Essay: Totem Animals for the Anthropocene
The new ecological paradigm is not nature with man-made systems interfering with it, but man-made systems with natural systems embedded in them. This vast man-made system encompasses the entire globe. There is no wilderness. There is no frontier. Nature has become completely co-opted by culture, but through chaos, randomness and unintended consequences, culture becomes nature once again.
In contrast to optimistic progress thinkers who believe human beings’ control of nature will steadily increase until we are ultimately able to live without it, I argue that the idea that we can completely dominate nature is an illusion. Nature is changing along with us.
The Chernobyl Exclusion zone becomes a refuge for wolves and wild horses. Raccoons and coyotes take up residence in cities. Invasive species are on the rise. As a person who practices shamanism, I no longer identify with federally protected endangered species, which are often tranquilized, radio-collared, inoculated, micro-chipped, poked, prodded and monitored from helicopters on a regular basis.
I have come to have a strong spiritual connection to weeds, weedy species, and so called “invasive species”. I have come to view vacant lots and waste areas as “more wild” that designated wilderness areas in many cases. One of my favorite designated wilderness areas is Sylvania Wild Forest, in the UP. But one day while camping there it occurred to me that I was in the midst of a highly regulated, and thus, highly civilized place. I had to camp in designated areas only, I was discouraged from building a fire but allowed to do so only in designated fire rings. Hunting was highly regulated, foraging and gathering was forbidden. Fishing was catch and release only with barb-less hooks. I realized I may as well be in a museum. I could look but not touch.
I realized I may as well be in a museum. I could look but not touch.
“Leave no trace” is an ethic that has come to keep human beings disconnected from the wild. To be wild is to live in the wild, forage, gather, make clothing and shelter and shit in the woods (like a cat, though, not a bear). Does “carry in carry out” apply to your soul? Where does it dwell?
Weedy species represent a new ecological trend. A return of the truly wild. Wild creatures don’t do as they are told, and live where they are told to live. I refer to an etymology of the word that predates animal planet: The wild as dangerous, frightening, mysterious, uncontrollable.
What really is an “invasive species”? The world we live in is dynamic, not static. Living things aren’t concerned with clearly defined abstract mental categories, let alone zoning regulations. You might think that an industrial area and a designated wilderness or national park are separate but the separation exists only in the human mind. Everything is connected and happening all at once. It’s all the same system.
Living things aren’t concerned with clearly defined abstract mental categories
Consider Island ecology: Every organism that washes up on a coral atoll that has breached the surface of the ocean, or a recent Volcanic island, is an invader. Whether they are birds pulled off course in a storm or insects washing ashore on driftwood, they aren’t endemic – until they are. Once they wash up on shore and figure out a way to survive, the island is now their home. They are no longer alien: They are a native species. We may like to think of natural and man-made as completely separate categories but living things are opportunists, and opportunistic species have utilized human beings as vectors of dispersion. That is what life does in the evolutionary scheme of things: It learns to adapt to its environment.
A New Age requires new totems. A totem is a being, object, or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as the emblem of a group of people, such as a family, clan, group, lineage, or tribe. The totem reminds them of their ancestry (or mythic past). In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth. They have been around for many years.
Although the term is of Ojibwe origin in North America, totemic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans and Aboriginal peoples in Canada. Similar totem-like beliefs have been historically present in societies throughout much of the world, including Africa, Arabia, Asia, Australia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and the Arctic polar region.
In modern times, individuals not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion have chosen to adopt a personal spirit animal helper which has special meaning to them. They may refer to this as a totem. This non-traditional usage of the term is prevalent in the New Age movement and the mythopoetic men’s movement.
Connecting with nature only through nostalgia and romanticism is not connecting with a world that is real. Forming alliances with living things on the way up rather than the way out is much more motivating and energizing. What power can you really draw from vanishing endangered species, that have become pets of wildlife biologists? It’s time for new myths.
It’s time for new myths.
Everyone likes a winner and some organisms just can’t hack it on the current playing field. Let the panda bears die out. If They don’t want to fuck anymore, let them go extinct. Animals with collars aren’t wild. Prairie restoration projects that require teams of interns to weed and plant them every year are gardens, not wilderness areas.
