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An Excerpt from an exceptionally beautiful and moving work
Chapter X: Title
Even now we can feel them. Even now, through the layers of our humanity, our protective clothing, the shielding walls of our offices and homes. Notice how easily they penetrate our every physical and psychological defense, pass right through our skin, meld with cell and self, impact our vulnerable psyches for life.
They’re seeking us out, offering themselves up as role models, promising to lead us through dreams and visions back to our true selves. And something deep within us— something deeper than our fears, far deeper than our disbelief, as deep as our bones— likewise draws them unto us.
They are not of our species. They are the terrestrial “others,” spirits of the winged and furred, bearers of talon and claw. They’ve served humanity for millennia as personal totems, teachers and allies. They’re our kindred spirits, fellow dancers in a choreographed universe, coparticipants in the unfolding of magic and miracle, sister manifestations of an indivisible living Earth. They’re playful creature reminders of our own innate animalness, our suppressed instincts and as yet unlived dreams. By embracing rather than denying our animus, every sense is heightened, every skill sharpened, every act empowered with the strength and grace of our particular totem spirits.
Our search for our real selves, our quest to reclaim peak animal awareness, our effort to discover our place among the whole of creation is essentially a rewilding: a vital totemic journey.
While there are guides who can show the way, we all begin the journey in a moment of profound solitude. It may begin when serendipitous magic impacts the unprepared, or instead, when one is initiated with deliberate intent. For all the artful words that can point us in the direction we want to go, the journey starts with a moment of sudden and overwhelming quiet, when the tape-loops of the mind dramatically snap, revealing a world of stark and arresting clarity! An opaque film is suddenly lifted from the lens of our perception. The great clamor of civilization, of our own busy minds, suddenly gives way to the subtle music of wind and water. The details of every little thing around us rise up in prominence out of a common gray field. The rocks, the wind, the pen we write with, seem to stretch out towards us, like cats in pursuit of attention. The shallow human conversations around us may seem to turn inexplicably foreign and either unintelligible or irrelevant, while every honest metaphor comes alive before our eyes. Once-familiar hallways may appear strange and foreboding, while some hint of delight and wonder pulls us out-of-doors. Whether through delirium or device, the once-rock-solid mirage thins until fully transparent, and one is thrust into the immortal world where magic and the mundane are one. You realize that you are no visitor, and never should have been made to feel out of place. That you exist not “on” but with and in. That this is your home, your context, your flesh! That your being is as a single cell of a corporal planet, your planet but a cell making up the greater body of an unlimited universe!
In time, even the cacophonous wailing of our hectic schedules and the harsh pounding of the industrial machine slow down into a simple and steady cadence.
Listen for it now: a pair of steady beats one after the other, the second slightly quieter than the first, then followed by a beat of silence. Thump, thump. Thump, thump. No matter where we are, city or wilderness, we find ourselves fully here. Here, at the perpetual beginning, at the center of experience, the center of now. It’s here we find that very first sound, the unifying heartbeat of Grandmother Earth. It was that maiden noise that greeted our developing ears, still floating blissfully in the fluid universe of the maternal womb. And it is likely the last sound to echo in our conscious minds in the moment that we die.
You’re not imagining it! Indeed, you were here from the very beginning, and your bones will never forget. Like skeletal antennae, they continue to pick up vibrations from the distant past, tap the wisdom of mountains thrust up from the sea, the geologic remembrance of purpose and place. You were always here! The atoms making up your being once shimmered in the breath of dinosaurs, and fueled the fearsome fires of genesis. The same primordial lava courses through your veins as set the oceans to boil, and cooled to form the continent where you stand. You’re a direct product of and descendant of the very earliest organic molecules. You carry in you the molecular memory of a blood-red sky tinted with rainbow bands of unmixed gases, the saltwater repeatedly pierced and stirred by amorous lightning thrusts, a great cauldron giving birth to the first living cell. All that follows is a part and extension of that ancestral cell. All of life, from ocean sponge to howling wolf, redwood monarch to questioning human, share this single common progenitor.
You remember the heartbeat, and then the slow layering of more complex rhythms as life develops and diversifies. Encoded in the matrix of your bowels is a map of the evolutionary voyage, the dead ends we know as extinctions and the continuous unfolding of new and fecundate forms. It is a voyage reenacted in the womb of every pregnant woman, from single-celled simplicity into a tailed fetus, on through the toddler’s first upright steps. You are a permanent part of a three-and-a-half-billion-year celebration of life and sensation. You extend into every life form that has ever existed, and even now, the spirits of those other life forms extend into you! Your muscles recall waiting for the sun to warm your reptilian body before you could move, and your nerves are familiar with the giddy feeling of taking flight from the highest crest. Remember the way pointed teeth sprouted from your jaw, the way fur grew sensuously from your body. A shared genetic memory lies just below the conscious surface, a protoplasmic record, engram, intimate knowledge of survival and bliss.
