Identifying & Learning From Our Most Personal Plant Ally
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
The Ojibway word “totem” originally refers to a plant or animal symbol for a specific family or clan, not unlike the creature emblems on ancient European Coat of Arms. Thus we talk about “totem poles” when referring to trees carved into vertically stacked animals, each signifying a different clan of the Haida and other coastal Alaskan natives.
In the last century, however, “totem” has increasingly come to refer to an individual’s particular spirit helpers or signifiers. This is more in keeping with the ancient shamanic sense of plant and animal spirits, teachers and guides, though the word itself wasn’t previously used in this context. Most often, and in many different languages, the word used was “helper”… and help is something a personal totem can amply provide, thanks to its individual resonance, familiarity and similarity.
A totem is not “other-worldly,” no mater how mysterious or magical it might appear. It is of, native to, and a component of this earth.
It is not just for Indians, for shamans, or for hippies.
Your totem is not your savior. Not an authority that will tell you what to do.
It is not an English-speaker, and you will need to learn from it with more than your ears.
Your true totem is also not likely to be (as the website for one plant medium asserts) the “first plant that comes into your mind when you close your eyes and meditate.”
Your totem is not a visitation, nor a product of your imagination. Not a foolishness or indulgence. It’s probably not a broadly popular, charismatic or cliché species. And it is not necessarily even your favorite!
It is real and measurable, and simply your single most revealing, single most helpful botanical ally and aide.
“…if we’re only listening for words – for language in human terms – then we’re barely listening at all! The world speaks to us in the ancient tongue of touch and color, texture and fragrance, through taste and breath and every part of our senses. Listening through our whole body teaches to be open to the world and each other in a whole new way and with a depth and subtlety that even the best words cannot begin to approach.”
All of life speaks to us, though certainly not in a language most are used to hearing. And no creatures or persons communicate more personally, bodily, relevantly or poignantly than one’s totems.
When practiced with intense awareness and uncompromised honesty, the plant totem quest and realization can be a functional method and means for increased self knowledge and self actualization, interspecies alliance, enablement and growth, a system or partnership which can result in a more effective herbal practice, improved learning and teaching, and a new or heightened commitment to a purpose beyond the narrow, predictable, conformist, mundane and unsatisfying.
We use a comparison chart of botanical designs and attributes to positively identify a new plant we discover. A totem is a way to “key-out” our authentic personalities and personas, to help distinguish the pretend from the genuine, projection and spin from understanding and wisdom. It can provide us with another way to see ourselves, and to honor our selves as we would honor the most powerful and significant of all the plant species to ever come into our lives.
Every plant, every creature, lives to serve itself and contribute to its ecosystem, with an intrinsic value and evolved roles irrespective of any service it ever provides to you or your kind, your culture or the herbal practice and field. That said, a totem can serve to personify, inform, mirror, model, connect, inspire and initiate.
Seeking out one’s totem is a deliberate and sometimes lengthy process, not like giving job interviews to strangers, but more like rediscovering something that had all along been integral to their selves and lives. I’ve heard people say they didn’t feel like they had vetted and selected their beloved spouse so much as fortuitously or even magically “reunited” with their “soul mate,” that after years of searching for a partner they’d finally “gotten out of the way” of whatever destiny or process that then brought them together. They may feel they have found or been given the one person who could be their ideal partner in struggle and growth, bliss and purpose. Similarly, we can methodically search from among our encyclopedia of plants, in yard and wilderness for years without luck, or – through a combination of our heightened awareness and kind synchronicity – feel we’ve been led to or visited by the one species that best serves as our totem.
For this quest to be successful, we first need to get past all assumptions, preconceptions, clichés, anthropomorphic diversions and narrow categorizations to gain a sense of the various possible totem plants’ core nature, attained through direct physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual interaction. This is easiest done through a series of specific steps that Kiva Rose lists as “observation, sensory experience, emotional response, cognition, integration and application.”
We can then appraise and test any candidate species we feel profoundly connected to, whether seemingly revealed through method or magic, with a series of questions such as:
•Does it feel especially familiar, allied, relevant, related?
•Or significant, communicative, essential, momentous?
•Is there anything about its form, shape, color etc. that reminds you of yourself?
•Do you act on the world – or contribute to it – in any ways similar to how the observed plant does?
•Or do you respond similarly to stimuli, threat, reward, isolation, exposure, stress, nourishment or care?
•Has it been in your life for a long time, appearing again and again like someone seeking your attention?
