What Makes Plant and Fungus Totems Different from Animals?
I mentioned in the last chapter that it’s important to let physical fungi and plants be themselves instead of trying to judge them by the same standards as animals (humans included). The same can be said of plant and fungus totems. While some of the techniques used with animal totems can also be used with these totems as well, there are things that set the fungi and plants apart. This chapter will focus on these differences and how to approach them.
Totems help us in part by sharing their unique perspectives on the world we share. We tend to have a very anthropocentric view on things, not just because we’re humans, but many of us have developed a worldview in which humans are more important than anything else. While a certain level of bias toward our species is okay and to be expected, we’ve made almost all of our technological and other advances keeping only our wants and needs in mind, and it’s only been recently that we’ve started integrated consideration for other living beings into our developments.
To an extent, it’s relatively easy for us to put ourselves in the metaphorical shoes of nonhuman animals, especially mammals and birds. It’s part of why animal totems like Gray Wolf, Elk, and Bald Eagle are more common than Banana Slug, Horseshoe Crab, and Conspicuous Sea Cucumber. So when we start trying to empathize with beings that lack nervous systems and, for the most part, don’t move around much, it’s more challenging.
Additionally, we’re used to seeing plants and fungi as tools to be used, not allies to be collaborated with. Most of the written material on plant magic, for example, is herbalism aimed at using the physical parts of the plants for medicinal and/or spiritual purposes. Even in cases where the spirit of the plant is thanked or otherwise acknowledged, the primary purpose is still to gather some stem, leaf, flower, or root to use for human benefit. As far as fungi go, almost everything written is about psychoactives and how to take them for spiritual purposes. Any understanding of the plant or fungus’s perspective on things tends to be secondary to human gain.
So some people simply have no idea that there are plant and fungus totems. Part of the reason I’m keeping the herbalism part of this book to an absolute minimum is because I want to counter that focus on “using plants and fungus for spells and magical cooking and stuff.” I also want to present a system that allows you to work with any plant or fungus totem you might need to, not just the totems of “useful” fungi and plants. You’re more than welcome to combine the material in this book with those sorts of practices. If nothing else, I want the takeaway from this book to be that these beings have more of a place in our spirituality than as mere materials to be used and consumed.
Tia is a vegan chef who has spent years creating a wide variety of plant and mushroom based dishes. In addition to growing her own garden of herbs and cultivating relationships with local organic farmers, she has also wanted to create some modern harvest traditions to help people remember the importance of the earth and its ability to grow the food we rely on to live. She knows that people in other times and cultures have honored the spirits of the crops they grew, and so she decides to try doing the same. One day, when putting together a new type of salad from greens and portabello caps, she decides to thank the plants and mushrooms. Before she cuts up each part of the salad, she expresses her gratitude to the plant or mushroom out loud, and then handles the food with reverence as she prepares it. Deep in her heart, she feels a chorus of “You’re welcome! We thank you for the thought!” Over time, in addition to her well-received dishes, she also becomes known for her unique and spiritual positive appreciation for what goes in them.
Another difference is that plant and fungus totems, in my experience at least, tend to be quieter beings than animal totems. We are accustomed to using vocalizations and quick body language to communicate, as are many other animals. Fungi and plants, on the other hand, rely more on chemical cues and interactions. Since we don’t rely much on smell or taste to observe much more than our food, it doesn’t occur to us that these could be senses as dominant to other beings as sight and hearing are to us. Plant and fungus totems are therefore less likely to make what we think of as overt contact with us, and it may take us longer to notice them.