Here are what I see as the likeliest suspects for totems of the Anthropocene:
I first started thinking about invasive species as my Totem back a few years ago when Ran Prieur posted this article : Planet of Weeds The tone of the article is grim and apocalyptic but left me feeling oddly hopeful:
Is there a larger pattern to these invasions? What do fire ants, zebra mussels, Asian gypsy moths, tamarisk trees, maleleuca trees, kudzu, Mediterranean fruit flies, boll weevils and water hyacinths have in common with crab-eating macaques or Nile perch? Answer: They’re weedy species, in the sense that animals as well as plants can be weedy. What that implies is a constellation of characteristics: They reproduce quickly, disperse widely when given a chance, tolerate a fairly broad range of habitat conditions, take hold in strange places, succeed especially in disturbed ecosystems, and resist eradication once they’re established. They are scrappers, generalists, opportunists. They tend to thrive in human-dominated terrain because in crucial ways they resemble Homo sapiens: aggressive, versatile, prolific, and ready to travel.
Biologists frequently talk of weedy species, meaning animals as well as plants
The city pigeon, a cosmopolitan creature derived from wild ancestry as a Eurasian rock dove (Columba livia) by way of centuries of pigeon fanciers whose coop-bred birds occasionally went AWOL, is a weed. So are those species that, benefiting from human impacts upon landscape, have increased grossly in abundance or expanded in their geographical scope without having to cross an ocean by plane or by boat–for instance, the coyote in New York, the raccoon in Montana, the white-tailed deer in northern Wisconsin or western Connecticut. The brown-headed cowbird, also weedy, has enlarged its range from the eastern United States into the agricultural Midwest at the expense of migratory songbirds. In gardening usage the word “weed” may be utterly subjective, indicating any plant you don’t happen to like, but in ecological usage it has these firmer meanings. Biologists frequently talk of weedy species, meaning animals as well as plants.
Ask any “new agey” person what their spirit animal is and nine times out of ten they will say “wolf”. How powerful of an ally is that, especially if you see yourself as anti-establishment? Wolves belong to us. We own them. We put our mark on them. We wiped them out and we brought them back. There was a pack in Washington state that had become habituated to hunting cattle. So Rangers killed every last one, with precision
Coyote: The medicine of the coyote is much more potent. Coyotes are wild. Coyotes don’t need us.They decide where they want to live. They thrive despite all our attempts to eradicate them. Rangers can decide to wipe out the livestock-preying coyotes in an area all they want but they can’t do it. Coyotes are too crafty. They have evolved to survive alongside human civilization. Coyotes didn’t start out as apex predators. They are generalists who evolved while living in the shadow of the more dominant wolves who are their natural enemies. This crucible of persecution has made them resilient and given them an intelligence that wolves lack in dealing with the new apex predator- humankind. Wolves now need human benevolence to survive. Coyotes don’t.
Wolves now need human benevolence to survive. Coyotes don’t.
Feral hogs are wild. Here is an species that has thrown off the shackles of domestication and has reverted to a state of nature, living on their own terms. They aren’t pristine, they aren’t untouched. They are mongrels in every sense of the word. Tough survivors, they have nothing to fear from humankind. Like coyotes, hunting pressure actually increases their population, dispersing them to new territory and forcing them to adapt to new niches.
The Norway Rat: This seems to be Banksey’s totem animal. “If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model. They exist without permission, they have no respect for the hierarchy of society, and they have sex 50 times a day.” Rat enthusiast Robert Sullivan noted that naturalists treat wild rats as anathema, refusing to believe that they deserve any consideration. “It is the very ostracism of the rat, its exclusion from the pantheon of natural wonders, that makes it appealing to me, because it begs the question: who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?”
