I was 17 when I first discovered animal totemism. It was 1996, and I was living in a rural town in Missouri. I'd always been that kid who loved animals; I was the neighborhood dogsitter, and I had checked out every book on animals I could find at the library. I'd re-read favorites, and had seriously dog-eared copies of everything from Barry Holstun Lopez's Of Wolves and Men to Marguerite Henry's Misty of Chincoteague.
While I was raised as a Catholic, a few friends of mine introduced me to Pagan religions. The concept that nature could be the focus of one's religious path, rather than merely a fallen paradise, instantly caught my attention. And not long afterward I went to the local New Age shop where I discovered Ted Andrews' Animal Speak. The book gave me a basic understanding of animal totems, and from then on I worked out my own ways of working with these archetypal beings.
For years I created relationships with a wide variety of totems, from animals halfway around the world, to extinct species, to the tiniest microscopic members of the animal kingdom. I imagined myself a cosmopolitan of their realm, though in reality I was just getting to know it.
When I moved to Portland, Oregon in the mid-2000s, I had several local animal totems reach out to me soon after my arrival. They didn't just introduce themselves, though. They began beckoning me out into the wilderness where they brought me around to a variety of plant, fungus, waterway, and other totems. In my spiritual work with them, they showed me that the bits and pieces of their otherworldly home I'd seen before were just the front door foyer. There was a lot more for me to explore.
Since then I've been immersed in getting to know the local totemic ecosystem in depth, rather than just breadth. I've limited myself primarily to the totems of my bioregion, the area of land I live on that has more or less the same life forms, geology, climate, and other natural features throughout it. So my work has been less with Tasmanian Devil and Desert Horned Viper, and more with Douglas Fir, Wolf Lichen, and Steller's Jay.
Putting the System Back in Ecosystem
Most people who work with animal totems and other animal spirits don't do much with their plant, fungus, and other counterparts. There's nothing wrong with being a specialist; that was me for a decade. But sometimes we get so tunnel-visioned on our fellow animals that we forget there's anything else out there.
The animals, of course, don't have that choice. We have massive systems of food distribution that keep most of us from having to acquire us dinners directly from the wild. Wild creatures, on the other hand, must maintain intricate relationships with the animals, plants, and fungi that share their home. They may not be aware of all of those connections, but they form a crucial webwork nonetheless. If you remove one species from an ecosystem, the rest are affected, often for the worse.
So to the perspective of the animal totems, it's almost absurd that we work with them, but not with the rest of their ecosystem. Sure, they're easier for us to relate to; most of us can imagine what it's like to be a gray wolf or a cardinal more easily than a slime mold or dandelion. But part of relating to beings who are different from us is being open to and aware of them; the other animals do that every day.
What benefits do we get from opening our practices up to the plants, fungi, and other as well as the animals? For one thing, we get a greater diversity of perspectives. If I consult my totems on matters pertaining to my health, Scrub Jay may recommend that I eat a greater diversity of food to make sure I'm getting enough nourishment, while Western Red Cedar may invite me into old-growth forests to find solace and healing of the spirit.
But we can also get more feedback on how to give back to the totems and their children. If I ask the totem Chinook Salmon what it thinks the most important thing to clean up along my adopted stretch of Columbia River is, it's likely to tell me the water itself. But the totem Double-Crested Cormorant seems to be more concerned about plastic and other trash in and around the water, as it can trick cormorants into thinking it's food, and potentially harm them.
And as we learn how the totems relate to each other, we see how they need each other and can help each other out. In times of drought, Mule Deer may speak to the totems of plants in the area and ask where the physical plants are still flourishing around water. If I ask Black-Billed Magpie for help finding opportunities for creative income, it may consult the totems of several lichen species on different sorts of substrate about how to help me adapt to diverse circumstances.
Think Global, Practice Local
Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the specific place in which we live. Sure, we may identify the city or town we're in, and our state and zip code, but how many readers have taken the time to think about what the place they lived in looked like before humans completely overran it? What did a city look like when it was still a forest? What did a field look like before it was turned into pastureland? Even rural areas are often very different from their native forms, having had their trees cut down and their native grasses replaced with invaders. Turn the clock back however many hundreds or even thousands of years ago, before humans became the dominant species where you are, and think about how different it may have looked.
One of the most valuable lessons of the totemic ecosystem is that memory of what once was, and the reality of what now is. We are a species native to a tiny portion of Africa that managed to spread out all over the world—we are now global, for better or worse. The actions taken by people on one spot of the planet can affect another population clear on the other side. And the same goes for our effects on the other living beings with whom we share the planet. Our pollution and our hunger for resources devastate almost every land and its inhabitants of all species.
No single person can save the world—but we can do a lot to improve our little piece of it. By living more considerate live with regards to other beings, particularly those we never meet or see, we can increase the chances that we'll survive thousands more years in the company of the beings who inhabit the same places we do. By focusing on the effects our little patch has on the rest of the world, we break the problem down into a more manageable chunk.
Look at the circumstances of your bioregion. Is your area a big producer of carbon pollution in the air? Or is it an agricultural area where farmers use massive amounts of nitrogen-based fertilizers on the soil that then wash into the water? Maybe your little town lacks any sort of access to locally grown, organic produce. All these things can have a massive effect on both your neighbors (human and not) and beings who live further afield.
But when you help make your local area less of a problem, when it produces less pollution going downwind or downstream, and when it needs fewer resources being shipped in from thousands of miles away, it improves the situation both at home and abroad. There may even be people and organizations working to solve the very problems you've identified.
On a more specifically spiritual level, ask the totems what they need. Ask them to guide you through the land and point out what needs work. You are the conduit between their world and ours, and you are in a better position to make change here. They may refer you back to what I mentioned above about researching the place you live in more depth, but at least they'll likely give you suggestions on where to start and what issues to focus on first.
These are just a few ways in which working with the totemic ecosystem as a whole, rather than just individual animal totems, can enrich your practice. You could spend the rest of your life exploring deeper and more varied relationships with totems if you wanted, though you'll likely find certain groups of totems, and certain areas of totemic spirituality, resonate with you more than others. But you'll never know until you try!
So if you already have an animal totem with which you work, here's what you do: ask it to introduce you to the other totems it feels especially connected with, animals and plants and fungi and more. See if any of those are interested in working with you. Have conversations with them; develop the relationships over time. Work rituals with individual totems, and as group efforts with several of them. Keep track of who works more harmoniously with whom, and who prefers to stay away from the rest.
And then see where it leads you. There's no single path that will lead you to the "right" result. These connections with totems are organic, far more than any dictionary entry can tell you. And that's the beauty of an ecosystem—it can't be reduced down to a few key words and stereotyped meanings. It's full of life and evolution, and if you just make the effort you can be a part of that interconnection as well.