I’ve found that I’ve learned quite a bit from plant and fungus totems through a sort of osmosis. As I wrote in a blog post on Therioshamanism.com a while back, these lessons were “absorbed in my senses and pores without consciously realizing them, inhaled and digested as a matter of daily goings-on, rather than being actively sought and observed [as] with animals. Yet these can be incredibly powerful and moving lessons, and I am amazed at just how much I didn’t realize I have gained from plant totems over the years.”8
In addition to seeming quieter, plants and fungi also have the disadvantage of often being overlooked as scenery. There is a concept known as plant blindness that sums it up pretty well. Coined in 1998 by a pair of botanists, plant blindness is defined as:
[T]he inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment—leading to: (a) the inability to recognize the importance of plants in the biosphere, and in human affairs; (b) the inability to appreciate the aesthetic and unique biological features of the life forms belonging to the Plant Kingdom; and (c) the misguided, anthropocentric ranking of plants as inferior to animals, leading to the erroneous conclusion that they are unworthy of human consideration.9
A good example of this would be when a person is walking through the woods, they may say very little about the plants they see (except, perhaps, a particularly impressive tree). But let them see even a small animal like a rabbit or squirrel, and it becomes an important moment in their wilderness experience. It’s easy to see fungi and plants because they’re right there, and they can’t immediately hide. We tend to take them for granted because of that, but we consider a fleeting glance of a bird’s wing to be a momentous occasion.
Also, we may have trouble seeing what we could learn from them, other than perhaps being “rooted in the ground” or being patient. But because a plant or fungus is so intricately linked to one specific location, they can demonstrate a lot about appreciating the depth of a place, or a concept, or a relationship, and so forth. Especially in this busy world we tend to not have time to study things with any depth. We’re constantly on the move from one thing to the next, and while this benefits us in many ways, we often forget to include quality as well as quantity. If you want to learn to appreciate something in all its parts and details, there are plant and fungus totems that may be able to teach you a thing or two or three in that regard.
Which is not to say that plants and fungi have no movement. As I mentioned earlier, plants are in a constant race for sunlight. When a tree falls in a dense forest, almost immediately many smaller plants burst forth out of the ground and try to take advantage of the sudden overflow of sunlight. Many plants have developed tactics to get the upper branch on competitors, such as growing up faster, or parasitizing a taller plant, or spreading out wider to gather as much sun as they can. Many plants also turn with the sun’s movement, the sunflower being one notable example. Fungi, too, are often in races for resources, spreading their mycelia further under the soil, and sprouting fruiting bodies as quickly as possible to give their spores the first shot at landing in fertile ground. So it is that many plant and fungus totems are excellent to work with in matters of finding resources, competition, and making the most of opportunities.
Amber is a city councilwoman who has been recently re-elected based on her support of progressive social reform. The lame-duck mayor, on the other hand, seems to be trying to do as much damage as he can in his last few weeks in office, trying to push through legislation that would undo a great deal of what she and other council members have fought for for years. The new mayor is more sympathetic, but it seems like forever before he’ll take office. While walking from work, Amber notices that an old maple tree in a wooded lot has fallen over in a storm. Over the next few days, she watches as countless new shoots burst through the soil left bare by the downed tree, including some popweed, which tosses its seeds all around itself, thereby gaining more ground more quickly. She is impressed by how quickly these little plants took advantage of the fresh ground, and she thinks perhaps there is something to learn from that herself.
Speaking of resources and competition, plant and fungus totems have some unique things to tell us there, too. Animals tend to regulate how many of their number are in a given space through movement, either moving together or moving apart. Large groups tend to be cooperative, such as large herds of antelope, or a school of sardines; the animals benefit from the safety of numbers, and some predators hunt in groups to combine skills and forces and take down larger prey. Other species regulate through distance; some predators like wolverines or lynx have very large territories, and intruders are vociferously chased out.
Fungi and plants don’t have that option; for the most part, they grow where they sprouted for life. Sometimes that can be in very cramped conditions indeed, both with members of one’s own species and with many others. The totems of plants and fungi that grow in such crowded places, like healthy rain forests, can help us adapt to living in more busy, resource-hungry urban areas, especially when we’re stuck in a given place due to circumstances. We do have to keep in mind that they do compete fiercely with each other for resources, trying to grab as much as they can for themselves, so we should take their advice on living in tight quarters with a bit of caution. (Of course, there are plenty of humans who will nab anything they can from their neighbors, but such practices are discouraged in the interest of maintaining some semblance of a social contract.)
