What Are Plant and Fungus Totems?
Let’s start with a brief discussion of what totems are. The basic answer is that a totem is a spiritual being that embodies the qualities of a given species of animal, plant, fungus, etc. I may refer to a totem’s “physical counterparts” or “children,” meaning the living, breathing animals, plants, and fungi in this world with us. But the totem is a being of spirit, meaning, and connection that watches over those physical beings of its species. There are wild daffodils, but they are watched over by the totem Wild Daffodil.
I tend to work with totems of individual species, too, so rather than just working with Oak Tree, I might instead work with White Oak or Post Oak as individual totems. Sometimes the totems of closely related species may be very similar to each other in personality and bailiwick, but there’s always something setting them apart from each other, even if it’s just unique perspectives from evolving in different types of environments or adapting differently to the same environment.
We can interact with totems for a variety of reasons: to ask them for help or guidance, to learn more about their species and how to help them, to connect more deeply with their ecosystem-at-large, and so forth. For example, you might ask the totem Teddy-Bear Cholla Cactus for help with maintaining your defenses even when you may seem vulnerable and “soft” at first glance. Or if you’ve moved to the Oregon coast, you might ask Sugar Kelp to introduce you to the ecosystem along the water and help you become integrated to your new home.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you should walk into the ocean and find a strand of kelp to talk to. The physical plants lack vocal cords and ears, so this conversation probably won’t get too far. The totem Sugar Kelp is a non-physical representative of that species, and that’s who you want to talk to. You can use that leaf of seaweed to help you contact Sugar Kelp, as well as the spirit of the individual kelp plant; just keep in mind it’s a different sort of communication than what you use when having conversations with your fellow human beings. (I’ll talk more about that later in the chapter.)
Opinions differ as to whether totems are individual spirits that are particularly powerful among their kind, or larger, archetypal beings akin to deities, or elements of our own psyche—or combinations thereof. Authors such as Pam Montgomery and Eliot Cowan tend to emphasize honoring the spirit of an individual plant in magical work (which I feel is a definite improvement over just tossing some dried herbs in a spell pouch and calling it done!). Thea Summer Deer is one of a number of writers referring to these spirits as devas, hearkening to the nineteenth-century Theosophists who used the term to describe any nature spirit. On the other hand, the conception of a deva used in the Findhorn intentional community is an overarching being that moderates the activities of individual spirits of a particular species.
Like the Findhorn residents, my work with totems has revealed them to be archetypal beings that embody the qualities of their given species, as well as the myriad relationships they have with other species of plant, fungus, animal, and their environments in general. I also consider them to have a dual existence; totems are their own autonomous beings outside of our minds and imaginations, but they also have deep roots within our psyches that also significantly affect who and what they are. You are welcome to disagree with me on the fundamental nature of totems; just adapt the practical material in this book to suit your worldview.
Totems, in my experience, aren’t just singular spirits. They’re “made of” a whole host of influences, including the natural history and other physical characteristics of their species, the relationships that they have with other species of plant, fungus, animal, etc., and the many and varied relationships they have with our human species. This includes the mythology and folklore we tell about them and their children, as well as what we learn from personal experience. All these things go into “creating” a totem, and it’s part of why I like working with them; just as they have a bit of humanity in them, so they can also help us understand the bit of not-humanity they can offer us through our shared experiences. It gives us a common ground to work with.
Cultures throughout history and around the world have had totemic systems of one sort or another, some including plants and fungi as well as animals. Often, though not always, these would be more group and community-based; you might have a totem that watches over your family, and another your greater tribal community. These totemic relationships and systems were formed over many generations of people who had direct and constant contact with the land around them, and it’s worth it to study these totemisms and what they reveal about the cultures in which they developed.
I refer to my practices as “Neopagan totemism” to differentiate them from these traditional systems. As a nonindigenous American in the twenty-first century, I do not come from a culture that has an existing totemic system, nor am I trying to revive the totemism of any of the European cultures of my ancestors. Instead, I am forging a path that
reflects my experiences as the descendant of immigrants, part of a cultural milieu that is more about diversity than a single cohesive identity. People like me have been creating our own relationships with and understandings of totems for decades, and each one of us brings our own experiences and preferences to the table when we share what we’ve learned and made from scratch. So I collect our varied paths under the umbrella of Neopagan totemism to remind us that what we do is a separate and new set of traditions in the making.
It’s also so that people don’t mistake what I and other nonindigenous people are doing for “ancient Native American totemism.” There are too many nonindigenous people misrepresenting (sometimes deliberately) their totemism as “genuine Native spirituality,” which makes it harder for people to find traditions that actually do stem from American and other indigenous cultures. Additionally, I don’t agree with the idea that nonindigenous people must find indigenous cultures to insinuate themselves into just to learn their spiritual practices and beliefs. If you are fortunate enough to be invited into an indigenous community, whether they share their religious traditions with you or not, then enjoy and appreciate the opportunity. But please don’t feel that you have to try and convince a Native tribe to adopt you so you can work with totems and other spirits.
I mentioned above that traditional totemisms tend to be more group-oriented. As part of a more individualistic culture, I tend to think more in terms of “my totem” than “our totem,” and I confess that I’ve been almost exclusively solitary in my practice of over fifteen years. So most of the material in this book will be focused on an individualistic approach to totemism; you are, of course, welcome to adapt it to a more group-based framework if you so choose.
Why Work with Plant
and Fungus Totems?
I’ve already mentioned one good reason: to help you expand on your work with animal totems. Plant, fungus, and animal totems exist in a common spiritual ecosystem, and knowing about one group of totems provides context for working with others. Even if you continue to primarily focus on the animals, understanding their relationships to the fungi and plants can help you make more sense of why a particular animal totem relates to the world around it as it does.
All totems act as intermediaries between their species and all others, humans included, and plants and fungi are no exception. In a world where we’ve created such change to almost every environment, totems are necessary bridges as animals, plants, fungi, and other living beings adjust to our increasing presence. Part of our work as totemic practitioners is to listen to the totems, find out what it is their children need and how we can help. If we only listen to the animals, we only get a partial idea of what needs to be done.
So we listen to the plant and fungus totems as well. But because they’re from completely different kingdoms of being, they can have very different perspectives on life, the universe, and everything. We generally find it pretty easy to empathize with other animals; it’s a bit easier for us to understand Gray Wolf, as a general rule, than the sponge totem Venus’ Flower Basket. And we sometimes apply an animal bias to that empathy. What stands out most obviously to us about plants is that they are rooted in place, and so as moving-around beings we think (and rightly so) that we can learn more about patience and groundedness from them. But not all plants are rooted in soil. Many aquatic plants are anchored to rock or float freely, and some algae even grow on animals like sea turtles. Some bromeliads, also known as “air plants,” can grow on another plant’s leaf, or on power lines and other human-made objects.
