The Bioregional Model
A lot of spiritual work starts from the inside and works its way to the world around us. Beginning with the Bioregional model allows us to start from the outside and work our way in. Because totemism is based on beings that share the world with us, I feel it’s important for us to ground ourselves here before moving deeper inside ourselves.
This is especially important with plant and fungus totems. Most of us are used to actively interacting with other animals on at least a somewhat regular basis, but as I’ve talked about already, we tend to see the plants and fungi as “just scenery.” So I’d like to emphasize the living reality of these physical beings as individuals in our ecosystem before we get into increasingly symbolic interpretations of their totems.
Although I’ve worked extensively with animal totems, it wasn’t until I moved to the Pacific Northwest that I became consciously aware of their fellow plant and fungus totems. Some of them were the totems of beings I’d encountered elsewhere in my life, such as White and Red Clovers. Others, like Douglas Fir and Oak Moss Lichen, didn’t make an appearance until I got to Portland and explored the surrounding areas.
Over the past several years I’ve learned quite a bit from them, not the least lesson of which being how to connect more deeply with the place I live. In fact, while all three of the models tie in with my work with plant and fungus totems, the Bioregional model is the one that perhaps has the strongest influence on that part of my spirituality. Fungi and plants are rooted to a single place in a way that animals aren’t, and like bioregionalism, they ask us to slow down and pay more attention to where we’re at instead of trying to figure out where we’re going next.
Because of this, a lot of the exercises in this chapter involve going outside with purpose. Pagans often see the outdoors as a pretty setting for elaborate rituals that use a lot of abstract symbols, up to and including include symbols of beings in nature. This chapter reverses that trend: I’m going to be asking you to do less ritualizing and dancing around in circles, and more meditation and observing quietly. Even the meditations themselves don’t require a lot of experience with meditation; a few of them can be helped with some basic visualization and imagination skills, but for the most part they’re firmly grounded in the here and now. You’re welcome to create your own rituals as you continue your relationships with your bioregion and your totems, but for now consider this chapter as containing the foundations on which you can then build those practices.
A Brief Overview of Bioregionalism
When someone asks you where you live, what do you tell them? Usually you’ll respond with the name of your city, town, or other community, and maybe a neighborhood or street. If you imagine a map of your country, the boldest definitions are between states, counties, and the like, clearly marked and labeled. Prominent dots may mark the biggest population centers, and perhaps major highways are delineated as well.
The natural features are often less emphasized. Most of the time, only large rivers are marked (as well as the bridges needed to cross them). If you have a prominent mountain range in your country, that may be named as well, though often only with a general name and no mention of individual peaks and other notable points. The same goes for oceans and lakes; they’re mentioned rather generally. And the same patterns continue even in more localized maps; the human-made features get the most attention, and so that’s how we learn to identify our location.
Bioregionalism is one alternative to this anthropocentric orientation. A bioregion (also known as an ecoregion) is an area marked by natural phenomena, such as watersheds, mountain ranges, and other geographic formations. More detail is added when the flora, fauna, and weather and climatic patterns are taken into account. In effect, a bioregion is the measure of a place from the top (the sky) to the bottom (geologic features well beneath the surface of the land) and everything in between; humans and our creations are just one part of that system.
Bioregions can be quite large, but they also can nest like Matryoshka dolls. For example, as a resident of inner Portland, Oregon, I live in the Willamette River watershed; I’m about a mile away from the river itself as the crow flies, and when rain falls here, it flows into that waterway. The Willamette is the defining feature of my immediate bioregion, though it is itself nestled in the greater Cascadia bioregion. Cascadia generally includes parts of northern California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and the Alaskan panhandle; its main features are the Columbia River watershed (to which the Willamette contributes), and the Cascade mountain range. So in a way, the Willamette watershed is my “city,” while Cascadia is my “state.” Other smaller bioregions within Cascadia may be physically very different from my Willamette watershed; the deserts east of the Cascades, for example, are home to some animals and plants that aren’t found here to the west. And even within Willamette, the land and weather and other features change as you travel further through it.
Keep in mind that even though I live in a neighborhood that’s been developed since the early 1900s, it doesn’t cease being a part of the bioregion. Most of the native fauna have fled, save for invertebrates, some birds, and a few small mammals like raccoons and opossums. But they remain, and some native plants live here even amid manicured lawns and vegetable gardens. It’s important that even if we change the features of a place, it’s still a working ecosystem, albeit one quite different and more human-dominated compared to a couple hundred years ago.
And that’s a big part of bioregionalism: reminding us that we are not divorced from the land, that we are still dependent upon it. Often we think of “nature” as being “without humans.” Nature photography shows plants and animals and mountains and such but nary a human being to be found. That spoils nature for us. We go to nature to get away from other people.
But that attitude can actually contribute to the unhealthy relationship we have with the nonhuman community. Whether we think of ourselves as separate from nature because we feel we’re superior to it, or because we want to protect it from our destructive tendencies, the effect is the same: a perceived distancing of ourselves from the landscape. This leads not just to psychological problems like Nature Deficit Disorder, but it can cause us to spend less time outdoors
because we “don’t want to mess it up” (or, conversely, because we don’t want to get dirty). It can even numb us to the very real threats to environmental integrity that we all face; if we don’t see ourselves as part of nature, we’re less invested in protecting it.
We need to allow ourselves to return to the natural community, even if we remain in our cities and towns. No matter how urban we are, we never stop relying on the air and water and food we need to live, all of which are as much a part of nature as we are. Everyone lives in a bioregion, and knowing the complex natural system you’re immersed and entangled in is crucial to your health and that of the world around you.