Some plants and fungi mooch off others’ efforts, others work in cooperation, and still others fight like hell for their own little patch of turf that they don’t have to share. The totems of plants and fungi that cooperate—for example, mychorrizal fungi that help plants absorb nutrients—are good models for better coexistence. On the other hand, Wild Rose and other thorny totems are good for learning how to set boundaries without pushing people out of the way. Parasites like Curtain Fig may be worked with (cautiously) when finding ways to turn opportunities in your favor, though the more subversive may also take lessons in being an underdog “parasitizing” a corporate or social behemoth in the interest of creating beneficial change.
In the last chapter, I mentioned how some lichen totems may show up in plural form—as the totems of the individual fungus and plant that compose the lichen, instead of the overarching, singular lichen totem. I frequently have plant and fungus totems show up in groups; while I’m speaking with just one totem, it chooses to appear as a multitude of individuals of its species. So when working with Hammered Shield Lichen, the totem may manifest as a patch of several hammered shield lichens instead of one lonesome one. This is especially common with fungi and plants that tend to grow in closer-knit groups and are more tolerant of each other’s company.
Some of these colonies may be much older than any human; one of the oldest living organisms in the world—and currently the largest—is a single Armillaria solidipes fungus in eastern Oregon. It covers over three square miles (mostly underground) and is estimated to be more than two thousand years old. On the other hand, some plants live for a year or less and have only one season in which to produce seeds to grow the next generation of their species. The longevity of a given totem’s physical children can contribute to its viewpoint on the world. To some tree totems, for example, the problems we face may seem fleeting, and their solution may be to simply wait it out. Of course, this may not always be feasible for us (especially since we don’t each have hundreds of years to work with), but since there are times when it’s good for us to slow down, the timing of tree totems might be just what we need now and then.
These are just a few of the more notable ways in which I’ve found plant and fungus totems differ from animal totems in methodology and behavior. There are others, but these are a good starting point. Throughout the book I’ll be providing some specific ways to work with these totems, to include some that work better for them than for their animal totem neighbors. The best thing you can do, quite honestly, is to just let them be themselves, and learn from there.
Plant and Fungus Evolution Meditations
One way to appreciate these unique totems as they are is to contemplate the different evolutionary paths that the plant and fungus kingdoms took compared to the animal kingdom. The following exercise is designed to give you a bit of a taste of that, whether you’re actively working with plant and fungus totems or not.
If you aren’t particularly familiar with the differences between animal, plant, and fungus evolution, you may wish to read up a little on the topic. Wikipedia is easily accessible, and taken with a grain of salt it’s a good basic introduction. Look up the article entitled “Evolutionary history of life,” and then follow the various links and references to find out more about how the various kingdoms—fungi, plants, animals, and others—evolved over time. Once you feel comfortable with the basics of these topics, give these meditations a try.
I do recognize that these two meditations present a highly simplified view of evolutionary history and that I’ve taken quite a few liberties with when and how things evolved for the purpose of illustrating different evolutionary paths very generally. Think of it like the “Evolution/Rite of Spring” portion of Disney’s Fantasia: rather than a formal scientific treatise, it is an art form that is entirely too brief and time-structured to ever come close to fully showcasing the story of evolution that it is inspired by. (Perhaps also borrowing the dancing mushrooms from Fantasia’s treatment of the “Nutcracker Suite.”) If this bothers you, feel free to skip this meditation and do some more research into evolutionary history; either way works for the purposes of this book, so long as you basically understand the different evolutionary paths these kingdoms have taken.
Plant Evolution Meditation
Find a place where you can be comfortable, and where you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour. Close your eyes if you like, relax, and breathe slowly and deeply. Every time you exhale, let the thoughts and concerns of the day float away on your breath.