But what all of these need is sunlight. Plants are sometimes uniformly relegated to the elemental realm of Earth as a whole, and yet they’re closer to being sun worshipers than earth worshipers. Because we take in our sunlight indirectly through the food chain and can even survive long periods without exposure to the sun, we don’t always appreciate that the sun—not the soil—is the universal need of all plants. That need affects the priorities of their totems, too.
As one example, I adopted a stretch of the Columbia River, picking up litter, monitoring the water quality, and observing the native fauna and flora. The dominant tree in the forest there is the black cottonwood, a fast-growing,
tall deciduous tree. Every time I visited, I talked with the totem Black Cottonwood to get its perspective on the place and what it needed most. Not surprisingly, it was quite concerned with the oil and other pollutants from the river being absorbed by the roots of the trees. It also saw the choking thickets of invasive Scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry as a decided threat to the native shrubbery that the trees had coevolved with. While the animals of the area were also affected by these significant changes to their habitats, the plants were more immediately sensitive to them. They were less concerned with the solid litter I was picking up, the styrofoam, cigarette butts, and beer cans. While these things were important to me because animals could eat the smaller bits and pieces and get sick or die, I realized that the more hidden liquid pollutants were of higher priority to the plants and their totems.
This is a fairly simple example of listening to a plant totem’s priorities and realizing they may be different from those of an animal totem. I’ve found that even when I have made contact with a plant or fungus totem, it can be tougher to get them to work with me. Some of them see animals, humans included, as primarily troublemakers at best, minus a few pollinators and seed and spore spreaders. After all, there are lots of animals that eat plants, and not just the parts they want us to eat, like fruit. And it doesn’t help a fungus to have its mushrooms eaten, or for a lichen to be unceremoniously pulled from its dead tree bed. While plants and fungi may sometimes be in competition with each other and conflict even within their own kingdoms, they’ve had to put forth a lot of effort to keep us animals from trampling all over them—literally and figuratively!
Fungus and plant totems sometimes need more coaxing and patience to get them to open up. I find acknowledging that I probably need them more than they need me to be a good starting point, as well as making pretty early overtures of helping them and their physical counterparts. But a lot of it is simply visiting again and again, letting them know that I stand out from the crowd and that my intentions aren’t just to take from them what I can.
This all may seem like more work than it’s worth, but there are benefits. In the next chapter I’ll go into more detail about what characterizes work with fungi and plants and how it can be more challenging. For the moment, though, consider this: the more you’re able to flex your mind and empathize with beings less like you, the more you may be able to overcome the human-centric mindset that has caused so many environmental problems over time. Thinking outside the human skull can contribute to more creative (and necessary) solutions to these problems.
Adding work with plant and fungus totems to your practice encourages this sort of systemic thinking. The more perspectives and priorities we weave together, the more complete a picture we have. This doesn’t just hold true for the big things, like environmental degradation, but also for smaller, more personal challenges.
Harold has been experiencing increasing digestive problems over the past month. They started while he was recovering from a virus he caught at work, and he feels like he just can’t seem to get back to normal. A few days before an appointment with his doctor, he meditates with his primary animal totem, Domestic Cat, to see if she has any perspectives on his health. In the meditation, she introduces him to the grass totem Zoysia Matrella, whose children are commonly grown in lawns. Zoysia asks Harold, “What happens when Cat eats my blades?” “Well,” Harold responds, “she gets sick, doesn’t she? She’s not meant to eat grass; her digestive system doesn’t like it.” Cat then says, “Do you think perhaps you may be getting sick for the same reason I do?” Harold comes out of the meditation and begins to research digestive issues. While doing so he discovers celiac disease, which can be caused by viral infections and which includes a sensitivity to gluten found in wheat and other grains. He decides he will ask his doctor about being tested for celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities.
Accessibility is another reason to work with plant and fungus totems. Like their physical counterparts, animal totems are at times prone to running away. Sometimes it’s for good reason; they might feel they’re not ready to meet us—or vice versa. Other times they’re playing with us, or otherwise intentionally making it more challenging to find them. Plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, tend to be fairly stationary, even in the spirit world. Some of them may project a humanoid figure that can move around; this seems to be particularly popular among hallucinogens. But I’ve found in my own meditations and journeys that for the most part the plant and fungus totems can be found wherever their children grow, physically or spiritually. 2
If I’m journeying in the spirit world and pass by a western hemlock tree, in addition to talking to its individual spirit, I can also ask where I might find the totem Western Hemlock growing. Of course, just because the tree can’t run away doesn’t mean that it has to acquiesce to my request. Bark is a perfectly serviceable spiritual armor as much as a physical one, and if the tree spirit decides it doesn’t feel like interacting, the shields go up and it’s time to move on. Still, it’s an easier initial attempt than chasing a barn owl spirit through the trees or coaxing Water Shrew out of his den long enough for a chat. For some people, just being able to see a totem or its representative is an accomplishment in and of itself, and plant and fungus totems (and spirits) are good starting points for learning basic observation while meditating or journeying.
Just as some people enjoy working with the plants in their gardens, so are there those who prefer the quiet, calming presence of fungus and plant totems. In my experience they tend to not talk a lot, preferring instead to communicate through energy and impressions that I can soak up through a sort of spiritual osmosis. In some ways this is a much more low-stress form of communication than interpreting the movements and sounds of animal totems and translating them into words I can understand. (Though for what it’s worth, animals that are largely stationary, such as sponges and corals, often tend to communicate with me in much the same way, so it’s not a strict animal/not-animal divide.) Even though I may describe a plant or fungus totem as saying something to me, it’s more accurate to say that I took the impression it gave me and translated it into English. So if there are ever totems that I feel I can simply sit and commune with, it’s the plants and fungi I work with.
These beings make a lifelong study of one particular spot in the earth. And we can make a long-term study of one particular plant or fungus, physically or spiritually, because we know where to go back and find it. They can in turn be reliable points of contact with their totems; a field of dandelions makes a good place to call on the totem Dandelion. As for fungi, it’s easier for us to find them when their fruiting bodies—mushrooms—pop up out of the ground or decaying wood (though the fungi’s mycelia may still be there, year-round). Some, like morels, don’t always sprout fruiting bodies in the same spot every year, and their totems can be equally elusive. So if you choose to work with fungus totems, you may need to be a little more on your toes. But with time you can find the patterns common even to the most tricksy totem. This sort of consistency can be inspiring to those of us who often feel we’re constantly on the move.