Jacqueline recently moved to Detroit for a new job. At first she’s a bit frustrated by the large percentage of the city that’s full of empty houses and abandoned streets, and she wonders just what she’s gotten herself into. Shortly after moving there, a coworker tells her about the urban farming movement trying to rejuvenate abandoned lots and address food deserts. Jacqueline goes to a few meetings of a local organization that supports urban farmers with resources and legal support, and develops an interest in the nature that can be found in the city. She spends her summer converting her yard to a garden plot, and is amazed at the diversity of worms, insects, and other small creatures in the soil. Amid the weeds and stones, Jacqueline identifies a few remnant native species, including coneflower and goldenrod, and lets them grow while planting other natives around them to create little oases amid her cultivated vegetables and herbs. One day she even sees a peregrine falcon perched in one of the trees at the edge of the yard, a rat clutched in one talon. Despite the buildings and pavement all around, Jacqueline feels that she is surrounded by life, and decides to get to know the area outside her yard as well.
Whether urban or rural, bioregionalism teaches you a different way of identifying with the place where you live. The next exercise is designed to help you get to know your bioregion in more detail.
Exploring Your Bioregion
First, pick a time when you can spend at least an hour walking around or otherwise exploring your neighborhood. Even if you can’t spend a lot of time outside, you can still observe what’s going on through the windows of your home. In the event it’s not safe or possible to wander around your immediate neighborhood, look for the nearest appropriate location. The important thing is to get some direct, in-person observation of the place you’re at.
You can do this exercise alone or with someone else, whichever you prefer. You’ll want to take a pen and paper or use some other way to record your observations—you can even take a camera and snap pictures while you’re out. Make sure you dress appropriately for the weather, too.
Even before you leave your home, are there any plants or fungi of note inside? Do you have some houseplants or cut flowers decorating a shelf? What about fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms in the kitchen? Might there be a touch of mold on an old loaf of bread, or under the sink on a leaky pipe?
When you first step outside the door, note your initial impressions. Take a big, deep breath and sense how the air smells, how it feels filling your lungs. If there’s wind, how strong is it, and where is it coming from? What’s the weather like? The temperature? Where in the sky is the sun (or moon and constellations)? What’s the quality of the lighting, and is it all natural or is there some human-made lighting as well? If you were to take a picture of the first scene you see when you step out the door, how much of it would be plants, animals, fungi, and other living things, and how much is human-made, like buildings and cars?
If you did the Sit and Listen exercise in the previous chapter, take a moment to revisit the skills you touched on there. Pay attention to any sensations or images you may get from your intuition, telling you to notice a particular plant or fungus. You don’t have to follow these in meditation right now; just take note of them along with everything else.
Now, take some time to explore your immediate surroundings. This can be your yard, or the lot around your apartment building. Start listing every living thing you see—
animals (including human animals!), plants, and fungi. Even if you don’t know all their names, make note of them with a brief description and a picture if you can get it; you can always check their identities later. What is the ground beneath you like—rocky? Sandy? Muddy or dry? Barren, or covered in plants and other things? Mostly pavement? Do you notice any living things in it, like little low fungi or worms and insects? Are there hills or dips, or is it mostly flat, and are the contours natural or were they created through human development? If it’s raining, where does the water go? Does it mostly soak into the ground, or does it flow into storm sewers or ditches? What else stands out to you in the immediate area?
Next, if you can, head out of your yard and into your wider neighborhood, whether you’re surrounded by houses or fields. Take note of the various flora, fauna, and other features you noted while exploring the yard. Is there anything new or anything conspicuously missing? Does the terrain change the further from home you go? What about the proportion of natural to human-made features? Is your exposure to sun and rain different, with more or less shelter, taller buildings or trees, etc.?
Take this as far as you like; there’s no set distance you have to go. Even if you just stick to your own yard/lot, that’s plenty to explore. You can even make this a day-long trek, exploring as far as you like on foot, and then getting a ride or taking public transit back home. Just keep good records of what you see as you explore, and try to keep your path fairly organized. You can either try spiraling outward from your home, or you can go in a more-or-less straight line from home to another point, such as the nearest waterway or park. In fact, you might even consider doing this exercise at least once a season as the local flora and fauna change due to phenomena like foliage growth and loss, migration, and the like.
You can then verify various identifications and fill in some of the blanks in your observations by reading more about your bioregion in field guides or other books, websites, and other resources. Then when you go back out, you’ll know even more about what it is you’re experiencing.
Eleanor is quite the hardcore geek. She works in the IT field as a programmer, and in her spare time she enjoys video games. Consequently, she spends much of her time indoors at one of several desktops and laptops scattered around her home. Her girlfriend Zoe, on the other hand, would rather go hiking in the mountains than play the latest console game. Zoe invites Eleanor to go with her on her daily walk. Even before they leave the yard, Zoe’s already pointed out half a dozen flowers and a couple of birds, and it seems every few feet she has some other thing to point out to Eleanor. At first Eleanor is a bit annoyed, but soon Zoe’s enthusiasm wins her over, and she starts asking questions about what they see. She also researches them online when they get home, and makes a list of what plants and animals she hasn’t gotten to see yet. Over time, they go further afield on their walks, and discover parks and other places they hadn’t even known about, with more diverse life forms. Eleanor is even inspired to create an interactive cell phone game that helps them learn more about the animals, fungi, and plants in their area. This helps her to get a job designing educational games; while she still works at a computer every day, she always makes sure to get her “outside time” too.
Bonus Field Trip!