Think of a particular plant that you know well. It might be a tree that you like to sit under, or a favorite flower in your garden. This will be your anchor in this meditation. Think of where it is, and imagine that you’re there. Then you turn around, and you find you have company!
You see a few people of varying ages; one is a little older than you, your parents’ age, and then the next one a little older, the age of your grandparents. They are the first in a long line of ancestors, stretching out into time and space behind you. You find yourself floating up, and then flying along this line, farther and farther back. As you fly, you go further and further back in time, going past the various hominids and other primates, then back past the small shrew-like mammals that gave rise to the primates, then the reptiles that became mammals, beyond the amphibians that gave rise to the reptiles, and the fish who first crawled onto land. Go further back still, to the invertebrates that came before the fish, smaller and smaller until you pass by the point where unicellular bacteria began to join together into multicellular groups. Finally, you find yourself immersed in the primordial ocean, where bacteria of many types float about, some of which will give rise to animals and fungi, and some of which will give rise to plants.
Amid the crowd of countless single-celled beings, one in particular stands out to you. A lovely green color, it holds your attention. You can see it absorb sunlight and transform it, then exude it again as energy. You watch as it moves toward a larger cell, and is then engulfed by it, but not destroyed. Then this cell, called algae, splits into two, then four, until very quickly there is an entire mat of algae above you. It sinks down into the water, leaving only some of itself floating at the surface.
You follow the algae that sinks, and watch as it splits apart into many types of seaweed, some attached to the sea’s bottom, others floating freely. You catch hold of one of the floating seaweeds, and it carries you up to the surface. It then floats to shore, but instead of drying out, its fibers toughen and pores open to allow air in and out, while water from the earth and air flows through its vascular system, and it begins to put tiny shoots, no more than a couple of inches high, up in the air. More and more of these tiny plants spread across the land, and you fly up to watch them take on ever more forms, developing stronger stems and leaves, and growing larger and more diverse. There are no flowers yet, but the green diversity is almost overwhelming! Every so often you pass a waterway, and each time that you do, the various sorts of plants living in and around the water changes and grows there, too.
Soon the first trees begin to grow, reaching ever higher to the sun’s life-giving rays. Other plants respond to this new development. Some climb up the trunks of the trees to take advantage of their support. Others learn to make the most of the bit of sunlight that filters down through the canopy, and still others lie quietly in wait until a tree crashes, and you can almost see the race over time as smaller plants change to grow faster and faster in the fleeting light.
Many of the plants you see grow a dizzying array of spores and cones to reproduce, and soon some of the cones develop colorful leaves around them. As more generations pass, these special leaves become larger and the cones smaller, until the first flowers appear, leading to a wild riot of color. For a while many types of small animal come to pollinate the flowers, and then as the flowers begin to turn into the first edible fruits, more and more animals visit them to eat the fruit and spread the seeds.
Some of the animals try to eat the rest of the plants, too, and you watch as some plants sprout thorns to discourage tender mammal mouths, while others develop bad-tasting toxins in their tissues. It’s almost as though the animals and plants are at war with each other, one to win a bite to eat and the other to maintain the ability to live.
Soon you begin to see plants that look quite familiar, and as they rise and fall, you recognize more and more of them. Finally, time slows down to its normal heartbeat, and you find yourself in a forest clearing. You’re surrounded by pine trees and oaks, and a variety of spring wildflowers encircle a small pond. Ancient-looking mosses and ferns grow in the trees’ shade, and the surface of the pond is partly covered by a blanket of bright green algae. Looking upon each plant that surrounds you, you remember when each one’s predecessors evolved, and while this story has been told in the space of a few heartbeats, you think of how many millions of years it all took to come about.