Of course, you have a lot of plants and fungi to choose from, and they vary greatly, to include in how long they live. The short lifespan of an annual like a petunia is a far cry from the centuries a sequoia may live. This is why it’s good to be able to work with multiple species and their totems. The worldview of a being that only lasts a couple of seasons will be different from that of one that has outlived every human; the former may feel more urgency to live life as fully as possible in the little time available, while the latter may take a slower, big-picture approach. What they need from us in return may also depend on whether those needs are immediate or long-term.
Exposure to fungi and plants (as well as their animal counterparts) is also good for us. There’s a recent unofficial psychological diagnosis known as Nature Deficit Disorder.
Originally conceptualized by journalist Richard Louv, it’s the idea that people (especially children) in the United States and other countries are suffering psychologically due to a decrease in exposure to nature. The effects of Nature Deficit Disorder range from an inability to focus to mood disorders, as well as a lowered respect and consideration for the natural world and the impact we have on it. Nature provides us with a setting that physically and psychologically relaxes and rejuvenates us, and as habitat destruction, increased indoor lifestyles, and fear of letting children roam in the outdoors have cut both kids and adults off from nature, so we’re seeing an overall decrease in these benefits.
To be fair, it is possible to work with totems without ever leaving your home. And there are people who, for various reasons, are unable to go out into the wilderness, or even the local park. But just having these natural influences in your life can be beneficial. You can still have a small house plant or pet to care for or fill your walls with images of natural beings. In meditations, the totems can take you to wildernesses you might never see in waking life. And for those who are able to get out more, the plant and fungus totems often invite us to go see their children in the great outdoors, enticing us out of our homes and into a world vibrant with life.
Plus they’re just fascinating beings! All too often we’re taught in school that humans are the apex of evolution, that animals are higher forms of life than plants and fungi, and other such linear things. Yet we’re only a few hundred thousand years old as a species; plenty of plant and fungi species have lived millions of years relatively unchanged. And they’ve developed their own effective strategies in meeting the same sorts of challenges we face. Plants can change sunlight into food, and almost have the monopoly on the practice. There are two animals, a sea slug and a salamander, that have plants living symbiotically inside their bodies and which benefit from the plants’ photosynthetic capabilities. And there’s a species of aphid that performs a function similar to a plant’s photosynthesis, but involving different chemicals and mechanisms. So photosynthesis is largely the domain of plants.
Some fungi can absorb toxins that would kill other living beings, and transform them into less harmful substances. Fungi and plants even made it permanently onto dry land before animals did.
Lest I bore you with further arguments in favor of appreciating our leafy and squishy neighbors, I’ll just leave you with a recommendation to watch David Attenborough’s BBC documentary The Private Life of Plants, and pick up a copy of Paul Stamets’ s Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World.
Special Notes on Fungi and Their Totems
I want to take a moment to focus on fungi. In pretty much every other book on plant totems/magic/etc., any fungi that are mentioned are just lumped in with the plants. I’ve yet to see anyone talk about anything other than mushrooms, and often “mushrooms” are presented as one monolithic group as opposed to a vibrant array of species. And, as mentioned earlier, the only fungi that get any special treatment are a few of those with psychoactive properties which glamorize them in our eyes because of what they can do for us. These usually include mushrooms of various sorts, and on rare occasion Claviceps purpurea, the fungus that causes hallucinogenic ergot poisoning.
Let’s face it: fungi aren’t sexy. They’re fleshy in the wrong sort of way, they sometimes smell weird, some of them can make you sick or dead (even if you don’t eat them), and the moldier ones like the sorts of damp, dark corners we tend to avoid on principle. It may seem like other than those few vaunted edible and psychoactive mushrooms, fungi just aren’t very attractive, especially when compared to majestic trees and beautiful flowers. Try to think of a fungus that isn’t a mushroom; chances are the first thing you think of is mold on food or athlete’s foot, a fungal infection. But fungi are more closely related to us than to plants. And they’re absolutely essential to life on earth.
“Wait, take a step back!” you might be thinking. “Fungi are more like us than plants are? Are you off your rocker?” Believe it or not, it is likely that fungi and animals evolved from the same common ancestor, a protist closely resembling today’s choanoflagellates.3 And a close comparison of fungi with plants and animals at various levels of examination reveals that physically they resemble us more than the vast array of trees and grasses do.4 In fact, their metabolisms are so close to our own that antifungal medicines used by humans and other animals have to be carefully designed so as to not damage the patients being treated!
What makes fungus totems unique from plant totems? For one thing, they don’t have the reliance on the sun that plants do. Plants are almost universally engaged in a race for sunlight. Either they’re growing as high or wide as possible to drink in as much of the sun’s rays as they can, or they’re adapting to lower levels of sun and making the most of what they can get.
Not so with fungi. For a fungus, the key word is “decomposition.” Where plants transform sunlight into sugars, and supplement with minerals and other nutrients from the soil, fungi take raw, earthy materials and break them down to get what nutrition they need. Other beings, including plants, rely on this crucial decaying process. Fungi break down the contents of dead animals, plants, and other fungi, and release the nutrients therein into the soil and therefore the food system. This sort of rotting may not seem like such a big deal, but when trees first developed in the Carboniferous period, it took about fifty million years for fungi to evolve to the point where they could digest the fibers in wood, in the Late Devonian Period. Until then dead trees simply piled up, and their nutrients stayed locked inside the wood. This even caused climate change on a global scale; because so much carbon was also lodged in the dead trees that its absence in the atmosphere caused an ice age. So you see, fungi have a bigger impact through their ability to decompose than you might think!
Plants rely on the mycorrhizal fungi on their roots to help them process these nutrients. Part of why fields that have been treated with chemical fertilizers for many years take so long to recover is because these chemicals kill the natural fungi in the soil. This starts a nasty cycle where the fertilizers are the only things that keep the plants alive; most farmers can’t afford to allow a field to lie fallow long enough for the soil to recover, including letting the fungi fully regenerate. And when that fungal network is damaged, it even interferes with the plants’ ability to communicate with each other, such as during an attack by aphids or other pests.5
The totems of fungi are quite earthy and well-grounded, even compared to plants. While we may visualize the roots of a tree or other plant while grounding ourselves energetically, compared to fungus totems plant totems have their heads in the sky, constantly worrying over the amount of sunlight their children receive.