This exercise is an extension of the previous one. Do some research on the wider bioregion beyond what you can walk. Then, if you have the time and transportation, take a day or even a weekend now and then to explore different parts of the bioregion. For example, here in Portland I can drive one to two hours in any direction and be in a different sort of ecosystem within the Columbia River’s vast watershed. To the east there are deserts, and to the west is the Pacific coast. Going north, I find the region of Mt. St. Helens and the forests there, while heading south takes me into rich farmland and wetlands along the Willamette River. Each of these has its own physical features, flora and fauna, climate and weather patterns, and other unique characteristics. Even if your bioregion is largely composed of the same type of ecosystem, see if there are any local variations in geology, biology, and the like. Make sure you check out the urban areas, too, to see how humans have changed the place, but also adapted to its contours as well.
Take the time to get to know each place in the same detail you explored your neighborhood. Even if you can’t go in person, give yourself a virtual tour through books, the Internet, and other resources. Take notes if you like, and research anything you can’t identify that caught your eye. Over time you may find that you have more—and more varied—neighbors in your bioregion than you thought.
Initial Work with Your
Bioregional Plant and Fungus Totems
Now that we’ve established the basics of bioregionalism and introduced you to yours, it’s time to start identifying totems of local species that may be able to help you get to know the area better. You might already have local plant and fungus totems you work with or with which you have at least made initial contact. If so, you’re welcome to continue on to later exercises in this chapter to get to know them better, or you can try this next one to see if there were any totems you might have overlooked.
Also, review the notes you took if you did the Sit and Listen exercise in chapter two, or give it a try now. Were there any plants or fungi that particularly caught your attention, or did you perhaps sense that one of their totems was trying to get your attention? If so, you might wish to use the meditation in Appendix A to try contacting the totem more directly to see if there actually was anything there, or if it was just a trick of your mind.
If you haven’t identified a specific totem, you can still ask one to initially help you get to know the area better as a sort of local guide. If they accept, you may find the relationship deepens over time, or the totem may be replaced by a more suitable one later once you’ve started connecting to your bioregion more fully. If possible, ask one whose physical counterparts live close to you, though if you feel really motivated to ask one located further out in your bioregion that’s okay, too. The following exercise can help open that door for you.
A Polite Query
If you’ve identified a plant or fungus totem to help you with your bioregional work, it’s a good idea to formally ask it to help you. Even if they’ve already said they would, sealing it with a ritual is a kind gesture and a more solid beginning to your work with that totem.
If you can do this in a place where the totem’s children grow, so much the better. Even if not, though, just having some representation like a photo or statue of the plant or fungus can help. The important thing is that you’re comfortable, safe, and able to focus on this ritual. Let the weather get you into the right mindset, too, by thinking of how the current conditions may help the plants and fungi. Everyone needs rain and air, and in addition the plants all require sunlight. Wintertime gives some fungi and plants a chance to rest from the activity of the year. Rather than being cranky about getting wet or cold or windblown, try to appreciate how every condition is beneficial. Do, of course, make your physical health a priority—sunburn, hypothermia, and lightning strikes are not conducive to effective ritual practices.
Make sure you won’t be disturbed for at least an hour; if you’re in a public place like a park, you may wish to leave elaborate ritual setups at home, and also prepare to potentially be interrupted by curious passersby. If you’re very concerned about people interfering, try doing this as a “silent” ritual—sit in one place and do your best to look like you’re simply enjoying the day while going through the ritual in your own mind. If at home, music or white noise can help drown out distracting sounds.
First, get yourself comfortable, and set up any ritual effects or altars you might like to have. Relax yourself, and then begin paying attention to the place you’re in. Take note of what you see and hear, and any scents in the air that you can smell or taste. If you’re outside, feel the ground beneath you; take your shoes off if possible and touch the ground directly with your feet. Breathe deeply and slowly, and let your worries and concerns and extraneous thoughts float away on your breath. Just focus on the immediate place.
Now, bring your attention to the physical representative of your totem. Study how it looks, and where it is in relation to other living beings in the area. Is it growing directly in the soil or on a wall or log, or is it in its own container? Have insects been chewing at it or helping it to pollinate? Have other animals been affecting it? Is there just one individual, or several, and are they communal or in competition? How healthy do they all look?
If you feel it’s okay, reach out and touch the plant or fungus; otherwise, just maintain eye contact. Greet its spirit, and ask if it would help you to connect with its totem. Then say the following out loud or in your mind:
[Name of totem], your [roots/mycelia] run deep here, and have for quite some time. Even if I can never have [roots/mycelia] as deep and strong as yours, your aid would help me to go further than
I am now. I ask you to show me more about you, and more about this place that we share together. Help me to be a better part of our community
and to help you in return as I may.
The skills you noticed in the Sit and Listen exercise may come in handy here. Open yourself to the totem’s response. If it’s loud and clear, great! If it’s less so, perhaps too quiet or ambiguous to understand, give the totem more time. Also make sure that the totem responding to you is the one you were trying to contact in the first place. You might find that another, perhaps more suitable one is taking the opportunity to introduce itself to you.
Once you’ve had a chance to notice and record the response, you can thank the totem(s) that appeared for their time. If you wish to leave an offering, I recommend rain or other fresh water (not tap or distilled). If the totem has a specific request, you can try to fulfill it as soon as possible—within reason, of course. If the totem asks you to cut down the surrounding trees to give its children more light, you should politely but regretfully decline, and see if there’s something a little less destructive you can offer instead.
If you didn’t get much in the way of results the first time, wait a little while (maybe a few weeks or a couple of months) and try again. In the meantime, keep exploring your bioregion and see what comes of it.
Some Neopagans learn to ground by visualizing that they have roots extending into the earth, holding them firm. While this can be effective, it’s also rather impersonal. It’s sort of the equivalent of walking into a random home and asking for a drink of water. What I’d like to offer here is a bit more polite, asking your bioregional plant or fungus totem to make introductions for you first.
