As I make my morning tea, I glance out the kitchen window only to find a pair of dark eyes staring back. A doe and her two yearlings are making their way through our woods, stopping to nibble saplings and clean each other’s ears. One of the yearlings sees me, and we watch each other for a bit before I put my teacup in the microwave, breaking contact. They’re almost as big as their mother, and will likely be getting the boot from the family unit before the season’s end.
Although not a hunter myself, I have no hesitation when it comes to eating venison (although I can’t stand the smell of it as it cooks). As both a gardener and a driver, I’ve cussed them out: when they ate one of my Tahitian squashes, when one — and it may even be the same yearling staring at me today — bumped into my car when moseying across the road in the pre-dawn. I have a sneaking suspicion that the fawn I bumped is the same young deer that stops and stares long at me whenever our paths across; not with hate or fear, but with some expression I can’t name, not being familiar with deer personal expressions. I’m not quite sure what the staring is about, but I do hope it learns enough fear of humans — particularly the camo-wearing ones with guns — to make it through the season. I just don’t have the heart to inculcate that fear myself by screaming or beeping the horn. On the other hand, I don’t feed or encourage them in any real way, unless you consider talking to/at them as a type of coddling.
Which brings me to the book I’m reading: Penny Billington’s The Path of Druidry. As a Keltrian Druid living in North America, it has limited applicability; the writer is a member of OBOD, which is much more similar to Wicca than the polytheistic North American Druidic orders. Much of her focus seems to be alignment with nature, which can be applied to a number of faith paths and is positive overall. I just happen to be of the school that says Druidry isn’t just nature connection; there are two other Kindreds (the Gods and the ancestors) that are equally important. Other traditions believe differently, and that’s all well and good.
The nature she describes in the book is far more gentle than the one I’m familiar with, but that’s because the work is written by a Brit for a largely British audience. Nature has a much gentler face on that island nation: no larger predators than the fox, few or no poisonous plants or animals, relatively few severe weather events such as tornadoes, blizzards or hurricanes. Human beings have shaped the landscape via farming for more than 10,000 years. Now, North America certainly wasn’t empty and its native cultures certainly did shape the land, as Charles Mann describes in 1491. However, their agricultural and landscaping processes came much later than that of Europeans and took a different form, for reasons Jared Diamond explores in Guns, Germs and Steel.
In short, I wonder if it’s simply easier to “connect with nature” in Britain. Nature isn’t replete with critters that could hurt you, or make you sick or itchy, and people can boast of connections with a particular spot that go back millennia. When it comes to the last, only people of native descent can claim that in North America, and there are relatively few of them due to the “Germ” portion of Diamond’s title. The rest of us — white, black, Asian, Hispanic — can only claim to have lived here for a couple hundred years at most.
One of the few exercises in Billington’s book that speaks to me is mentioned offhand in a section on personal totems: “Now think of animals despised or feared by the human kingdom: make a short list and, for each one, try to think of one positive quality it has” (137). This strikes me as a good idea in many ways, since we tend to value animals according to their use value, even if that use-value has to do more with our spiritual ego (“the wolf is my totem!”) rather than practical use.
So here’s my list of Pesky Totems.
* Mosquito: public enemy number one! If you think about it, mosquitoes can be seen as an emblem of motherly sacrifice. Female mosquitoes suck the blood of mammals to provide for their young; male mosquitoes stick to plants. They are also a good prod, spiritually or physically, to stop stagnating and get moving.
* Ants: the homeowners’ public enemy number one. Individual ants may seem largely mindless, but the hive is far from that. Ant nests are deliberately and even brilliantly engineered. Ants even have livestock: aphids. They reflect civilization and society as a whole, industry and organization, whether you’re dealing with corporations, armies or municipal government. Termites probably fall under the same set of associations, as well as most bees.
* Carpenter bees: They destroy our fascia boards every year. These chunky pollinators are good totems for woodworkers. Female bees form social groups and rarely sting; they’re also a good totem for girls’ night out.
* Groundhogs: My public enemy number one; these sons of marmots have wrecked my garden repeatedly through the years. However, they are also decent engineers, pretty damn smart (I know this, since I’ve tried unsuccessfully to trap them) and, from what I’ve heard, tasty albeit greasy. Their fur makes good hats, and they’re one of nature’s true hibernators. (Bears aren’t, by the way.) As a spiritual totem, perhaps they represent opportunism (not necessarily in a bad sense), persistence and engineering.
* Rats: Folks hate and fear rats as disease-carriers and food-destroyers. I’ve known several people who have kept domesticated rats as pets, and have found them intelligent and affectionate. They share many traits with us, including an aptitude for problem-solving and even a love-hate relationship with tickling. Rats are emblems of fertility, wit, subterfuge and problem-solving. The last is probably why they’re the vehicle of the Hindu God Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles.
* Mice: Which brings us to a similarly feared and hated animal: the mouse. They can squeeze into spaces the size of a dime, which is why it’s so damn hard to keep them out of your house. As totems, they may symbolize stealth, the hidden and the discovery of secrets. My cats say they symbolize “tasty snack.” They also may be the totem for Jiffy peanut butter, since that’s what most traps are baited with.
* Ticks: I’m struggling with this one. If you have any positive association with ticks, please let me know. I imagine vampires might find them inspirational.
* “You can call me Flower if you want to!” The skunk is my favorite character in “Bambi.” Obviously, their personal weapon of olfactory destruction has made an impact on their public relations campaign. Skunks, however, are incredibly cute and pretty mellow, which is why they have been domesticated as pets. They don’t want to spray you, but will if you persist in being an ass. To me, the symbolize standing one’s ground.
* Weasels: I’ve never understood why people have hated weasels — unless, of course, they keep chicken coops, which would put weasels in the same category as fox. Weasels are perky, fearless and enthusiastic killers; the last might not seem a positive, but it certainly is when the weasel is clearing out the mice and chipmunks from your property. I don’t often quote Wikipedia, but I think their totemic value is expressed by this statement: “Weasels have a reputation for cleverness, quickness and guile.”
* Squirrels: These little bastards are personally responsible for the non-functionality of our porch lights, and are the bane of New England orchard-keepers. Gnawing aside, they are among nature’s best problem-solvers. They also plant a hell of a lot of trees.
* Chipmunks: They probably joined the squirrels in the porch light destruction party. They’re not as bright as squirrels, but known to be good housekeepers in terms of burrow cleanliness. They are a favorite prey animal for many species as well. As a totem, they may symbolize alertness and domesticity.
* Pigeon: Everyone’s least favorite bird. Pigeons, however, are very tasty and have been used to carry messages due to their navigational abilities. Doves — white pigeons — symbolize peace, and are also sacred animals to the goddesses Aphrodite, Venus, Tanit and Asherah. They symbolize domesticity, abundance, peace and messages from the divine; they may also be a good totem for drivers trying to find their way through city streets.
* Vultures: Also have a negative reputation, since they eat dead things. However, they are nature’s garbagemen and have a crucial role in the eco-system because of it. In ancient Egypt, vultures were the symbol for mother. To me, they symbolize cleanliness and recycling.
That’s my list of Pesky Totems for today. Which would you add?