Excerpt from Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect with Totems in Your Ecosystem
Most writings on plants in spiritual practices are focused on using parts of the physical plants for our benefit either through herbalism or mind-altering entheogens. Some may acknowledge the spirits of the individual plants, but rarely are their totems addressed, a practice due to human bias toward animals as exemplary living beings, where plants as only part of the scenery. In fact, the term “plant blindness” was created to describe this phenomenon; plants are simply not seen let alone appreciated for their crucial places in ecosystems and their unique evolutionary history. When we walk through the forest or fields, we gasp with joy when we see a single bird fly up out of the grass, but we don’t take time to explore the grass itself or any of its other plant neighbors.
I started working with plant totems after my move to Portland; the animal totems that greeted me encouraged me almost immediately to start talking to their plant and other nonanimal neighbors. Some, like Douglas Fir, were new to me; others, like Red and White Clovers, had been around most of my life without me realizing it. They were instrumental in helping me appreciate totemism on a bioregional level.
Working with plant totems is different from animal totem work in some ways, and a lot of this has to do with how plants view the world. For the most part, they’re stationary beings once their seeds settle into a patch of soil. However, there’s still plenty of movement up and out as they try to get as much sunlight as they can. In my experience, this tends to give them a viewpoint of depth rather than breadth of knowledge; plants put down roots and get to know one place for life. No surprise, then, that they were some of the strongest supporters of my getting to know my Oregon home in as much detail as possible!
Where animal totems often seek us out actively, plant totems are more likely to wait patiently for us to pay attention. I find that the state of soft fascination referred to earlier works especially well for catching these more subtle signals. When I allow my perception to relax, rather than being bombarded by stimuli, I’m more able to notice when a plant totem may be trying to get my attention. For instance, when I first began hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, I was often overwhelmed by sightings of ravens and mule deer and the Douglas fir and Western red cedar trees towering overhead. It took a while for me to settle my perception down enough that I started to notice the less obvious parts of the ecosystem I was walking through, like banana slugs and tiny white shelf fungi. It was in this stillness I was able to hear the soft voice of Western Maidenhair Fern hidden in the undergrowth, one of the first plant totems to teach me the value of quiet communication.
We’re a little lower on the list of a plant totem’s priorities. While we require plants to live as omnivore, they could do quite well without us humans, so long as there were other animals to produce carbon dioxide for them to breathe and decaying flesh for fertilizer. The fact that some plants can feed us is less out of altruism and more about the plants using us. Tasty fruit surrounds seeds that animals then spread around in droppings; the fruit wasn’t produced exclusively for our benefit. It’s also the case that while some plant totems—especially the totems of domesticated plants—enjoy working with us, others seem ambivalent at best. Often it will be up to us to start a conversation with them and give them reasons to work with us.
Because plants figured out different solutions to the problems life throws at all beings, a plant totem’s perspective and manner of communicating with us may seem quite alien at times. Working with plant totems is often an exercise in stretching the mind, and it may involve everything from communicating through scent (chemical signals are big communicators for plants) to trying to be patient with long-lived tree totems that wonder why we can’t just outlive our problems.
There are other ways in which plant totems differ from their animal counterparts, but for the most part it all boils down to a completely different set of evolutionary tactics for surviving and thriving in a multitude of environments. With patience and a little humility, we can reach out to them and create just as strong a set of relationships as with our animal totems.