You can do this indoors or out. If you have a particular place where you like working with the totem you’ll be asking for help, start out there if possible. Physical contact with the ground is encouraged, but if necessary you can keep your shoes on or go barefoot indoors.
First, call on your totem for help. Ask it for assistance in getting connected to the system of roots and mycelia under the ground. Then stand (or sit) with as firm a stance as you can, though keep yourself relaxed. You want to be well balanced, but not tense.
Next, touch a physical representative of your totem, whether the living organism or a picture or something else. Allow the totem’s energy to flow into you. Hold on to it. Then visualize your own energy extending down through the soles of your feet and into the ground beneath. Almost immediately you should start to “feel” the many intertwining mycelia and roots in the soil, some at the surface, others extending deep into the earth. Let the totem guide you to a place where you can connect to that wild tangle.
Then feel your energy begin to enter into tangle, and start to take a similar shape. Let your energy become tendrils; you might shape them like the roots or mycelia of your totem. Feel your energy dig into the earth, moving around and among the other plants and fungi. Touch the molecules of water and the nutrients in the soil; you don’t need to try and absorb any of them. Just take note of them. Be gentle with the roots and mycelia of others; don’t try to force your way into a spot. Just take your place within the tangle.
Once you feel securely entangled, take note of who’s around you. Whose roots do you touch, and whose mycelia? Are there other living beings, such as worms and insects, in the soil? What about bacteria? Let your energy tendrils bring this information back to you.
Now ask your totem to introduce you to some of your new neighbors (if some of them haven’t greeted you already!). Ask them if they’d let you come back from time to time, just to visit, and sometimes when you may need their communal support. Listen closely, in case they ask you to help them with anything in return, then thank them for their time, and carefully pull your roots/mycelia back into yourself. Allow your totem’s energy to flow back to it, and break the physical contact with it, too.
You can use this grounding anytime you like. You don’t have to ground every day, but it is suggested (and neighborly!) to visit now and then just because. That way if you do need to ground for support and stability, you’re on more familiar ground and you’ve had more practice with it. You might make it a part of your daily routine, or whenever you step outside, or decide to explore part of your bioregion in more detail. It’s a reaffirmation that you are a part of that bioregion, that you take responsibility for your place there. And it strengthens the connections you have with it, making it easier for you to sense when you may need to pay closer attention to what’s going on around you.
Also, when you feel ungrounded, such as when you’re upset or feeling out of your element, you can use this to remind yourself of the bioregional community you’re a part of and that you’re not alone. Even if you can’t physically get back to where you first made physical contact, you can still do so spiritually, even if you’re thousands of miles away. Just remember what that place feels like and who shares it with you, asking your totem for help as needed.
Dale has been under a lot of stress at school lately. He’s two semesters away from getting his degree in forestry, and he’s taking some of the toughest courses yet. When he’s not busy studying or working, he likes to go hiking in a nearby state park. While he admires all the trees, the Douglas firs especially call to him. There’s one old tree in particular, about halfway through his favorite hike, that he’ll sit under sometimes to rest and eat lunch. One day, he imagines that he has roots too, sinking deep into the ground beneath him. He thinks about how widespread the massive network of roots and mycelia that he and the Douglas fir are entangled in must be, and the wide diversity of life that depends on it. The sheer vastness of this wild network makes his problems seem a lot less pressing, and he gives himself some time to just be among the trees and other living beings here. Later, when he’s taking a challenging exam and starts to feel stressed, he thinks back to that time under the tree, rooted into the network, and he calms down again. Now able to focus, he does better on the exam than he had imagined, and goes on to make an excellent score for the semester.
Lessons in Interdependence
The Bioregional model focuses predominantly on the fungi and plants as separate entities that live (mostly) independently of us, but which make up part of a complex, interwoven ecosystem on which we are all reliant to one degree or another. We often overemphasize our importance in the world, when in actuality most of the other living beings would get by just fine without us. When we walk through any wild ecosystem, for example, we see a variety of living beings that don’t depend on us for survival, though we’ve often depended on them throughout our history as a species. Even our domestic animals could for the most part go feral and continue to exist if we disappeared. It’s a humbling reminder that we are not at the apex of some linear food chain, but are instead one of many living beings that have evolved over time.
This awareness is one of the key elements of the Bioregional model. While bioregional animal totems can certainly help us observe and learn about our connections with everything else, the plant and fungus totems are especially good at shaking us out of our animal-centric headspaces. Because the way fungi and plants interact with the world is often so different from our own, their totems can show us what we often take for granted.
If you did the Exploring Your Bioregion exercise, recall that I asked you to notice not just the flora and fauna, but also the availability of natural light, the weather patterns, where rain flows when it falls, and so forth. This next exercise is a more intensive version of some of those observations with the help of your bioregional totem.
Sun, Water, Soil, Air
If you can go to where your totem’s children grow physically, so much the better. If not, I still strongly recommend you do this exercise somewhere outside as it relies on observing the qualities of a physical outdoor location. The best day to try doing this is on one of those strange spring days where it’s sunny one moment and raining the next, if your area gets such things. Otherwise, try to pick a rainy day (not night!) so you can both watch the rain and see where the sunlight (however occluded by the clouds it may be) ends up. Failing that, take a quart of rain or other fresh, non-chlorinated and non-distilled water.
Again, get comfy and relaxed in the place you’ve chosen. Ask your totem to join you, and ground into the tangle of roots and mycelia if you like. Then do your best to set your human perception aside, and imagine what it might be like to be a plant or fungus growing here. Pretend you are one of your totem’s physical counterparts for a few minutes as you do this exercise.