•Or has it only fairly recently become significant in your life, but in a very dramatic, vital, extreme or timely way?
•Has it proven to be particularly potent medicine for a chronic ailment or imbalance of yours?
•Or has it been medicine for your emotional balance, helping you deal with especially difficult traumas or situations, to calm you enough to function or arouse you sufficiently to accomplish what needs to be accomplished?
•Do you find yourself thinking about it for no obvious or urgent reason?
•Or did it come to you in a vision, or appear to you in dreams?
•Does it feel like you have somehow dishonored or trivialized it, when you speak of it loosely, to those who may not care?
•When you have avoided it or ignored the thought of it for awhile, do you feel out of sorts, neglectful, unassisted or unmoored?
•Do you feel unreasonably relieved when reunited after a physical absence, or after a long period of not giving it any mind?
•Does it seem to ask anything of you, require response, point to a mission or calling, excite significant acts?
Plant Spirit Portrait of Wolf by Marloe
Please note that your totem is not always the plant you’d most like to resemble or emulate. A giant redwood sounds like a strong and noble totem, many would like to think of themselves as being sweet as Honeysuckle, and I can’t tell you how many people I know that for good reason call themselves Rose! It may even be a plant that’s not very popular with people, yet it may still be your totem, instructor, and significator… if a number of the following conditions are met.
One’s totem plant will often be associated with a particular bioregion, so that when you say its name – Ginseng for example – people immediately think “Southern Appalachians.” It is usually one that grows locally, native to or often associated with the region where you live. But if not, it will likely inhabit the area you grew up in, or else where you entire being feels most at home. Even if your totem proves to be a known world traveler, green gypsy, botanical opportunist or incessant vagabond – such as Russian Thistle (Sola tragus) – it will still be strongly associated with the place where you either are, used to be, or are drawn to and will probably end up one day. It will thus be place-based, and inevitably recognizable, au fait, au courant.
Your totem will seem imbued with significance, with the plant bearing, imparting or signifying meaning well beyond what any casual observer might glean. For whatever personal reasons, you will experience it as personally and particularly notable, noteworthy, weighty and important. You will find your plant to be signal, apparently calling for you attention, and expressive of a presence, quality, characteristic, form or way of being or doing that has uncommon relevance for you.
It will be a species that you feel highly familiar with, conversant with, specially informed by or about, no stranger to, at home with. It could be a pervasive weed, a rare herb that you find special, or else a threatened or disappearing plant… but in any case, it will be one that when you see it, feels like “Aww, there you are!” as though an appearance by an old friend you can never predict the arrival of but who could always be counted on to drop by unexpectedly, at the most mysterious or fortuitous times. No matter how rare the species might be, or how uncommon or bizarre its form or function, it can never be called exotic because it is too well known by you… and too close.
You will feel a very close connection, even when physically apart. You will know details about it gleaned through personal interaction, facts and nuances that other people would not necessarily find interesting. You may feel that the plant somehow recognizes you, resonates with you, knows you, that there is nothing you either can or need to hide from it. If words passed between you, it would be as with folks who have been married for twenty years, with each of you finishing the sentences that the other starts. It will also be like the newly in love, “in their own world” with an impassioned oneness that no few can see and none participate in, in the exact same way.
Being in its presence will seem in some ways like a shared secret. You may automatically feel a need for discretion, to conceal or guard from the public that which your totem plant communicates or reveals, protecting it from misappropriation, trivialization and ridicule. Even when there will seem to be no harm in telling people about the depth of your relationship, you will probably feel that it somehow dilutes, distracts or disrespects, to expose that relationship to the uninvited or unconcerned, uninitiated and uninvolved. When you do share its story, you will wish it to be to people most attuned to hearing you. And at those rare times when you lead others to your totem’s refuge – and into its presence – it will be those you most trust, who are most sensitive, respectful, and likely to learn from, benefit from such confidence.
You and your totem plant will feature close, recognizable similarities in character (personality, style, energy, impression), form (aspects of actual appearance, shape, color, growth patterns) or function (you and your plant’s roles within the respective human and biological communities). A redhead is more likely to have a red blossomed plant, an Oak woman likely to be broad shouldered and strong and a Willow man thin and flexible, a slow starting but perseverant and evocative person associated with Mandrake, an herbalist with a potent medicinal plant… though not necessarily so. These may be analogous (performing a similar function but having a different evolutionary origin) characteristics, attributes, features, properties, essential qualities or peculiarities, and herbs actions and your own affects on people. You might find patience exemplified by the ephemeral Desert Anemone (Anemone tuberosa) which can wait years for the right conditions to sprout from hidden tubers. You may share insistence and movement with something like Wisteria or Bamboo, and share a preoccupation with the cracks between the worlds with the sacred night-flowering Datura.