And fungus totems are even more opportunistic, too. Fungi can grow in complete darkness, they can transform toxins ranging from petroleum to heavy metals, and their fruiting bodies can spring up within a matter of days, even hours. They are a crucial part of how forests contain carbon that could otherwise contribute to the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere.6 Fungus totems are also good allies to call on when seeking not only opportunities but the ability to make use of them as effectively and efficiently as possible.
While there are numerous plant totems associated with healing because of how the physical plants may be used medicinally, the healing capabilities of fungi are largely overlooked. Mycoremediation is the process of restoring an environment through the transformative actions of fungi. As mentioned above, this can include both breaking down harmful toxins and releasing nutrients into the soil. In these ways and more, fungi are the restorers of balance in an environment. Fungus totems can also help us to achieve balance in our lives as well as remind us how important it is to restore and preserve the habitats and places we’ve done so much damage to as a species.
Much of this is due to the mycelial mat, the structure by which fungi are able to filter toxins and other things out of the soil. While the fruiting bodies are what we see of fungi above ground, it is the mat that is the most persistent part of the organism. The mycelial mat is a network of fungi intertwined with the roots of plants, and it helps those plants absorb nutrients from the soil. Even though each individual member of this fungal colony is tiny, the collective power of the mycelial mat is not to be underestimated.
Fungus totems are also a reminder of how nature isn’t always our best friend. Like psychoactives, poisonous plants have sometimes been glamorized despite their deadly traits. Not so the fungi; I’ve yet to see anyone extol the virtues of black mold or Tinea pedis, the fungus that causes athlete’s foot.7
We can explain away the carnivorous nature of the wolf by focusing on its familial behavior, and we romanticize poisonous belladonna as the Western European witch’s ritual hallucinogen. We have de-fanged nature in those ways, forgotten it can injure, sicken, or kill us. But fungi don’t let us forget that. While fungus totems are no more dangerous to work with than animal or plant totems as a general rule, those whose physical counterparts can cause us harm can sometimes have an unsettling presence when we work with them. Of course, this doesn’t mean we can’t form strong positive connections with them, but it may take more work and a lot of respect for them beyond “you’re dangerous!”
Benedict is an avid amateur mycologist. Since childhood he’s spent countless days roaming the woods and fields looking for mushrooms of all sorts. He can tell which of his fungus neighbors are edible and which to avoid, when and how to collect and prepare them, and has even begun cultivating some of the edibles at home. While visiting the Sonoran Desert, he decides to take a hike to look for some local fungi there. Due to a recent rain, the spores of Coccidioides immitis are heavy in the soil, and while overturning some rocks he inhales them and develops Valley Fever, a fungal infection in his lungs. While recovering at home, during a half-asleep state he has a vivid vision of the totem of Coccidiodes immitis in which it apologizes for the harmful method in which it introduced itself to him. It then goes on to explain that because Benedict has been so focused on the mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of a few types of fungi, he’s ignored most others. The totem suggests that once he’s better, Benedict should do more research into the fungal makeup of the soil back home, and get to know some of these quieter but no less important beings.
Consider the Lichen
In case I haven’t complicated things enough, allow me to remind you that lichens are composite organisms. Quite literally, they are the combination of a fungus and a tiny plant known as algae (though plant-like bacteria called cyanobacteria take the place of algae in some lichen species). The algae and fungus didn’t just simply meld together partway through life. Instead, millions of years ago, algae and fungi of certain species found it was advantageous to work together and eventually became so deeply symbiotic that they created the new systemic organisms known as lichens. The fungus creates the main protective physical structure of the lichen, while the algae works its photosynthetic magic and produces food for them both. Lichens even have unique organs, chemicals, and other internal components found nowhere else in nature, not even in the original algae and fungi.
The evolution of lichens has apparently happened multiple times over the ages; there was not one single proto-lichen that gave rise to all others. In fact, there is evidence that some lichens may have gone through multiple periods where the fungus and algae would live separately for many generations and then create lichens again. Lichens are not a new kingdom of living being. Because the fungus is the dominant partner in the symbiote, lichens are classified as fungi—think of it as a fungus with an algae riding along. But both contribute necessarily to the form and function of the lichen. If you separate the fungal and algal parts of a lichen in a laboratory, instead of having its leafy/branched/etc., shape, the fungus instead grows into a mess of hyphae (the basic filament-like building blocks of a fungus) with no distinct structure. Add the algae back in, and the lichen takes form again. Interestingly enough, while in nature certain species of algae and fungi are always combined in the same species of lichen, if the fungus is separated out and then a different lichen-forming algae is added, the resulting lichen will look different than the one the fungus originated from.
Not surprisingly, lichen totems tend to have characteristics of both plant and fungus totems. Sometimes when I’ve worked with a lichen totem it would appear as the totems of both the individual algae and fungus; other times the single totem of the lichen would appear. At times the lichen totem would switch back and forth between singular and multiple forms, though always smoothly rather than erratically. Every lichen totem I’ve worked with, from Reindeer Moss to Methuselah’s Beard, has done this “shapeshifting” to some degree.
Lichen totems are also excellent to call on when times get tough. Lichens have been found in some of the harshest environments, and indeed it may be that some cases of symbiosis came about as a direct response to these challenging habitats. They can go dormant for long periods of time, such as in cases of drought. They carry the spirit of cooperation; even though humans can’t be properly symbiotic with each other, we can at least learn from how the algae and fungi came together for mutual survival.
Some would argue that the relationship is more brutal than that. Some lichenologists see the algae as the hapless victim of the fungus that “kidnapped” it and is keeping it “prisoner.” Indeed, the fungus seems to benefit more from the arrangement, getting nutrients that the algae works to create, but not giving any non-photosynthetic nutrients back to it. The algae lose their ability to independently reproduce, and they no longer have cell walls, requiring them to rely on the fungus for structure and reproduction. However, a counterargument runs that, together as a lichen, the fungus and algae can live in harsher environments that no fungus or plant could colonize on their own, and so are able to take advantage of their extra hardiness.
Yet there is a sensitivity to lichens and their totems, too. Lichens are particularly susceptible to air pollution because their diet includes airborne nutrients, which can carry poisons like sulfur dioxide. You can gauge how clean the air is in a particular place by the number and size of the lichens growing there, and they’re a good indicator of change in pollution levels. Plus analysis of the pollutants found in the lichens themselves can help determine where the pollution is coming from, even if that source is hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Lichen totems could be particularly helpful to those working toward goals of environmental health and sustainability.