First, see if you can “taste” the soil here. Look around at what’s growing around you. Does it seem healthy and thriving, or are plants and fungi struggling to get enough nutrients? Is there visible pollution, such as oil from streets or decaying garbage? Feel it with your fingertips; is it more sandy, or does it have more clay content? Is it hard-packed or loose, and can you touch it easily or are there mats of dead vegetation on top of it? Do you notice any holes in the soil made by earthworms or ants or other little animals? How do you like this soil? Is it somewhere you’d like to grow?
Next, notice where the water goes when it falls, whether through rain or you pouring water onto the ground. Is the soil wet, and does the water soak in or slide off? Note whether the fungi and plants seem to be well-hydrated or not, as well as whether it is normal for this time of year. Does the water carry impurities, such as runoff from nearby roads or rooftops? How much rain gets to the soil where you are, as opposed to getting caught on trees and other higher-up surfaces where it will later evaporate? If you grew here, do you think you’d get enough water to thrive?
Take a deep breath. What’s the air like? Does it smell clean, or can you smell car exhaust, animal manure, or other such things in it? Is it dry or damp, warm or cool? What do you think you might be absorbing with each breath? Does the wind circulate through, or is the air stale and still? Would you want to breathe the air in this spot every day?
Now look up. How much sun reaches the ground where you are? Would it be better to be a big, tall tree, or is there lots of sunlight for low groundcover and grasses? Does the sun make the water evaporate more quickly? Could you get enough sunlight here year-round? Would you go dormant part of the year?
Look further around you at the contours and makeup of the land. How does its shape and content affect what resources you have? Are you on a slope that has trouble holding on to water, or in a depression that can’t drain well? Do you get too much sun—or not enough—because of your placement? Is it easy to hold on to the ground here, or it is a challenge? Are there lots of rocks here, or erosion? Is it easy for you to spread your seeds or spores out of the immediate area, and are there good places for them to grow?
Look around at the plants and fungi around you, and feel the network of roots and mycelia beneath you. If they were gone, could you survive? Would it take away competition, or would you also lose others on whom you depend? What would happen, for example, if the mycelial mat no longer existed, or if there were no decaying plants to add nutrients to the soil? Would you have good plant and fungus neighbors, and could you handle any competition for resources?
Are there many animals nearby? Are they competition for water, or is there enough for all? Are there enough pollinators for flowering plants? Will anyone eat the fruit and scatter the seeds and leave waste behind as fertilizer? Are you in danger of being eaten or trampled or otherwise damaged by the animals? Are there human animals who may sometimes be destructive for no reason other than their own entertainment? Or are there humans who may help tend you and protect this place for you and others? How will you get along with your animal neighbors? How would it affect you if they weren’t around?
And who depends on you? Are you a fungus who breaks down decaying matter to release the nutrients for others? Are you a plant providing food? Are you a tree that offers shelter to animals and a structure for climbing vines? Are you a lichen who takes on the duties of both fungi and plants? What would happen if you weren’t around?
Spend as much time as you like in this plant/fungus headspace. Then when you’re ready, pull your roots/mycelia back out of the ground and settle back into your human body again. Thank your totem and the local fungi and plants for their help, and record everything you remember as soon as you can. Include any other questions you may have, any research you may want to do on things like soil testing or the local flora and fauna, and so forth.
Also think about the interconnections you noticed as you were doing this exercise, and keep track of any other insights you may have going forward. I find that the more I do this sort of intensive “pay attention” work, the more I tend to notice environmental details on a more casual level day to day. Through exercises like these you can train yourself to weave interconnection into your perception of the world, and have a more systemic viewpoint in general.
If you want to take the systemic concept a little further, here’s a chance to blend your human experience into your bioregion. First, practice your awareness of interconnection for a couple of weeks, looking not only at the systems in nature, but also in your everyday human life. Watch the flow of resources and interdependence, both physical and otherwise, among people, and other living beings, and locations (including human-made ones), and spirits, and organizations, and so forth. You might even take a day or two to keep a journal of as many of these connections as possible, from the moment you wake up (electricity for your alarm clock, blankets for your bed), throughout your day (who brings your mail, how you get from place to place) and back home again (where the food for supper comes from, who you talk to if you’re social in the evening). Go into as much detail as you like. For example, where does the electricity come from? From coal or other fossil fuels from nearby or farther away? From hydroelectric dams on a river close by? From a nuclear power plant within the bioregion? If your initial circles have smaller circles branching off them, that’s okay.
Then try mapping these out. You may want something really big to work on, like a large sheet of butcher paper, or even chalk on a driveway. Start with yourself in the center (since that’s your initial point of reference for everything anyway). Then start drawing lines out to beings, places, and things you’re connected to. If you like, you can use different colors or styles of line (dotted, solid, double, etc.) to denote different types of connections (food, shelter, family, spiritual, etc.) and even make the lines into arrows to show in what direction the connections flow (you can have double-ended arrows, by the way). Don’t worry too much about things like scale (as in drawing the things that are physically closest to you closer in the diagram) or artistic perfection (circles with words are perfectly acceptable). And don’t worry about making every connection personal. You may not know the people at your grocery store that well, but add the store in as part of that system.
It may be easier to understand what you get from others than vice versa. Try to shake yourself out of your head a bit and put yourself into someone or something else’s. You can even ask someone what they get out of their relationship with you, and add that in if you like. I am aware that some readers may find themselves dwelling on some really unhealthy connections while drawing this map, and I apologize if that ends up being the case. If you want to stick to only supportive, positive ones—like with your totems and other spiritual guides, for example—please go right ahead. And if you find this exercise is just too difficult, please do whatever you need to take care of yourself; ground if it helps, take a walk outside to visit your various neighbors of all species, talk to someone you trust, etc.