And then you look, and you see the plant that you started at in the beginning of this meditation. You go to it, and touch it, and gently it transforms the land back to the place where it—and you—live. Take the time now to come back to your body, still breathing slowly, stretching and feeling your physical form, and opening your eyes when you’re ready to. Once you’re awake again, write down your impressions and experiences, to include anything you went through that may not have been in this exact meditation.
Also contemplate how plant evolution is like and unlike animal evolution. We both came out of the water onto land, for example, but how did each kingdom adapt to the new territory? What were the solutions that plants evolved to deal with respiration, reproduction, and competition for resources, compared to the solutions to those problems that animals developed over time? If you’ve worked with plant totems before, does this explain any of the characteristics of those totems, or things they’ve taught you or asked of you?
Even though this is a fairly scripted meditation, everyone will have different experiences. Not everyone will see the same plants representing each stage of plant evolution; in fact, some of them may not be existing plants, and are mental and spiritual fabrications that show up only to illustrate a basic concept such as “eventually, plants developed flowers and thus angiosperms came into being.” You can always go back and research the evolution of a particular plant, or a specific stage of plant evolution, if you like.
I would recommend giving yourself a few days to digest the experiences in the plant evolution meditation before moving on to the fungus evolution meditation. While the structure is basically the same, you want to allow yourself enough time to think over your experience with the plants before adding in new experiences with the fungi.
Fungus Evolution Meditation
Again, go to your quiet place where you can be comfortable and undisturbed for at least an hour. Settle yourself in, slow and calm your breathing, and close your eyes if you like. With each exhalation, let your breath carry away the thoughts and worries of the day.
Think of a place where fungi grow with some regularity. It might be a spot on a lawn where little brown mushrooms pop up whenever it rains, or an old tree stump with shelf fungi growing on its sides. Wherever it is, visualize going to that place and seeing the fungus that grows there. That fungus is your anchor through this meditation; remember where it is, and then turn around.
You find that behind you is a long, long line of ancestors; first is someone about the age of your parents, and then of their parents, and so on. You find yourself floating up, and then flying along this line, farther and farther back. As you fly, you go further and further back in time, going past the various hominids and other primates, then back past the small shrew-like mammals that gave rise to the primates, then the reptiles that became mammals, beyond the amphibians that gave rise to the reptiles, and the fish who first crawled onto land. Go further back still, to the invertebrates that came before the fish, and smaller and smaller until you arrive amid unicellular beings in the primordial ocean.
One, a small protist with a little tail that propels it through the water, comes up to you and seems to want you to follow it. You swim with it through the water, and then it stops. Before you know it, it’s split into two protists exactly like the first, and then those split, and on and on, until you have two groups of protists. One swims off into the distance, where they will eventually evolve into animals over many generations, while the other begins to split even more rapidly than it was before. Out of the mass of these protists arise multicellular beings; instead of splitting, they release tiny tailed spores into the water; these spores eventually settle onto the ocean floor to create the next generation. Over time the first proper fungi arise, displaying primitive networks of threadlike hyphae.
Some of these bottom-dwelling fungi get closer and closer to the edge of the ocean, and eventually break out of the water and begin to colonize the beach, their surfaces toughening, sending their fibers down into the earth. Their spores are equally tough and proof against the dry air and sun, and float through the sea of air like their ancestors flowed through the water.
But soon the fungi aren’t alone; plants join them, too, and the pioneering fungi interact with them. Some parasitize living plants, and others break down the remains of deceased plants and fungi, and still other tiny ones sink down to meet the roots of plants to form the first mycorrizhae. A number of them even combine with algae to become the first lichens.
For a while the fungi remain low-profile and almost alien to our eyes—and then a few begin to develop visible fruiting bodies, sending them up from their mycelial threads out of the soil and decaying matter they live on. From these structures the spores are released; these new features are tiny at first, but later generations develop larger and more varied caps, until the scene begins to look very familiar with mushrooms popping up from amid plants and on decaying logs.