Your relationship with your totem plant could very well feel extrasensory, requiring and inspiring connection and communication at a level beyond the physical senses, unencumbered by conjecture and prejudice. Your encounters with it may appear preternatural or ultra-natural, extraordinary or inexplicable, unaccountable, fantastic or even phenomenal, and the timing of its appearances or instrumental usage appearing incredibly significant and synchronistic. If you come upon it with other people, it may seem an ordinary discovery to them and a momentous one to you. You may have first become familiar with it at a time of bodily illness or emotional challenge and transition, or you may notice that it always seems to show up just when you need unburdening and cheering. It may follow you from the field or garden into the house, as a picture or thought that won’t let us leave it behind, as the predominant inspiration for your art or recurrent feature of your poetry or story, or in dreams the come to you again and again. It can serve as the flower that illuminates your quests or fuels your migrations, or as the heartful medicine leading you in the broadest and deepest sense to health and home.
Perhaps not consciously, but certainly by its very nature, a totem is a plant in alliance with you and your greater intentions, mission or purpose. It is your ally, confidante, guide, supportive reminder, co-traveler, and somehow even partner in your complimentary and overlapping roles. More than reflecting or clarifying who you really are, “resonating” with you or providing example and consort, it will seem to empower and motivate, instigate and percolate, to enable a connection, ability, vision, or your proactive efforts on behalf of some valued goal. It can help you to not only treat ailments, but to also understand a condition or situation, find the resources you need, or recall your native talents and reservoir of strength and determination. Your totem will serve, fuel and support not only your process of becoming ever more self aware, but also your most insistent calling and purposeful acts.
A totem plant will never imply or tell you what to do, or what you should do. “Should” is not even in the language of the natural and inspirited world. What it will do is to help point you to or remind you of your own desires, needs, gifts and missions… and to help initiate your acting on them. It can inspire you to realize your calling and actualize your dreams, to play your individual part in the conscious co-creation of a personal reality and larger world. If your totem were a childhood friend instead of a plant, it would be the kid your parents don’t want you to play with because it has such a profound influence on you… worried in their motherly and fatherly way that it could be leading you to walk a wilder, unconventional path, inciting/exciting you to follow your heart rather than follow the rules. Your totem brings to you not a sealed assignment or set of exacting instructions, but a mischievous dare to rally and risk, to move and progress. If and when you identify your totem, look ever so closely. Along with whatever other hints or gifts it may convey to you, is a most personal imperative.
“We need to treat plants, their spirits, our totems with more regard and reverence than we have. We need to stop only approaching them with the mindset of usefulness and consumption, and confront our biases and human chauvinism. We need fewer herbal[ist]s that treat plants and fungi as our personal medicine cabinet, and more thought toward dried herbs as sacred remains.”
–Lupa, Therioshamanism Website
You’ve noticed that when folks identify with an animal totem, they often create an altar-like space to honor it, gather historic and mythopoetic images of it, purchase an old ceremonial mask with its countenance, get a picture of it tattooed somewhere on their body, and carry or wear actual pieces of the animal such as a tooth necklace, bits of fur and bone in a medicine bag, or a fur vest rescued from a dusty secondhand store bin. This is not macabre aesthetics, but a ritual honoring. When they interface with any actual animal parts, they often treat them as not just representative of the animal but as spirited artifacts, venerable extensions of the once living creature that link us to them and the inspirited, informative natural world in powerful ways. Yet when they collect dried plant parts, travel with an herbal sachet, or sleep with dream-stimulating Artemesia beneath their pillow, they may be thinking more often about what these plants can do to or for us, rather than feeling how they connect us back to the living plants themselves, to their species, communities and ecosystems.
With a real and awakened sense of what it means to find and ally with a plant totem, we become inspired to treat every bag of dried herbs as special and sacred, to arrange and appreciate old branches as much as fresh cut flowers, to heed the hints and proddings, to savor every blessing and utilize every lesson that totems or any other plant ever teach us… switching from asking what a plant can do for us, to what we can do together in partnership.
Our plant totems first contribute to our being and self knowing, and then – necessarily, essentially, wondrously – to our purpose and practice, to ever more effective ways of sharing our knowledge, contributing to the great healing, manifesting our love.