Now look at everything and everyone you’re connected to. How many of those connections originate locally? Is any of your food grown by local farmers? Where does your water come from? Do you work at a locally owned business? Are there any animals or plants, domestic or wild, that rely on you for food, water, and other support? How much pollution and other environmental damage are you responsible for, and what’s the impact of your human community in general? Do you have allergies to any local plants or animals or other environmentally based illnesses? How many of your friends, family, and other important people live near you, and how many are long-distance? Draw a green X in the circles that are locally connected to you.
Finally, think a bit about what sorts of connections you’d like to make more, and whether there are any you might like to reduce in your life. If you want to increase your connections to the bioregion both human-based and otherwise, you might ask your totem for suggestions on how you can do that, since part of what a bioregional totem does is help you integrate into the bioregion more. You may be surprised at the amount of people, other beings, and resources you rely on every day—and who depend on you, too! In the United States at least there is a strong tendency toward independence, being the “lone ranger” as it were. And especially as our connections become more depersonalized, where we rely on supply chains consisting of people we’ll never meet, it can be easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking, “Well, I don’t need anyone, and no one needs me!”
But we do need each other, and that includes within our bioregion. As you go through your day, ask your totem to help you be more aware of those connections, and to appreciate the ones that you need the most. Be more mindful of where you may be someone’s crucial connection, too, and consider trying to make yourself even more integrated into your community and bioregion through volunteering and other activities, learning more about the area, and so forth.
Through the Seasons
In New Paths to Animal Totems, I included a twenty-four-hour retreat in which you spend a day and a night in one particular location, getting to know it in detail with the help of a bioregional animal totem. This is similar in its depth of understanding; however, I’m not going to ask you to spend twenty-four hours in the same exact spot, unmoving, staring at the nearest fungus or plant. Instead, this exercise is concentrated in a year-long study. Since plants and fungi don’t move around that much, you can observe them repeatedly more easily. In addition to helping you make a new leafy or spongy friend, its totem can use your regular visits as chances to get in touch with you as needed.
A lot of the exercises I’ve described are things you can do once and then move on with life. However, bioregional totemism is about creating a more sustainable relationship with your bioregion, and that includes maintaining awareness of it. This exercise is designed to provide you with an anchor point for that endeavor, something you can come back to throughout the year no matter what else you may be doing.
Since I moved into my present apartment in the spring of 2011, I’ve done this exercise with a red maple tree and two Japanese cherry trees outside of my building. I can see all three of them easily from the windows on the north side of the apartment, where I spend most of my time, and so I can visually check in with them on a daily basis. But I also go outside and check in with them as well. In addition to getting to know these trees as individuals (as well as the various birds and squirrels that use them for nesting sites), I’ve also been able to talk to the totems Red Maple and Japanese Cherry through them, sometimes even when I simply look out the window.
These trees have become some of the most important markers of the passage of time here. As a very busy self-employed person, it’s too easy for me to lose track of time, even to forget what day or month it is. All I have to do is look at my trees, though, and I instantly know when and where I am. It’s a sort of natural orientation that grounds me back in the here and now.
I was fortunate enough to start my relationships with these trees in the spring, when they were just waking up from winter, so I got to start with their yearly morning, of sorts. However, you can start this exercise anytime of the year—and it doesn’t have to be with a tree, either! The best choice is one of the physical counterparts of your bioregional totem, but any outdoor plant or fungus will work. Do keep in mind that many fungi stay underground most of the year, so look for one that grows on a dead tree or otherwise will be visible all the time. Also keep in mind that some plants are annuals and will die at the end of autumn, so you may wish to work with a perennial instead. The most important things are that the fungus or plant is easy for you to observe and access regularly, and that its spirit is okay with you doing so. If you aren’t sure about the latter, try the Sit and Listen exercise from chapter two as a way of listening to and getting a sense of the plant or fungus with which you’d like to work.
You can check in with the plant or fungus year-round. However, every now and then do a more thorough evaluation of what’s going on with it. You can do so monthly, perhaps at the full or new moon, or quarterly, such as on the solstices and equinoxes or the midpoints in between. Just make sure that you leave enough time in between evaluations for something to change, but not so seldom that you miss things. You can also add in various changes that happen in between your evaluations; for example, my cherry trees only bloom for about two and a half weeks in the latter half of March, and they may not always be blooming when the moon is full when I like to do my evaluation.
Over time you may find yourself coming back to certain traits and cycles associated with your chosen fungus or plant. However, here are some ideas to help you get started:
· • What sort of physical condition is the plant or fungus in today? Is it putting forth flowers or fruiting bodies, spores or seeds? Is it actively growing, and can you measure the rate of growth? Does it look healthy and well-nourished, or is it sick or competing heavily with others for resources? Note the fungus or plant’s basic characteristics; if you were going to describe it for someone else and explain how to identify it, what would you say?
· • What’s going on around the plant or fungus? Do other fungi and plants seem to be thriving? What sort of animal activity, including human activity, is there? How is the weather as of late, including rainfall and other precipitation? Is there any impact from human activities such as physical damage from trampling or careless people breaking off branches, or pollution in the air, water, or soil?
· • Sit and listen to the plant or fungus. How does it feel energetically or spiritually? Are you able to make contact with it, or is it being quiet? If it’s quiet, can you ask its totem to help facilitate a conversation to see how it’s doing? If it’s just not wanting to talk to you, don’t press the issue; just wait until the next evaluation. On the other hand, if its spirit would like to talk, ask it how it’s doing, and if there’s anything you can do for it. This can even include a little bit of healing or otherwise helpful energy if it wants it.
