Totem Animals

Totem Animals

Blog by Liam Campbell

I broke my ankle lately, stupidly wearing sandals clambering over rough ground. I should dress appropriately for my age! However, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good. This has forced me to  slow down, and to take notice. To Take notice of the small things. To pay closer attention.

I am very lucky to live in a remarkable place in the Sperrins and to work at an equally remarkable place by the shores of Lough Neagh.

Tied to my desk, I have begun to take notice of a little wren in the prickly, impenetrable pyracantha bush against the wall, outside my window. The Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, who gave the world the central system by which all living things are classified in Latin (many disagree with this system) has given the wren the most amazing of Latin names Troflodytes troglodytes, sounding like some gigantic creature from Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Such a big name for such a little bird. The Irish, derolin, little druid, I find more accurate and pleasing.  Although tiny they can deliver a shrill song with great gusto and dispense great wisdom if we take time to notice.

I am old enough to remember the pre-decimal coins of the Republic of Ireland that featured animals such as the hare, the Irish Wolfhound and the salmon. The smallest coin, the farthing, featured the woodcock when I thought it should have been the wren. But then it may have been too associated with paganism! More of this later.

Sometimes when, I think of scale and the climate crisis that engulfs us, I feel so small and powerless to do anything. Amid the increasing lexicon of environmental catastrophe, it is no surprise that there are new words for fear (after all environmental psychologists have given us – Nature Deficit Disorder to name our disconnection from the natural world,  as if we are not part of it!) To pay attention to what is happening in the world and to imagine what might come next instils fear in most of us. We as human beings are responsible for this devastation and we often suffer guilt and anxiety as to what to do about it. Our suffering is guilt as well as fear. Some call it ‘eco-anxiety’, others have termed it ‘solastalgia’

I feel that we have to ‘adopt’ the smaller more-than-human beings and see what they can teach us. Sometime the world is just too big and makes us feel helpless. Concentrating on the smaller as in the form of a mascot, totem or whatever we call them, can help see the bigger connections and pictures.

 An animal such as the wren, salmon, eel,  crow, eagle,  a tree, even  Sphagnum moss  or similar is adopted. In a sense it becomes a symbol of a collective unconsciousness and becomes a means to renewal and restoration.

Adapting to that world requires that we understand ourselves as individuals, as groups and as one species among others – that we learn to live our collective and individual lives on the Earth’s catchment terms. Engaging the lives of wren, wild salmon, or whatever can create a situation wherein the peoples of this place begin to experience themselves as functional parts of the place itself. Engaging the lives of any part of the wild in any self-defined natural area will lead to this. The wren  is a  good teacher and as some natives elders say, “ Any animal knows way more than you do “.

The “environment” as a “whole” can sometimes seem too large to relate to, whereas an “element” of it such as the wren can help us relate to the “whole”. Archetypes, according to the psychoanalyst Jung are “forms without content, representing merely the possibility of a certain type of perception and action. Although they are relatively distinct, these universal forms are embedded in a web of relationships, in which each archetype ultimately involves all the others”.

My colleagues have been involved in a wonderful curlew restoration project for some time now and last week saw the successful release of three curlews chick across the Lough Neagh landscape – an amazing contribution to the declining curlew population. These were so much part of the soundscape of my childhood and indeed adulthood and yet the decline is so dramatic. I can think of no better a totem to adopt. The local children are doing it with various ritual and art projects.

The curlew can be the saviour of this wonderful place.

 There are many forms of mimesis and ritual that can help reconnect society with the whole community of life. In many societies, mimesis serves the purpose of renewal and restoration. An act of mimesis reconnects the worlds for sacred service and community. We need spiritual practices, art and ritual, because authentic work has to come from the inner self and acknowledge the “spiritual way of knowing”. Recovering or re-connecting with this love of life in all its forms comes through creativity, art, imagination and meditation. Through ritual we can reconnect with the inner child and that child’s relationship to the earth and to their place on it. Ritual can help to heal and nurture the child within. Being a member of a community of beings is expressed by mimetic ritual – be this, the protecting of eels, bog, or the curlew or the coming together, the meitheal (lit., working party) of any group of people to work at their relationships with the more-than-human world.  This requires that we be open to the stories and art of others and indeed our own instinct and that we be willing to let these into our lives. It requires that we relearn how to read the landscape, something our ancestors did by instinct.

Back to the animal coins! I have been doing a bit of research on the history of their introduction. . Indeed, so familiar and commonplace did they become that it is hard now to believe that their release in 1928 was followed by a heated debate about their symbolism. In the Senate, poet W.B. Yeats welcomed the government’s decision to appoint a committee of artists to advise on the design of the coins, declaring that stamps and coins were ‘the silent ambassadors of national taste’. Yeats was therefore a logical choice as chairman of the committee on coinage design. By the time the designs were officially released to the public, they had already attracted controversy owing to unauthorised disclosures of the committee’s choice of symbols. The symbols were listed in December 1926 by the short-lived newspaper Irish Truth, which predicted that they ‘will not merely be unpopular, but will be met with positive derision’. The coins were condemned by their detractors for promoting paganism because they bore no religious symbols; for repudiating the national tradition by neglecting conventional national emblems; for stereotyping Ireland as an agricultural nation. The fact that there were no religious symbols on the coins was a major cause of concern for the critics of the designs, who believed that the coins should proclaim Ireland’s status as a great Christian nation. For a number of critics, the absence of religious emblems was no accident but was part of a larger conspiracy to remove religion from public life. Several saw the hands of the Freemasons at work in the coinage designs! Critics of the coins liked to describe them as ‘pagan’, paganism being a more pejorative term for secularism and materialism. As one critic explained, ‘The coins are called pagan in the sense that there is a total absence of a sign that they symbolise the sovereignty of a Christian nation’.
Those who held this view had little time for the argument, advanced by defenders of the coinage designs, that to put religious emblems on coins would be to profane holy symbols. To the defenders of the coins, there was nothing irreligious about the animal symbols. The liberal Irish Statesman mocked the coinage critics: One would imagine that while man was created by God the animal world was created by the devil, so angry are the critics . . . Who would have thought that that poor little hare on the threepenny bit was a form of the devil, or that little woodcock was a demon.
The absence of religious symbols from the coins was a virtue for their defenders, several of whom quoted the biblical verse about rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. ( History Ireland etc ).

For me this shows some of the historic roots of all this disconnect and the separation of life on this planet. One writer  contends that the “original sin of humanity” is “the tendency to abstract ourselves from the earth, from the place of which we are an integral part”.

Things are changing however in in conservative church circles  to a more inclusive and less separatist attitude to nature. This too is the call of Pope Francis in his Encyclical Letter Laudato  Si – On Care of our Common Home ( 2015 ) which is in my mind a very radical departure in Christian thinking as a  “ wide-ranging, comprehensive and positively disturbing call to our deepest selves to awaken and act in unison for the common good “.  Issues such as The Crisis and Effects of Modern Anthropocentrism, The Principle of Common Good and  The Control of Water are given full chapters in this most radical of departures. The choice of the phrase ‘our common home ‘ is itself radical in that it highlights our shared space as the entire community of life and the possibility of recovery.

There is a great story in Irish folklore of the wren becoming king. At least Linneaus gave them a kingdom and as Finton O Tooke said in a recent Irish Times article on the Covid and climate crisis – “ We are not the kings anymore!” It might be no harm for each of us to have a totem animal (that is not human). The curlew is not a bad one to choose.

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