What today we call “instinct” is the audible will of the planet. In the totemic journey we learn to listen to the text of intuition and the specific example/instructions of our allied totems. Recognizing an affinity to particular totem spirits is more than attunement to our guides. It’s the recognition of aspects of one’s own self. Quick assimilation of their lessons can be the most demonstratively empowering of all “magic” practices.
You already live in the land of your totems. Fate stalks you in dim alleyways, while familiar spirits arm you from within. Buffalo hooves reverberate in heaving strata, well below the asphalt and the maze of gas and sewer lines. Expectant seeds shoulder their temporary concrete burden, patiently awaiting the return of sunlight. Above ground, bright green ice plants— essentially unchanged since the Pleistocene— slowly digest the edges of the sidewalk. And everywhere, the spirits of the “others” call out your name.
where are noble animals
coyote the wolf listen
to them howl a long white
spray of utter stars of pure
grief out of night the
nebulae of lost spirits
explodes flows from throats of
animals who cry upward
from the roots of earth
we die the air is extinct
the tribes of water of
fire and forests compressed of
a billion years of mineral
bones wild hunger where
we were in the solitude of fur
muzzles and bellies of milk
in dens of rock where all things
curl to sleep dream the
earth extinct the home
of noble animals in a
—Barbara Mor, Picts
One day I was walking down my enchanted river canyon, caught up in cerebral discourse, needing this, not wanting that, worried about someone else’s interpretation of my intent. I proceeded as though through a tunnel, self-absorbed, temporarily oblivious to the majestic twists of the cottonwoods and the orange and magenta glow of the sacred Kachina cliffs ahead. I stopped and stared blankly into the river, unaffected by the play of autumn colors, lost in the dark folds of loneliness. Then it caught my eye— a new movement among the always-shifting patterns of sand and current. At first I suspected some fish or animal concealed in the water but just as quickly realized it was the reflection of something from above me. As I raised my head I was blessed with the sight of two bald eagles flying straight into one another, then tumbling end over end, claw to claw in an acrobatic dive. They separated less than five feet from the rocks at the river’s edge, skimming the tops of the tall grass before heading their individual ways.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if the animal we encounter is in physical form or not. It may reveal its presence through nothing more certain than hoots or howls from concealing foliage, or an incontestable feeling in the pit of the stomach. Or the form may seem implausible (such as an owl in daylight or a mountain lion in the suburbs), or so exaggerated that you’re tempted to dismiss it as “only a vision.”
The totemic journey is similar to the quest for a vision engaged in at one time by most primal cultures, of most races. A quest usually involves fasting, the intense heat of the sweat lodge, the prayer focused on suspending the preconception and disbelief of the rational mind. This quickly results in the blurring of any superimposed distinctions between physical embodiments and less definitive visions. From the outset of the quest every feeling, every encounter, every act of recognition, is a meaning-filled part of the total lesson. This is true, as well, for the potentially lifelong totemic journey. A journey that you, the reader, have likely already begun.
The entire natural world is trying to tell us something, all the time. They do so with an urgency, communicating not only their normal lessons of fullest living, but also the anxiety of a living Earth under siege. Our failure to heed them means more than an interruption of personal growth. When considering the potentially apocalyptic results of ozone depletion or nuclear holocaust, we’ve come to realize that the survival of the vast percentage of existing plant and animal species depends on our successful application of the lessons they themselves offer us.
We tend to think of human speech as the only true language, flowering against the backdrop of a mute and mechanistic Earth. In actuality it’s only one way in which the living world speaks to itself— and it’s a language that remains largely incomprehensible to the rest of creation. Unlike the explicit purrs and growls of our fellow mammals, our speech makes for difficult translation by our fellow species. For tens of thousands of years the only survivable interspecies interpretation of any and all human utterance has been “danger!” Throughout this same length of time the myriad other life forms have been speaking to us in familiar tones, in diverse dialects readily understood by our tribal ancestors. While our more complex and abstract languages have communicated but a single dire warning to the rest of life on this planet, those other life forms have in a comparatively simple parlance continued to instruct us in the exact details of physically, emotionally, spiritually living with/in the Earthen body.
In the modern world, interspecies communication has been relegated to our most distant and romantic history, to saints and shamans or the trivialized characters in Sunday paper cartoons. The natural world that once spoke to us as a people has not fallen silent yet. As a species we’ve taught ourselves not to listen, agreed not to hear.
