an idea of something you’d like to try, give it a shot! You might try out each of the models in turn and then get some good ideas for a model of totemism all your own. Just for the sake of thoroughness, try to give each model a try for at least a month. This gives you time to get used to that model, and also allows you to understand it enough through practice that you may feel more comfortable taking it in new directions.
I suggest keeping a journal to record your results from the exercises you try and other thoughts as you work through the book. This way, you can keep track of your progress and discoveries, and if you decide to try a particular exercise a second time, you can compare the old and new results. Plus you can use your notes to reflect on what worked best for you, and help you come up with ideas for future work. Even people with very good memories may appreciate having written down minute details that slipped out of their minds over time.
Please don’t feel you’re on a particular timetable as you work through this book. You don’t have to have a complete system of fungus and plant totemism within a week of reading it. Consider my work a starting point, a cache of ideas to play with. Take one day of exploration at a time, and remember that there’s no single correct endpoint to all of this. (That’s why it’s not The One True Path to Plant and Fungus Totems!)
As always, I’m open to constructive feedback. There’s contact information in my bio, though you can always just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you’re welcome to come chat with me at events I attend; my calendar is at
Finally, I will be discussing herbalism and related practices in a few places in this book, though mainly in a theoretical manner. Just in case it needs to be said, nothing in this book is provided as medical advice, nor is it meant to replace instructions given to you by your chosen medical professionals.
In other words, just because I mention in chapter one that dandelions are supposed to have certain medicinal value including diuretic properties, it doesn’t mean you should toss out your prescription diuretic medication and start eating dandelions! Additionally, if a particular plant or fungus isn’t legal to possess or grow in your area, please do not break the law by cultivating or collecting it anyway; there are ways to connect with plant and fungus totems besides their physical counterparts. And if you know you’re allergic to a particular fungus or plant, pollen in general, or if you are susceptible to fungal respiratory illnesses brought on by breathing spores, do your best to avoid the problematic species. Spiritual practices do not offer a license to forgo common sense and critical thinking.
1 For various reasons, I won’t be covering psychoactive mushrooms in this book, not the least reason of which being the fact that I don’t use them and can’t speak to that experience. If you want a surprising starting point, here’s a page maintained by the U. S. Forest Service on the historical and cultural role of these fungi around the world: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/mindandspirit/fungi.shtml. Other pages linked to it include other ethnobotanical information that may be of interest as well.