Time continues to pass, until you find yourself in a modern-day farm field. An old tree stump sports an array of shelf fungi, while in the grass beneath your feet, still touched by the dawn dew, small white puffball mushrooms crowd like tiny rabbits. You can almost hear murmuring beneath the soil as the mycorrhizae of countless symbiotic species go about the business of cooperating with plants, and you have to watch your step as you walk by an ageing pile of cow dung covered with a dusting of powdery fungus.
And then at the edge of the field, you see the fungus you first saw at the beginning of the trip, and it calls you home. You go to it and touch it, and begin to return to your body and waking awareness. You can feel your extremities tingling just a bit, and you might stretch your muscles and yawn. Then, when you’re ready, open your eyes, and take the time to record everything you witnessed and experienced, even if it wasn’t in the script provided.
How did this meditation compare with your experience with the plant evolution meditation? How do the adaptations that fungi have made over time to adjust to their surroundings compare to and contrast with the adaptations of plants and animals? If you’ve worked with fungus totems before, does this meditation give you any clues as to why they are the way they are?
Tony has been working with animal totems for a number of years, but hadn’t really considered plant and fungus totems since they “don’t really do much, do they?” Still, he was curious when his friend Anna mentioned her work with these totems to him, and so she led him through the plant and fungus evolution meditations, reading them out loud for him to follow. As Tony watched the plants and fungi spread through the ocean and colonize the land even before the animals did, he felt impressed by their pioneering spirit. He saw how they sometimes worked together to make the drier habitat their own, and how tiny little spore-producing plants gave rise to the vast diversity millions of years later, up to today. He marveled at how much depended on the fungi, transforming materials into nutrients, and creating wide-ranging networks to better the soil. By the time the animals crawled out onto shore, the fungi and plants had come up with countless solutions to the problems these first land-loving amphibians and arthropods were just beginning to encounter. Without trees and mushrooms, lichens and mosses, the animals would never have gotten far. By the end of both meditations, Tony had a much greater appreciation for plants and fungi and their totems in their own right, and decided to expand his spiritual practice to include these beings as well.
Again, please feel free to take some time to digest this meditation. Often with meditations we may have insights about our experiences days after the fact. You can also research the evolution of fungi more to fill in the blanks of your meditation; sometimes when our brains are missing a factoid, they fill it in with fantasy. While I’ve tried to lay out the very basic progression of both plant and fungi evolution in these meditations as a creative way to introduce the idea that fungi and plants evolved differently from animals, they are in no way complete, scientific treatments of the subject matter.
So why go through this process? One of the things I’ve emphasized throughout this book is how plant and fungus totems are different from their animal counterparts. If you have a better understanding of the evolutionary paths each of these kingdoms took and what environmental pressures shaped them, it can give you more of an insight as to why a plant totem may have a different solution to a problem than a fungus or animal totem. In addition, totemic relationships are two-way streets. We don’t just get to know totems so we can ask them to give us stuff. We also get to know them so that we know how we can help them and their physical children. That includes being able to empathize with them a little more, even if we’re much different beings than they are; often the effort alone is appreciated.
Another way to do this is to be more proactive in listening to these totems. I’ve talked about how they may be less likely to actively approach us than animal totems, or we may simply miss their cues due to different methods of communication. I came up with the following exercise to help balance that out.
Sit and Listen
As I mentioned earlier, just because you have a particular plant or fungus that you see a lot or like quite a bit, it doesn’t make it your totem. However, this exercise does involve being around physical plants and fungi, and you may find that one or more of them may have a connection with you! The main goal, though, is simply to learn to be more receptive to their quiet nature, and to be able to recognize if one of their totems is trying to get your attention.
This is a pretty important exercise. It’s a chance to get to know how you sense the totems the best, and an opportunity to try out that sensing ability. Even if you already have plant and fungus totems that you work with, doing this exercise can clarify for you exactly how it is you communicate with them, not just on an intellectual level but also on an experiential one. And it’s also an initial connection with your bioregion, as well as an opportunity for new totems to get in touch with you, even briefly. So I would recommend that everyone do this exercise at least once before trying other things in the book.