If you feel dirty, insignificant or unloved, then rats are a good role model
Feral Cats: Cats are wild. These animals are arguably the most successful carnivores on the planet. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica, and pass freely between life as a pampered house pet and a life in the wild. They kill millions of songbirds every year. This has prompted the Audubon society to push for them all to be kept is indoors as neutered house pets. But its too late: They can’t be stopped. Too many have already gotten lose. Who knows? They may be mutating in places like Australia and the UK into giant black panthers. We love songbirds because they are delicate and pretty and make beautiful music. But that is not what life in the 21st century calls for. It calls for tough crafty bids like:
Crows and Ravens are among the most intelligent of animals These birds are survivors and they are on the rise. They use their smarts to adapt to urban environments and resist eradication. They are moving into where people live whether they like it or not. Juvenile crows stay with their parents for three years or more, learning crow culture, which is composed of all the intel they’ll need to thrive in their territory. This delayed infancy is a sign of intelligence and a trait also found in humans and another urban invader:
Urban Raccoons: I have written on these animals elsewhere. The large bob-tailed male I saw walking brazenly through the streets of Olympia, Washington was a specter of things to come. They are on the rise not only in North America but have invaded other first world Nations as well, including Germany and Japan. Trapping them seems to have the effect of ensuring the more intelligent individuals remain in the gene pool. Like crows they take several years to pass on cultural knowledge to their young.
I have plant helpers too:
Garlic Mustard: This is one of the most nutritious plants, period. Rich in Vitamin A and C it also contains omega-three. It can be found in nearly any vacant lot. Efforts at eradication only spread them to new areas causing them to flourish. Last summer I ate weed salads nearly every day containing this,as well as dandelion greens, chickweed, pigweed, purslane and sorrel. I lost 25 lbs and developed the energy of a human back hoe. In my spare time I went on 20 mile hike/runs and 50 mile bike rides through the mountains.
I love gardening. But as any gardener will point out, it’s very common to get a plant, put it some place, provide the best care for it you can, and have it not do well. This is valuable feedback – a learning experience – but I will be damned if weeds don’t always do well even as you try to get rid of them! They always look great with bright green leaves and little insect damage. It cheers my heart just to see something healthy that knows how to survive! Often they are more nutritious than cultivated plants also!
I once looked into volunteering to stay in National Parks for free in exchange for helping eradicate invasive weeds. After checking some of these plants out I just couldn’t do it. These were some of the healthiest most vigorous plants in the area. I can’t see the sense in killing them for the sake of less successful plants simply because the other plants were there first. It’s a losing battle; futile really.
The idea that nature needs us to help it is arrogant
What many people don’t realize is that what we are witnessing is natural selection in action. The trope of mankind wrecking everything and the need to turn back before its “too late” is worn out. The natural world is pushing back. I detect some anthropocentric arrogance inherent in some areas of ecology. The idea that nature needs us to help it is arrogant. This imagery of rare species dying nobly is arrogant. Not all species are dying nobly, many are increasing their numbers aggressively. There have been inter-species arms races throughout evolutionary history. Humankind may have pulled ahead recently and won an overwhelming victory, but other organisms are pulling ahead now. It may be inconceivable to many that organisms can actually evolve immunity to domination human beings, but it is a reality, And the “truism” that invasive species always decrease biodiversity is actually false. The reality is actually the opposite: Wherever we humans have gone in the past two centuries, we have increased local and regional biodiversity
I decided I could lament the buffalo, and the wild salmon, and dwell with them tearfully in a lost world, or I could celebrate the survivors, like the Mozambique tilapia and wild hog. Salmon are very noble, but they need us to help them survive in developed areas, to build them salmon ladders, and culverts, to breed them in fish hatcheries. The Mozambique tilapia requires far less. Give them some polluted water, make it fresh or salty, it doesn’t matter, they will thrive. That’s an organism with the will to survive.
I have chosen to ally myself with life. I’m not setting myself up for frustration and failure. Its not defeatism, its reality. We can bring Salmon back to Seattle, but they won’t be wild. They will go where we want them to go, breed where we want them to breed, die where we want them to die. They will be part and parcel of a vast concrete and steel machine, stopping and going like cars on the freeway. We can lament climate change and wring our hands and urge everyone to ride their bikes, but it’s here, and we can’t stop it.
Having a weedy totem is about living life on your own terms: not following conformity but creating your own niche. It’s about not being captive to, or dependent on, the machine, but making the machine work for you. Can’t find an apartment? Live in the woods! Hungry? Pick blackberries, or like my Raccoon friend, hit the dumpster at Trader Joe’s! Adapt, survive. Even Climate change can’t stop us!