There’s a lot of fear and denial when our totemic instructors take a more ethereal form, as animate spirits free of the constraints of a corporal body. The cultural demonization of earthen spirits has left many of us terrified of those we encounter. Such conditioning was part of the same insidious program that bred separation between men and women, humanity and nature. The perceptual severance of our personalized connection to the Earth (in all its inspirited forms) parallels the severance of our instincts, our bodily senses, our sexuality and so-called “psychic” propensities. Recovery of any one of these original tendencies and gifts contributes to potential “powers-that-be” today as it was to the Inquisitors who once burned millions of Earth-loving women at the stake, or to the United States government in its efforts to disconnect Native Americans from the source of their strength, the sacred land and living religion.
Such totemic guides are the continuous essence of the many ways Spirit has re-formed in flesh and bone, essence of swimming, essence of flying. They’re more than echoes or after-images, teaching us with complex, personalized dynamics and a seeming flair for the dramatic. The spirit of all species ever to crawl out from under sun-baked rock or to leap on guileless prey is accessible to us through enlivened intuition and power dreams. To them our skin is no more than a permeable membrane, not the hairless barrier you imagine defines and restrains your human form. When words truly fail you, they’ll lend you their paws or their wings.
As Spirit connects and interpenetrates all life, some vestige of every totem exists within us at all times. Some, however, will prove to be the preponderant influences in your life, recurring again and again. Of these, there will inevitably be one particular totemic species that will reveal itself most often, guiding you through your most difficult crossroads. It will appear in your dreams more than any other creature visage, and with more amperage. It will usually make consecutive appearances during childhood or puberty, but those detached early from their psyches may not notice until their first surrender to emotional and spiritual experiences later in life. It’s not your favorite animal, nor the animal you would most like to be. It’s your personal totem. You do not pick it— it picks you. It lives you. Know it yet or not, you are a permanent part of its clan. Despite your rational self’s best efforts to suppress it, you will react in life as it does.
You! The bear people— heavy-footed, clinging hugs, a grizzly in the office briskly shoving piles of paper aside! Squirrel people— furtive, excitable, stowing away conversations like seeds in a hollow log. Snake people, confesssss!— low profile, eye for details, unwavering stare, hidden defensive fangs, the happy wiggle, the craving for hot sand beneath a smooth belly!
Face it, we don’t get to choose. Totems are spirits so familiar they’re an integral and irrepressible part of our persona, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Have you ever encountered someone who is clearly of the badger clan, unaware of the fact even as they seem to forever be backing into holes, fussing and grumping, nearsighted and introspective, taking swipes at anyone who gets too close? And most people will adamantly deny their horse totem, even though they “feel” so incredibly equine to us that we might expect them to snort and gallop away at the slightest provocation.
If we could have our pick, it seems most of the people I know would have eagles as their primary totem. I’d be a small hawk, preferring speed and maneuverability to size or color. But the fact remains that I, like the others, would opt to fly, free at times from the pressing subjectivity of the ground. We may be filled with the energy of crested ducks, but few acknowledge totems that rob other’s nests or muddle about on webbed feet. I suppose raptors are safe from predation by other birds, although I venture few of those calling themselves eagle people have envisioned the rush to kill, or the feel of blood dripping down a golden beak. And indeed, I would never have picked the wolf....
There could be no name more difficult to wear in modern America than “Wolf,” and no spirit guide has greater potential to alienate one from the bulk of their own species. The wolf totem sets standards of freedom and integrity I’ve had to strain to live up to, and family cohesion I’ve never been able to equal. But I had no choice! A she-wolf came and entered me time and time again, in dreams that repeated themselves in every detail, and in playground flashes of furry paws extended ahead me as I ran. Ran to be free. Ran to be real. Early on I was made fun of, teased for being “the Wolfman,” and I inevitable felt set apart by the moniker as much as my intrinsic wolfen traits. No matter how I introduced myself, once they heard someone say “Wolf” it seems they could call me by no other name.
A student of mine seemed to be battling to discover her personal totem. She went so far as to draw up a list of what she accepted as her characteristics, alongside the names of prospective totemic guides and their commonly assigned traits. She drew from a popular set of “animal cards” and came up with a different animal each time, but through a personality “points” system she believed she was narrowing the field down.
Throughout this process, diminutive brown canyon wrens sang nonstop just outside every available window. Their trill is a gentle cascade of high to low notes, ending with three spaced peeps. They sang with unmatched enthusiasm while she reshuffled the cards for the umpteenth time. One actually flew into the room and landed briefly on the altar, cocking its tiny head and looking into her eyes imploringly. There have always been wrens nesting in the eaves, in the gutter, and in the space above the door— but now they’d begun to move in with a passion. When I suggested the bird could be her spirit guide she launched into vociferous denial. Wrens were “insignificant” and, worse yet, they were little!
Shortly before leaving the area she committed to a solo quest on nearby cliffs. Throughout the three days and nights she was visited by a creature that came within inches of her outstretched feet. An animal with tiny reddish-brown wings, a long thin beak, and a song just for her. Some months later I received by mail a photocopy of a page out of a bird book wherein a small, combative woman had circled specific references to the canyon wren as totem for the war chiefs of various Southwestern tribes. Now that she liked.