· • Is there anything physical you can do to help the fungus or plant? Maybe a little water in the summer, or removal of parasites? Do be careful with this; you don’t want to accidentally hurt it! If you aren’t sure what will help and what will harm a particular species, do some research to find out about its care. Even most wild species of plant and some fungi have been cultivated domestically by humans who can help you find the best way to provide aid.
Note changes from evaluation to evaluation, and even with daily contact. Over time you’ll get to know the cycles and patterns of the fungus or plant, and the environment around it. If you have more than one place you can spend time outside regularly, such as at home, at work, and maybe at a local park you like to visit a lot, you can even do this exercise in more place than one! You might even have a plant or fungus or its totem that reaches out to you and wants to connect with you more, and this is one good way of having a regular visit with it.
Sheila feels very lucky—she lives in her dream home, a little cabin along the lake near where she grew up. She moved back here when she retired, and while she loves all the living beings she shares this place with, she especially loves the sword ferns that grow along the edge of the clearing her cabin is in. Every year she watches them put forth fiddleheads that grow into new fronds, and then create spores in the late summer and fall, before dying in the winter to rest. They’re her natural calendar, right outside her door. But one year the fiddleheads seem especially scarce, and some of the ferns didn’t recover from winter so well, even though it had been no colder than before. Sheila sits with the ferns and listens, and they seem to whisper “Look to the water!” This patch is especially close to the lake, the soil soaked with its water, and other plants in the area also seem to be struggling, though the algae is overtaking the lake’s surface there. Concerned, she has the water tested, and when high levels of coliform bacteria are found, an investigation finds that a neighbor’s septic tank has been leaking since it cracked in the winter. It is swiftly fixed, and over time the ferns recover, much to Sheila’s joy.
Bloom Where You’re Planted—
or at Least Where the Window Box Sits
You can also work with the totems of bioregions you visit. While maintaining the ability to “phone home” is useful, especially if you have a tendency to be homesick, at least introducing yourself to the totems and other spirits of places you visit can help make your stay there go more smoothly. This is especially important if it’s a place you may be visiting frequently, or one where the reason for visiting may stressful to one degree or another. Working with a bioregional totem can help you get more settled into the place, even if you’ll only be there a few days.
You may find that some of the more short-term/one-off exercises in this chapter will work for you if you have enough time in a given place to try them out. For example, you might do the Sit and Listen exercise two days into a four-week trip, and find a totem or two to make contact with right away. Or you may have a totem back home that also has physical representatives here. Common dandelions are pretty well ubiquitous in most parts of the United States, and so if Common Dandelion is a totem of yours it may be able to help you connect wherever its children are found. If you know other people who practice totemism or nature spirituality where you’re visiting, they may even have suggestions for you.
However, let’s say you don’t have any such leads. First, do some research on the general bioregion you’ll be visiting, both the natural and human histories. Not only might you find some potential totems to ask for help, but new knowledge can also help once you make contact with said totems. If you can approach a totem with some preliminary knowledge of the place, you are demonstrating that you do care about the place. Being more familiar with the place before you even leave home can also help you feel more at ease, especially if it is going to be a stressful visit, so that you have more to associate with the place beside “bad things might/will happen here.” You also may wish to bring a bit of a spiritual offering—a small piece of your energy, a lock of hair, etc.
You can do the following exercise either before you leave for the trip, or once you arrive. You may have to “travel” further through the network of roots and mycelia if you start from home, but the concept is the same.
As always, first get comfortable in a good spot where you can be relatively undisturbed for a while. For this exercise, make sure it’s a place where you feel especially connected to home, or if you’ve already traveled to the new place, somewhere where you feel secure and calm. Breathe deeply and slowly, relaxing yourself as best you can.
Next, visualize yourself sinking into the ground and beginning to follow the network of mycelia and roots. You don’t have to ground into them, just feel yourself alongside them. If you’re still at home, follow them all the way to the edge of where you’ll be visiting.
Now would be a good time to present the offering you’ve brought, whether physical or spiritual. Then send a thought out into the network asking for a fungus or plant totem to help you connect to the place. If you have a particular totem in mind or if one makes itself known to you, you can even send out a formal request for help. Here’s an example:
Here I am, a visitor to your home,
[Name of totem],
And while I’ll only be here a
little while, body and spirit,
I wish to be as good a visitor as I can.
I ask for your help,
[Name of totem],
To tread lightly,
To be respectful,
And to learn more about
this place that you call home.
Let this be a good thing for both (all) of us;
let me leave this place better than I left it.
[Name of totem],
will you please help me?
If you don’t have a particular totem to ask, just say “Totems and spirits of this place.” It may take a little while to get a response, but as you have been doing, sit and listen, and do your best to be patient. If the response is positive, you might also ask the totem if you can ground into the roots and mycelia like you do at home.
It is possible, though not common, to have the totems or other spirits of a place be hostile to new people, even when you do your best to be polite and respectful. In those cases, maintain a good connection to your safe places at home, and do your best to use those to help you through the visit. You may also find that a place warms up to you over time, so be patient. If you do have places that simply don’t get along with you, you may wish to alter the above exercise so that it’s more of a “heads up, I have to visit for a little while, I apologize” and then perform it before you leave home.
Wendy’s mother recently passed away, not long after moving to Arizona. Wendy hadn’t had a chance to visit her in her new home, and she feels very upset about both the death and not being able to visit for a while. She wishes she could bring her safe and cozy home with her to the funeral, but she thinks perhaps a small representation might help. A ginkgo tree in her neighbor’s yard hangs over her fence, and she’s worked with it to connect with the totem Ginkgo. She sits outside with the tree, holding a fossilized imprint of a ginkgo leaf from millions of years ago, and she asks the totem to put a bit of its energy into the leaf to remind her of home. Then she meditates, envisioning herself sinking down through the tree’s roots and traveling through the network to the soil of Arizona. She is surprised to find another ginkgo tree in Phoenix, not far from where her mother lived; while it’s a cultivated and introduced tree, it’s been around long enough to be well integrated in the local community, and she can feel the totem’s presence with it as well. When she goes to the funeral, she carries the fossil with her as a reminder, and before she leaves to go home again, she pays the urban tree a visit to say thank you.