Wilhelmina monitors water and air pollution as part of a volunteer brigade trained by a local environmental group. She started this because one of her primary totems, Lecanora Conizaeoides, asked her to be more aware of pollution. This totem’s physical lichen counterparts are especially sensitive to pollution, and Wilhelmina wanted to do something to help them. So once a week she walks to the stream near her home, takes samples of the water and air, and sends them into the laboratory used by the group who trained her. Over the past year she’s helped identify a dozen new pollutants, information that’s been valuable in holding local industries to tighter pollution control standards. The lichens themselves still struggle, but she hopes that with time they’ll rebound, and that keeps her motivated.
Yes, Domestic Plants
and Fungi Have Totems, Too!
Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly can cause one to overlook what we’re most familiar with. Just as we may discount the totems of domesticated animals like Cow or Pig, we may not always consider the totems of domestic plants and fungi. Part of this is a particularly strong manifestation of our tendency to value the totems of plants, fungi, and animals that are “wild” and “untamed” and therefore “other.” We don’t see any mystery in the everyday. Yet we take our everyday neighbors for granted.
Take plants, for example. Domestic plants won the evolutionary race: they managed to convince one of the most successful and widespread species of animal to deliberately sow their seeds for them, protect the young plants, and make sure each generation is succeeded by the next. We even destroy their competitors in the wild to clear land for them to grow on. They’ve manipulated us into ensuring their propagation. It’s like plants developing flowers so bees will transport pollen, only writ incredibly large. (Michael Pollan’s work, especially The Omnivore’s Dilemma, is a great exploration of this phenomenon.)
In fact, agriculture is the direct descendant of the development of fruit as a means of spreading seeds. Fruit, of course, is tasty, and it entices many species of animal—to include primates—to eat it. The seeds often end up swallowed along with the flesh, and they survive the trip through the digestive tract only to be excreted along with a pile of fresh fertilizer. Between entrance and exit, the seed may have traveled several miles from its origin, helping spread the species further.
Digestion is an unintentional way of getting seeds from place to place; agriculture is done with intent. One hypothesis suggests that the first plants to be domesticated were a species of wheat in Turkey near a 12,000-year-old settlement known as Göbekli Tepe. Wild wheat kernels normally fall very easily from the sheaf, making them somewhat difficult to collect in bulk. However, a chance mutation in the wheat near Göbekli Tepe resulted in sheaves that could be harvested whole without the seeds falling off, which meant in the time it took a person to pick up a few handfuls of fallen kernels from among the debris on the ground, they could just as easily carry away an armload of whole sheaves.
This, of course, gave our creative ancestors ideas. Why collect wheat from many places when you could just deliberately grow a variety that had particular qualities you wanted? While the evidence is still being compiled as to whether
Göbekli Tepe had proper agriculture, DNA tests suggest that the wheat found at the site is the likely ancestor of the domesticated wheat we grow today, and that single genetic mutation which made the seeds harder to remove from the sheath is where it began. Where most animals would have considered it a disadvantage requiring them to work harder for the same amount of food, humans were able to exploit it, and thus agriculture was born.
Today we move all sorts of domestic seeds around exactly where we want them. But it also suits the plants’ needs, too, and in many ways we’re more dependent on them than they are on us. Many species of domestic plant can survive quite well without us (with some seedless cultivars as exceptions) and could still have their seeds spread about by nonhuman means. But at a population of seven billion, we are wholly at the mercy of our domesticated plants; even omnivores rely on the grain fed to commercially raised livestock.
What does this all mean? Our relationships with domestic plants and their totems are more complex than we might think, and not to be taken for granted. Agriculture is one of the main reasons we’ve been able to engage in as much creation and destruction as we have, but famine is still a very real presence in the world (not at all helped by the uneven distribution of what food is available), and it only takes a few years of major crop failure to create a global crisis. It’s also important to be wary of our own biases; while we may be interested in the debate over genetically modified foods and stopping famine, in my experience plant and fungus totems tend to be quite concerned with chemical pesticides and fertilizer, which have immediate and long-term negative effects on the soil and what it supports. So we need to pay attention not just to our own wants and needs, but those of the species we depend on—and plant and fungus totems are one way to keep track of that.
The Human Bioregion
We mostly think of plants and fungi as being outside of us unless we eat them, and then their stay in our body is temporary. However, the human body hosts a whole plethora of tiny fungi (along with numerous species of bacteria and protozoa). While many of them remain unidentified, we know enough of them to have some understanding of their roles in the complex systems of our bodies. Usually we only notice them when they overgrow, such as with the fungal overgrowth of athlete’s foot. In fact, we’re so germ-phobic that we forget that we need some of those “germs” to live!
Think for a moment about your digestive system. You may think it’s just your digestive chemicals that break down the food you eat. However, the gut flora in general contribute to our ability to digest carbohydrates, the development and maintenance of the immune system, and localized metabolism, among other important functions.
We are not so much singular beings as we are large beings that are the home to many, many tiny ones. So you may find that part of your work with fungus totems in particular takes you within yourself—and not in a psychological way!
Joseph has historically been in good health. However, in the past few years he’s taken on a job that’s had him at a desk for long periods of time, and he’s had little time or energy to exercise. He’s put on quite a bit of weight as well, more than is healthy for his frame. Still, he continues to neglect his health until he develops a fungal infection on part of his skin. After over-the-counter topical cures and tea tree oil fail to solve the problem, he goes to a doctor, who diagnoses him with pre-diabetes. His strained immune system can’t fight off the infection alone, so his doctor insists that he take on a better diet and exercise regimen in addition to medicines for the infection itself. That night, Joseph has a dream in which the totem of the tiny yeast Candida albicans speaks to him about his health and how he is mistreating his body. “I’ve tested your strength all your life, and only now have you stumbled. Bring yourself back to fighting condition, and we’ll continue this!” When he wakes up, he resolves to take better care of himself, and to restore balance to all of his systems, to include those on which Candida’s physical counterparts rely.
Thinking Outside the Box (Elder)
At this point I think I’ve made it pretty clear that pretty much every species of plant or fungus (or lichen!) has a totem. It can be easy for us to get distracted by big, ancient trees or the flashy beauty of flowers, and I’ve already mentioned how much emphasis hallucinogenic plants and fungi get. But what about weeds or domestic crops? How about algae on the surface of the lake, or the mold growing on a slice of bread? They might not be as glamorous, but their totems have just as much to show us.
Some fungus and plant totems may have unusual characteristics that give them unique teachings. Carnivorous plants, for example, live in nutrient-poor soils. Photosynthesis cannot completely make up for that deficit, and so plants like the Venus fly-trap and the sundew capture and digest insects and other small animals. This turns our idea of plants as being lower than animals in the food chain on its head. Their totems also remind us that the food chain isn’t so much a linear length as it is a series of interconnections, where nutrients are passed around from living being to living being in a multitude of ways.