One woman I know developed an uncanny rapport with owls, able to converse freely with everything from the spotted to the great-horned. It was during a stint working on a spotted owl survey that they taunted and encouraged her into overcoming a lifetime fear of the dark. She knew them to be important guides for her life’s path, yet she never acted as an owl would in any given situation. It was only when she felt her physical safety imperiled that she fully took on her real, dominant totem power. Note that she did not fly away into the safety of the night. Neither did she gallop off in a panic, or rush forward to spring catlike at the oncoming danger. Instead, she moved slowly and steadily off to the side, never once taking her unblinking eyes off her tormentor until she imagined herself safe beneath a pile of rock. It was only there, as far removed as she could get and still poked at with a stick, that she’d make her single decisive strike: the way of the snake!
Soon she began to recall her childhood dreams, where the fear of serpents blended with fascination, and she began to recognize a subjective resonance with the reptile’s clean and honest ways. She felt revealed, transformed, re-formed into her immortal animal self. She felt re-empowered to face both threat and pretense, armed with the clear intent and integrity of her snake totem.
One of the most enjoyable projects I ever worked on was a combination of costumed dance and drama we called “The Dance For All Beings.” As it turned out, the only dancer not able to make it was the woman representing the endangered bear family. My publisher friend overcame any semblance of her usual stage fright when she spoke for the bruin in front of five hundred people. Hesitancy that had at times held her fast like a leg-hold trap now gave way to a confidence larger than life. With no costumes to be had on such short notice, we tied the tanned hide of a real bear on her instead. During rehearsals she tended to stumble on her lines, while I prompted her to surrender to the animal of her childhood dreams, to the spirit of the bear itself. She almost backed out at the last minute, but recognized the opportunity as a crucial step in her personal becoming.
The dancers and speakers preceding her were lithe and suggestive, and the line between performance art and ritual dissolved completely when my friend stepped out of the shadows and onto the stage. The entire auditorium was instantly converted into sacred space. The audience held their breath, watching her steps slow and grow heavy, heavy, heavy. When the bear at last rose up to speak, she appeared irrefutably larger than was physically possible. She moved out of the spotlight unhurriedly, infinitely wilder than anyone might have imagined. Indeed, she would thereafter go about her business a bigger bear.
Anthropologists are often quick to pigeonhole totems as clan “mascots.” Most hold that the origin of totems lies in our ancestors’ feelings of inadequacy and envy of the superior speed or strength of other species. But totems are much more than emblems for societal and clan affiliations determined by bloodline.
Long before animals came to represent a certain genealogy, clans formed around shared power dreams and mutually, exclusively experienced totemic spirits. There must have been a time when no one was admitted into the wolf clan solely because their parents were. Rather, those people dreaming wolfen dreams and instructed by wolfen spirits began associating with one another. This sort of association would have eventually solidified into the totemic clan structure that remained to be studied and recorded by the anthropologists arriving so many centuries later.
Tribal peoples, whether Aboriginal, Sami or Native American, are expected to quest for their individual power animal and seek guidance from all available spirits, regardless of what animal-identified clan they were born into. Persons may carry several names, including the one their parents first called them, another denoting what clan and lineage they belong to, and still another either extolling their deeds as an adult or identifying their personal animal guide.
In our totemic journey we go beyond unconscious symbiosis with other lifeforms and enter into a personal, intimate and committed relationship with particular advisory totems. It’s a circular journey with no known end. The acceptance of kindred spirits as guides must include a pledge to fully utilize their gifted lessons, acting for the good of the Whole with all the joy and resolve that could be expected from the honorable totems themselves.
What is this joy? That no animal
falters, but knows what it must do?
That the snake has no blemish,
that the rabbit inspects his strange surroundings
in white star-silence...?
Those who were sacred have remained so,
holiness does not dissolve, it is a presence
of bronze, only the sight that saw it
faltered and turned from it.
An old joy returns In holy presence.
— Denise Levertov
Shhh! For a while the softening shadows return, and even the pounding of the heartbeat seems to fade in the distance. Come forward. Step out of the cave of your solitary experience and unshared pain. Ignore the glaring neon of our times— it is in many ways Grandmother Earth’s darkest hour.
Step up to the circle, where the certain blackness gives birth to light.
their skins badger hawk bison
boar cruaths images of
forests earth ice woad and
thus took on their powers
wild horse white-maned herds
of wind of rain howls
wolverine bear raven fish
naked among trees and caverns
ancestors the cruaths spread over
their immense bodies constellations
of beasts in the flesh of blue
stars over the universal
imagination of night they hunted
the animals of this dream
owl deer river worm and fire
dragons of vision inside the skull
and thus became their powers.
—Barbara Mor, Picts
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