A Special Note on Invasive Species
One thing you may have noticed in that last example is that Wendy worked with a tree that isn’t native to the United States, but which has been exported from its home of China to countries around the world. While the ginkgo isn’t as aggressive as some introduced species, there are some invaders that threaten to take over wherever they’ve been introduced. Kudzu is one of the most notable examples, having eaten a large portion of the American Southeast, and I’ve pulled my fair share of Himalayan blackberry and English ivy out of parks and wilderness areas in Oregon.
How does this happen? Human error, mostly, whether intentional or accidental. Most extant ecosystems evolved over thousands or even millions of years, while humans are very much a latecomer to the party. The Cosmic Calendar is a concept that shrinks the entire history of the Universe into a single day, with humans showing up about seven minutes before midnight.
As our modes of transport have gotten faster and taken us further, we’ve left increasingly significant and often destructive marks wherever we’ve gone. In terms of the Cosmic Calendar, we’ve managed to change entire ecosystems in microseconds. This includes through the introduction of invasive species, those animals, plants, and fungi that evolved in one ecosystem being unceremoniously dumped into another. Some were accidental, like brown rats stowing away on board ships traveling the globe. Others were done with intent; European starlings were introduced to the United States by New Yorkers who wanted a garden filled with all the birds William Shakespeare mentioned in his plays, while the aforementioned kudzu was originally imported as a decorative groundcover in gardens and to control soil erosion. While the less adaptive introduced species quickly die out without human care, others that escape and go feral hack out a niche with terrifying speed.
Predatory animals such as mink, foxes, and feral cats can quickly bring native species to—or over—the brink of extinction. Invasive plants like kudzu and Himalayan blackberry can choke out all their competitors over a range of many acres in the space of a few years. And trade in wood around the world has resulted in the unintentional spread of fungi that attack trees, such as the species that cause Dutch elm disease and oak wilt.
Not all invasives are quite so aggressive. Some have managed to integrate themselves into their new ecosystems without being overly competitive. The ring-necked pheasant originated in Asia but has established itself across the United States; while it has become a pest in some places, it is not routinely shoving sage grouse and other such birds out of their homes. And although white sweet clover, with its tall, skinny burst of flowers, is a known competitor of native plants where it’s been introduced, the more lowly white clover, with its well-known trio of leaves, tends to integrate more harmoniously as a general rule. In fact, there is some debate as to whether the concept of “invasive species” has been reduced to “knee-jerk platitudes and simple views of good and evil.”10
Another thing to consider is the idea of humans as invasive. I am not indigenous by any means. I am 100% European mutt, and I wasn’t even born here—I was born on the U. S. Army post in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. But my family moved back to America not too long after I was born, and I’ve been here ever since. I ended up leaving my home in the Midwest once I finished college, and moved and traveled around some.
It wasn’t until I got to Portland that I found a place I felt embraced and wanted me, and where I could make a niche for myself. It wasn’t without some consideration, though. While I personally didn’t push any indigenous people off their land, Portland sits on what was once home to Upper Chinook communities. It’s easy to pull up English ivy and replace it with snowberry bushes. It’s tougher to consider the current situation with indigenous versus nonindigenous people and how it got to be this way—and where we’re going. This is a much more involved and contentious discussion than what’s appropriate for this book’s scope, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it for consideration.
Appropriately enough, the first plant totem to contact me was Douglas Fir. While Douglas Fir trees are native here, their prevalence has increased since logging began because they grow quickly and so are popular for replanting by logging firms. This has changed the makeup of some forests here, especially those that have survived clearcutting.
Still, the ecosystems do manage to bounce back some once left to their own devices. Sometimes the invaders are crowded out by native species; other times the natives need a little help from us humans. Our species was the one that threw things off balance; the least we can do is try to push it back at least a bit.
This does mean that invasive plants and fungi have to die in order to reintroduce natives, and for some people that can be a difficult proposition. If you have a soft spot for these fungi and plants, the following is a prayer you can offer to them and their totems when doing invasive species removal.
[Name of species], I apologize deeply for my task today. I know you grow well in this place, and I know you’ve made your home here. You feel you’ve earned the right to be here, for you’ve done better than the others in staking your claim. But you are not good for this place, and you take too much. The land here did not give birth to you, and you threaten its true children. As lovely and as strong as you are, I have to remove you; I have to kill you. I will try to make your deaths as quick as possible, and I pray that your cousins back home, where you came from, continue to thrive and be strong. [Name of totem], please forgive me I hope you understand what I must do and why.
You may indeed find that the totem of the fungi or plants you’re removing isn’t too happy about the situation. You may wish to placate it by sending funds or other resources that protect its children’s native habitat, or otherwise making an offering in apology. You might also find that the totems of local species step up to protect and support you; make sure you touch base with them and explain how you’re trying to help them, and their physical counterparts.
This is just an introduction to the Bioregional model of totemism. What you may find, as you spend more time connecting to your area, is that you start developing your own practices, unique to the land and its inhabitants. One thing you may develop is a set of correspondences that is a sort of symbolic shorthand for the place; I’ll talk more about that in chapter six, about combining the models. For now let’s leave the Bioregional model for a while and spend some time on the Correspondences model.
10 Kareiva, 2011.