First, of course, you’ll need to go to a place where these beings grow. The outdoors is full of them, from yards to parks to wilderness areas, and even scrappy little weeds growing on the edges of buildings and the cracks of sidewalks. Even if you can’t go outside, though, houseplants make perfectly good company. If there are plants and fungi growing right outside you can even work with them, perhaps sitting where there’s a view of them through a window. And if you’re really stuck for options, fresh fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms, or cut flowers can still provide a connection. Technically things like cut flowers, very fresh lettuces, and roots, among others, stay “alive” for days after being cut or uprooted. Even close to death they still maintain their spirit and connection to their respective totems. For more information on treating them with respect before and after death, please see chapter seven.
So, you have your place and you’ve made yourself comfortable. Close your eyes if you’re comfortable, and take a few breaths to relax. Then—listen. Simply listen. Listen not just with your ears, but with your intuition. Imagine that this multilayered hearing is an energy that you can extend out from you. First, listen to what’s directly around you, within the first few feet surrounding you. Don’t forget to pay attention to what’s above and below you; fashion your awareness into a sphere, not just a circle.
What are you listening for? Well, first listen for the sounds of the fungi and plants themselves. Don’t worry about trying to contact any of them in particular. Just experience the ones right around you. You might move your hands around and feel the moss beneath you and hear the sound of it brushing against your skin, or touch the dead leaves of a tree and listen to them crackle. Or you may hear the wind blow through the branches of the shrubs or long grass.
You may also “hear” with your intuition. It might sound to you, deep inside, like a bit of song, or a voice speaking to you. Or you might get impressions, like colors or feelings. You may even get a strong image of a particular plant or fungus. Physical touch may enhance your intuitive connection to a given plant or fungus and help you narrow down where a particular impression is coming from.
Don’t hurry through this part; take your time, and explore in detail. Get to know the “voice” of each of the plants and fungi you encounter. If you wish to confirm with your eyes, go ahead, but try to spend just as much time using other senses instead. We’re so used to using sight as our primary sense that we often take what we see for granted; let your sight take a back seat for a while.
If a specific plant or fungus seems to jump out at you during this exercise, take note, but keep in mind this is more of a general survey of the area. You can always go back and check in with it later. Also, you may notice your attention being drawn outside of the little bubble you’re focusing on. In that case, imagine a little tendril of your multilayered hearing growing outward toward what’s caught your interest. You may find that a plant or fungus well out of your sight may be trying to get your attention. Again, make a note of it for later follow-up.
Once you feel you’ve explored enough for now, open your eyes, stretch, and come back to your everyday state of awareness. Then take some time to answer the following questions:
· When you were exploring, how did you notice the fungi and plants around you? Through physical hearing or touch? Through intuitive impressions? A combination thereof, or some other means entirely? What seems to be the most effective method for you? Did it vary depending on what plant/fungus you were listening to?
· Did any plants or fungi particularly attract your attention? What were they, and where were they in relation to you? Were they all in the same general physical location as you, or did you find yourself connecting with plants or fungi far away?
· Did you notice whether you were connecting with the individual spirit of the plant or fungus, or the overarching totem, or both? Or was it unclear for the time being? In my personal experience, the totem “feels” a lot bigger. There’s an impression of greater power and awareness of the world, compared to the smaller, more localized individual spirit. For those who have worked with deities, it’s a little like the difference between talking with another human being and invoking a god.
You can try this exercise multiple times in varying settings. If you do, see if the results differ depending on where you are and what plants and fungi are around you. You can also repeat the exercise several times in the same place, and note how your results may change or stay the same over time. And because it can take longer for plant and fungus totems to “warm up” to you, repeating the exercise may give them the time they need to make contact with you.