And what about extinct totems? Just as with animal totems like Tyrannosaurus Rex or Hyenadon, you can also work with the totems of extinct plant and fungus species. The totems of extinct species can sometimes have different perspectives on this world because they no longer have physical representatives here, which changes their relationships with modern ecosystems. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them today. I’m rather fond of working with Cooksonia pertoni, one of the earliest plants to live on land and a transitional species between nonvascular plants (like mosses) and vascular plants (like trees). To me, Cooksonia represents bravery and experimentation, being willing to try new things, and how one tiny little thing can make a huge difference (Cooksonia was only about two inches tall!). The totem Cooksonia, in turn, is rather fascinated by where all its descendants ended up and how far plants have gone in their evolution; sometimes we spend time just talking about flora over the millennia.
Don’t forget about the ones we can’t see, either. Along with the tiny fungi that live in and on our bodies, there are also tiny plants in the world as well. Phytoplankton are unicellular plants that live in both fresh and salt water. Plankton in general are an absolutely crucial part of aquatic ecosystems, the backbone of the food chain. Phytoplankton, which create food through photosynthesis like any plant, are eaten by other plankton, and all plankton are preyed upon by larger tiny creatures, which are then eaten by somewhat bigger ones, and so forth. Phytoplankton also play a crucial role in regulating the carbon content in our atmosphere; like vast forests of trees, these tiny plants capture carbon and transfer it into the ocean and its inhabitants, which combats global warming and climate change. And, again, they can be harmful as well. The draining of agricultural fertilizers into the ocean has contributed to harmful algal blooms that kill ocean life and create toxins that accumulate in shellfish. When people eat the shellfish, they can become very sick from the toxins. These tiny little plants are more important than you might think!
These are just a few less obvious types of fungus and plant totems for you to think about. Again, all plants and fungi have totems, so feel free to explore relationships with more than just the most recognizable and obvious ones.
A Forest of Totems
Those of you who are familiar with my previous work on animal totems may recognize a lot of what’s in this section, since it’s applicable to totems in general. However, for the benefit of new readers, I’d like to offer some basic information to round out this chapter: how many totems you can have, how to find plant and fungus totems and how to find out more about them, how to communicate and work with the totems you discover, and a few quick exercises to help you get started.
First, I’d like to make it clear that there is no single right number of totems you can have. Some people only ever have one animal, plant, or fungus totem with which they connect, though that single relationship can be incredibly important throughout their lives. You also don’t necessarily have to have a “complete set” of one animal, one plant, and one fungus totem; in fact, some people find it easier to work with one group of totems than another. There are people who end up connecting with a wide variety of totems over time, and that’s okay too.
I do use a few categories to describe various sorts of totemic relationship, just for the purposes of explanation and organization. They are primary, secondary, and tertiary totems.
· When people think of a totem, they often think of a being that stays with you your entire life. This is what I call a primary totem. While you may discover a primary totem later in life, the connection still has the depth and strength as though it had been there all along. Primary totems often approach us themselves, though as I’ll explain later in the book we sometimes have to be the ones to make the first overtures with fungus and plant totems, moreso than animal totems.
Eleanor has only recently become aware of plant and fungus totems. However, she’s had a lifelong love for weeping willow trees, and spent many hours as a child under the long, leafy tresses of the willows in her yard. Even today, living in a big city, she has a favorite willow tree at a nearby riverside park. She does a guided meditation to see if she can find a totem, and the very first thing she sees when she enters the meditation is the totem Weeping Willow. Instantly, all those childhood memories come flooding back, and she feels as though she’s known this totem all along. “But you did,” the totem says. “I’ve been there, and now I get to properly introduce myself!” In her meditation, Eleanor steps forward and takes her place beneath the branches of the totemic tree, and they begin to chat.
· Sometimes a totem only comes into your life for a particular period of time, to help you through a specific challenge, or to help you learn something. The connection you share may be as strong as with a primary totem, but once the lesson is learned or the challenge is overcome, they step back out of your life. This is what I refer to as a secondary totem.
Louis has recently lost his job and is worried about his ability to help his wife financially support their household and two children. Normally they split both work and home responsibilities evenly, but he’s been feeling a bit like dead weight since becoming unemployed. While out walking with the kids, he takes them over to look at a community garden. It’s spring, and the flowers are in full bloom. A patch of Peruvian zinnias gives sustenance to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Spiders make webs among the plants’ stems and leaves, and earthworms rest on the rain-soaked soil in the plants’ shade. Louis notices that just by being there the zinnias are offering support and shelter to other living beings. “You could do the same!” a little voice in the back of his head says. When he gets home, Louis talks to his wife about taking on more of the household duties since she’ll be working overtime to cover the bills. She agrees, and as a way to thank her for her effort, he grows a pot of zinnias on the front porch. Whenever he feels frustration in his job search, he looks at the flowers, and the totem Peruvian Zinnia whispers to him, “You are helping just by being here.” By fall, just as the zinnias are dying away, Louis finds an even better job. But he saves some of their seeds to plant again next year, and to remember Zinnia’s lesson.
· There are times when we feel the need to ask a totem for help with one specific thing; it may not be a totem we normally work with, and we may only ever contact it for this single situation. Rather than the totem coming to us, we intentionally go to it to open up communication. I call this a tertiary totem.
Vicki is an aspiring novelist, and she’s been shopping her manuscript around to various agencies to help her get a contract with a publisher. Like many writers, she’s acquired a stack of rejection letters. There’s one agency she just heard about, though, referred by a friend. They specialize in newer writers, and she thinks this may be her big chance. They only accept so many manuscripts per quarter, and the deadline is coming up very soon. To help her find her own quick burst of growth and productivity, she decides to contact the totem of the torn fibrecap, one of the little brown mushrooms that grow so quickly in her front yard when it rains. She asks Torn Fibrecap to help her take advantage of this unexpected “rainfall” and get everything prepared by the agency’s deadline. Over the next few days as she works, she keeps a picture of the little mushrooms on her desk to remind her of her goal. She gets her manuscript submitted in time, and a few weeks later gets the news that she’s been accepted. In return she dedicates a piece of her lawn to native species, including as many fibrecaps as wish to grow there.
This is just the organizational system that I’ve come up with; you can take it or leave it (or modify it!) as you see fit.