Alice lives in a small apartment with an equally small balcony that looks out over the street. She decides the little container garden she’s planted on the balcony is a good place to start listening. As she focuses on listening to the fungi and plants around her, she imagines each of them is creating music, similar to that in an orchestra. The petunias remind her of the sweet voice of a violin, while the pot of rosemary “sounds” like a clarinet. As she extends her awareness further, a little ring of white mushrooms sends her a chime of bells, while the cherry trees out front create a duet of temple blocks, and she visualizes the wood of their trunks reforming into these lovely instruments. While not all of these spiritual “musicians” are creating the same song, they all seem to come together in harmony nonetheless. Alice enjoys the symphony, and every time she works with the totems of these plants and fungi, they announce themselves in her mind with their unique music.
So far what I’ve done is explain to you the basic nature of plant and fungus totems, and I demonstrated how they differ from animal totems as well as from each other. The next three chapters will cover the three models of totemism I work with: Bioregional, Correspondences, and Archetypal.
Before we proceed, I want to briefly explain the origin of these models. When I wrote New Paths to Animal Totems, I was attempting to write for a broader audience. I wanted to give my established readers, who were used to my more advanced writings, something new and interesting to play with, but I also wanted to make the book accessible to people who were brand-new to animal totemism as well. Believe it or not, writing a book on the basics was a tougher proposition for me than you’d think. Previously I’d gone along assuming my readers had the basics of totemism and related practices and beliefs down pretty well, but now I had to try to explain the very nuts and bolts that I had been taking for granted for years.
My solution was to take the practice I’d been developing for a decade and a half and break its components down into more easily explained models. This was a little more “meta” than saying “Well, I do this thing this way, and here’s why,” but it ended up offering people three distinct tool kits that they could use individually or together. It was effective enough, in fact, that I decided to use those models as frameworks to explore and explain my work with plant and fungus totems as well.
I will not be spending quite as much time talking about the basics of things like archetypes and bioregionalism as I did in New Paths to Animal Totems. There’s enough materials here to give you a basic understanding of the concepts, but you can refer to my earlier book, as well as source material from the bibliography, for further research. As always, you’re welcome to take or leave whatever you like of them, depending on your needs and inclinations.
It is possible that while you’re doing some of the exercises in the next few chapters you might have an animal totem pop up, or some other being that’s in no way related to plants or fungi. For example, you might be tending your Inner Garden as described in the Archetypal model, and amid the sunflowers and portabellos you may have Harvest Mouse make an appearance. That’s perfectly fine; the plant and fungus totems don’t exist in a vacuum, and you’re welcome to integrate your animal totem work into the material in this book as well. I don’t cover much in the way of integrated totemism in this book or in New Paths to Animal Totems because I wanted to present these systems in more focused manners (though as I mentioned earlier I do want to cover it some in later writings), but if you feel moved to weave them together on your own, by all means go right ahead.
It’s Not (Just) Me, It’s You (Too)
Finally, one of the most important things to remember about working with totems is that it is a two-way street. As you’re developing your own relationships with these beings, keep in mind that this isn’t just about your observations, but also about the totems’ input as well. That’s part of why I include so many exercises and ideas based on working with the totems, rather than just having you write out a list of plants and fungi and then what you think of each of them. But it’s also why I don’t just tell you to blindly follow whatever the totems say, either.
These are relationships that you’re co-creating with the totems, relationships that are based on ongoing communication with them. They need to be tended and grown, and not taken for granted. Just because a totem has indicated it wants to work with you doesn’t mean you’re entitled to its attention. Totems can and do leave, especially if they feel they’re aren’t being appreciated or respected. You are always welcome to question something within your relationship with a totem, but I don’t recommend dismissing it out of hand. Explain to the totem why you may not agree with it, and go from there. I’ve found from my own experiences that they tend to be very good listeners in part because they’re so interested in the world their children inhabit and the relationships they’ve formed with other species, and we owe them the same courtesy.
8 Lupa, 2012.
9 Wandersee and Schussler, 2001.