So how do we find these totemic beings? There are a few methods, some of which I favor over others:
· Dreams: Some people feel that if you see a plant or fungus (or animal) in a dream, it means it may be a totem or spirit guide of some sort. My own feelings on this are that dreams are primarily the method by which the brain organizes the thoughts, feelings, and experiences we’ve had throughout our day. Since the subconscious mind tends to use symbols rather than words, we sometimes get odd things thrown together in a dream that should generally be taken metaphorically rather than literally. However, if you feel that a particular plant or fungus in a dream has a special significance, you can follow up by talking to the totem of that being and see if it has indeed been trying to contact you.
· Totem cards: Animal totem cards are much more common than cards for plant or fungus totems, but it is possible to find divination decks that are partly or completely composed of plants and fungi. My caveat on these is that these decks can only include so many species, and what do you do if your totem is one that’s not in the deck? You can at least use these decks for practice; draw a card, and then contact the totem through divination to see if there’s any connection there. Additionally, you can create your own deck. I described how to make a deck to help a person get in touch with any animal totem in my book DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems. However, it’s pretty open-source, and you can easily modify it to work with fungi and plants instead.
· Awake-time experiences: As in dreams, sometimes people believe that if they encounter a particular plant or fungus on a regular basis it might be a totem. If that’s the case, then every fruit and vegetable in my local grocery store is a spirit guide! However, sometimes people feel a particular draw toward a species of plant or fungus, or even an individual thereof. This is worth exploring further through meditation. The Sit and Listen exercise in the next chapter is also a more active way to facilitate connections with totems through the physical environment; it’s a way to make yourself more receptive to the quieter messages of plant and fungus totems.
· Guided meditation: This is by far my favorite way to find and communicate with totems. It gives you enough structure to stay focused on finding a totem for the first time or getting back in touch with it, but also allows enough freedom to have ongoing interactions with the totem. In Appendix A I’ve provided you with one example of a guided meditation you can use to work with fungus and plant totems. As you’ll note, it helps guide you to the place where you can meet totems, but after that whatever happens is free-form.
In addition, I also include methods for finding plant and fungus totems within each of the three specific models I describe in later chapters of this book. However, you’re welcome to use any of the above in addition to or instead of those. For example, if you really like the Archetypal model but you feel the Inner Garden exercise isn’t quite right for you, you can try the simpler guided meditation in Appendix B.
Once you’ve identified one of your totems, you don’t just set it up on a shelf for everyone to see! Take the time to get to know this being who’s reached out to you. Like any other relationship, it needs to be cultivated, and no single totemic relationship is the same as any other. Here are a few ways you can get to know the totem better:
· Natural history: Totems are shaped, in part, by the nature of their physical counterparts, and the relationships they have with the other beings in this world. If you’ll notice in the sample anecdotes I provide throughout this book, many of them involve the qualities of the living beings the totems watch over, for example Zoysia pointing out the indigestibility of grass as a lesson in digestive health. By getting to know the physical characteristics, growth patterns, reproduction methods, and other natural history of the species your totem is associated with, you may gain an idea of some of the things you may be able to learn from that totem.
· Mythology and folklore: There aren’t as many myths about plants and fungi as animals, at least not as active participants in the story. Usually the plant or fungus is a tool to be used or a prize to be won, like Eris’s golden apple, or the lotus tree in the writings of Homer and Ovid. Even Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythos, is more mentioned than interacted with. However, there are exceptions; one of my favorite folktales from Africa is an Ashanti tale featuring a talking yam whose loquaciousness sets off an entire string of comedic events. All of these are important to note, as totems are also shaped by the stories we tell about them and their children. These form the relationships we have with nonhuman beings of all sorts, and you can tell a lot about a culture’s feelings toward a particular plant or fungus by the myths we create about them. In turn this can give us a bit of preparation for working with the totem by knowing something of the preexisting relationships our species already has with it.
· Herbalism and magical lore: While I discourage the practice of only valuing fungi and plants for the qualities of their physical parts and how they benefit us, it is useful to study up on these medicinal and esoteric associations. Like myths and tales, these can give us a keen insight into the relationships different groups of humans have had with these beings over time. For example, today many people see dandelions as nothing more than weeds to be poisoned out of an otherwise “perfect” green lawn of grass or pulled out of a garden. But dandelions also are quite edible, and different parts may be used for urinary and digestive health. One of the benefits I’ve found of working with Dandelion as a totem is rediscovering these multiple relationships and helping to change opinions of dandelions and others for the better.
· Guided meditation: This will probably always be my favorite go-to method for just about any sort of spiritual information-gathering. As with finding a totem, guided meditation allows you to have a certain amount of freedom to explore while still benefiting from some structure in a relatively safe setting. You can use the meditation in Appendix A not just to make first contact with a totem, but to go back and visit as much as you need to. And really, it is best to get your information directly from the horsetail’s mouth—you can always double-check it against other sources like natural history once the meditation is done.
· Other people: I mentioned earlier that I don’t care for totem dictionaries, but this doesn’t mean they have no value. Read them to get an idea of how others have worked with various totems, and what they’ve learned. Just keep in mind that what you may discover in working with a particular totem may have no relation to what everyone else’s experiences have been. Appendix C includes my discussion of a few books I recommend as complements to this one, which you may consider as starting points (if you haven’t read them already!). And you can also take classes on herbalism, plant spirit work, and the like to get other perspectives, again keeping in mind that everything comes out of someone’s personal experiences rather than universal plug-and-play truths.
Finally, as you continue in this book, you’ll find a number of exercises and ideas for meeting and working with all sorts of fungus and plant totems. Keep these as starting points and springboards; if you’re inspired to change an activity to suit you, or to create your own, so much the better!
Uh-oh, They’re Talking
to the Garden Again …
Some of you may already be pretty good at communicating with spirits. For others, this may be your first foray into any sort of spirit work. Either way, I’d like to offer you a few thoughts on communicating with plant and fungus totems.
How a person listens to the totems varies, whether in a meditative state or not. For some people, it’s voices in the back of the head—not an actual voice that is heard with the ears, but voices heard with the intuition. Other times it may be more through feelings that can be “translated” into words. Or a person may have images or “videos” pop up in their mind, either first person (as though they are experiencing it themselves) or third person (observing from a distance). While these most often occur during meditations and rituals, it’s not uncommon to have a totem “ping” you when you’re doing everyday, not-expressly-spiritual things.
If you want to practice, start with the guided meditation. When you find the totem you want to speak with, notice how it responds to you. Does it use words? Images? Feelings? Movement? Do different totems have their own preferences for communicating with you?
You can also try performing a ritual in which you ask a particular totem to join you in your sacred space, either for magical work or simply to celebrate its presence in your life with an offering. When the totem arrives, you might notice a change in the air, such as temperature or aroma. Or you might feel a physical sensation, like the hairs on the back of your neck standing up or a tingling sensation in your forehead. For me, I feel a great upwelling of energy in myself as the totem arrives, and then a sense of relaxation once it’s there.
Some people do connect with their totems through physical plants and fungi. This is perfectly acceptable (assuming the plant or fungus is legal to grow where you are); the physical members of any species are directly connected to their respective totem. For example, Domestic Tomato is one of my plant totems, and its influence becomes much stronger when I garden in the summer, as I always have tomato plants. Even in winter, though, the tomatoes I canned from the summer, and even those that I buy from the store, keep that connection going, and not surprisingly Domestic Tomato is quite connected to my kitchen activities. So if you can cultivate the physical counterparts of your plant or fungus totem, even indoors, your garden can end up being a good, ready connection point.
Of course, you want to be able to take good care of the fungi and plants. If you live with someone with a greener thumb than you have, ask them for advice, or check the Internet for information on growing the plant or fungus of your choice. If you don’t have a big garden plot, you might try a window box or a few small pots. Or if your totem is something like a tree, keep a few fallen leaves or seeds around as a reminder.
There’s one more thing I want to talk about, and it’s rather controversial. It’s a concept known as primary perception (or plant perception). In short, it’s the idea that despite their lack of a nervous system (at least as we currently recognize it), plants have feelings and emotions and the ability to communicate. In the 1970s, a CIA interrogation scientist named Cleve Backster hooked a philodendron up to a polygraph machine and supposedly got results similar to what he’d get with human subjects. When this concept was tested in a laboratory setting (as well as on an episode of Mythbusters), though, there was not sufficient evidence to show definite correlation or causation.
Additionally, while there are studies suggesting that plants that are talked to by their caretakers grow better, it doesn’t necessarily mean the plants are growing better because they’re being talked to. More likely it’s due to the fact that the sort of person who talks to their plants tends to be more attentive to their needs, and so gives them better care.
While some plants have been shown to respond to chemical signals from each other (mostly intraspecies), magnetic signals, and electrical impulses in a laboratory, this should not be seen as proof that they are conscious beings in the same way as animals. We can look at the responses, but at this point any explanation of consciousness or communication is mere speculation. And if we keep trying to prematurely shove whatever communication plants use into an animal mindset, we may very well miss out on learning about unique, not-at-all-animal ways in which plants actually do communicate. Instead of trying to assign phenomena to plants that normally require a nervous system, we should look at the evidence we have so far of responsiveness to chemical, magnetic, and electrical signals, and let the plants themselves show us what they’re doing.
None of this means, of course, that you aren’t perfectly validated in taking excellent care of your plants and fungi, or even talking to them! After all, there’s no scientific evidence that proves the existence of totems as anything other than psychological phenomena in the human consciousness. I just encourage people to not let their spirituality take the place of scientific inquiry when science doesn’t yet have a clear answer to something.
A Little Something
to Help You Get Started
I’ve packed a lot of theoretical information into this first chapter. You may feel ready to leap into the next one, but if you’d like to process some of what you’ve read here, I’ve included a few exercises that may help. As you go through them, take some time to think about what I’ve presented and how you feel about it. If you find some parts don’t really work for you as well as others, don’t feel you have to hang onto them. Take note of any inspiration you may have had while reading or doing these processing exercises.
Keep in mind, too, that there’ll be other exercises throughout the book to help you build more upon what’s in this chapter, and you can pace yourself however you like. You might find it easier to read a chapter at a time, and then go back and do the exercises in it. Or you might read through the whole thing and then go back and complete some or all of the exercises. Whatever works best for you, go for it!
I will say that you’ll probably get different results, especially for the next few exercises, if you read everything and then come back, because you’ll have more information to play with. So for these you might try completing them once before you move on, and then again once you’re done with the book.
· Start writing in a journal or notebook, jotting down thoughts about this chapter. Think about what you know about totems, including plant, fungus, and animal totems. What did you think of the information in this chapter, whether you’ve worked with fungus and plant totems or not? Were there things that really resonated, or that you might do differently? If you were familiar with animal totems before, how different might your work with plant and fungus totems be? What methods of contacting and working with totems do you think might be best for you, and do you have any other ideas besides what I’ve offered here? Make sure you write down everything, even if it doesn’t seem that important. Later on, it may have more relevance once you’ve been able to digest the information more.
· Do some reading outside of this book. The bibliography has a nice variety, though you’re not limited to that list. Try to pick some that are more spiritual, and some that are more scientific, as well as some that are based in more theory and some in practice.
· Do you have any plant or fungus totems, or at least suspect you might? What do you know about them already, both the totems themselves and their physical counterparts? If you already work with at least one plant or fungus totem, how does that work for you, and does it differ from any animal totem work you may do? Try to write down how you might explain to me, or someone else, your method of working with this totem, to include what it has taught you, what you’ve done for it, etc.
· If you don’t currently work with any plant or fungus totems, you might try one or more of the methods I mentioned above for finding one. Be patient, especially if this is your first time working with totems of any sort. It may be a particular method doesn’t work as well for you as another, or you may just need to practice more (for example, doing some basic exercises in staying focused if you’re having trouble with guided meditation). Once you’ve found at least one plant or fungus totem and worked with it a while, try the exercise above this one.
2 Throughout my writings you’ll see me differentiate between a meditation and a journey. In my experience, a guided meditation takes a person into a neutral zone between this world and the spirit world; it may or may not follow a particular script (as in “you go down this path, you meet this spirit, the spirit says such-and-such, etc.”). It’s easier and quicker to prepare for and perform, generally won’t last more than an hour at the most, and usually the worst troubleshooting you’ll have to do is learning to keep yourself focused long enough to get all the way through it. Journeys, on the other hand, are much more intense affairs. They take you deep into the spirit world, which is why they’re usually only done by shamanic practitioners. They can be quite dangerous to one’s spirit and psyche, and people have ended up with deep spiritual wounds when attacked in the spirit realm. They usually require more time and preparation beforehand, and some journeys can last for hours or even days. Generally I will only offer guided meditations as exercises since they’re more suitable for a broader range of practitioners from beginners on up.
3 Sogin, 1993.
4 Melnikova, 1997.
5 BBC, 2013.
6 Mongabay.com, 2013.
7 I did end up writing a blog post about Black Mold as a fungus totem and what I learned from it. You can read it at http://therioshamanism.com/2013/06/12/black-mold-as-fungus-totem/.