Gulls and pigeons and crows, oh my!

Generally when I get together with pagans of a shamanistic or animist stripe, talk eventually turns to totem spirits.

Generally, when I sit and listen to people talk about their totems, I hear about a lot of noble animals.  The wolf.  The stag.  The fox.  The hawk.  Eagles and bears and cougars and once, a tiger. Even the boar.

Most of these are predators and obligate carnivores, or — if not — still very powerful and often dangerous animals.  Deer kill far more human beings every year than bears or wolves; having a 200-pound deer come through your windshield after you’ve hit it with your car tends to be an extremely violent and dangerous event that ends the life of the human driving the car almost as often as it ends the life of the deer.  A stag during rutting season is quite capable of chasing down and injuring — even killing — any unfortunate human that happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (i.e., in between him and a potential mate).

(Edit: hours after writing this post, I came across a news story that illustrates the above PERFECTLY:  )

And let’s not even get started talking about what happens to any person stupid enough or unlucky enough to get near a wild boar, or between a feral sow and her litter.

My totem spirits aren’t in the same category as these.  The closest I get are crows and ravens, which — while often regarded as wise teachers – are just as often considered unreliable tricksters.  And crows and ravens do indeed prey on other small animals (insects, bird eggs and baby birds, very small tree frogs or snakes or lizards), but are more often considered scavengers.  Eaters of garbage and roadkill.

Pretty much all of my totem spirits are scavenger spirits.  And I’m okay with this.  If not for the scavengers of the natural world, the rest of the natural world would probably be up to its ears — or worse — in human-generated garbage.

I’m a tidy sort; a place for everything, everything in its place, and out with the stuff that isn’t needed anymore.  Recyclables get recycled, spoiled food and scraps goes to the compost pile (except for meat), and only a bit of what’s left over actually makes it to the garbage dump.  I like to clean up messes — my own, and other people’s.  In that respect, I’m very like my totems, so it’s a good fit.

Aside from crow (and raven), I call gulls and pigeons my friends.  Reviled by most people as “flying rats”*, these birds dispose of our debris, feeding off of scraps that would otherwise lay around, attract insects, and rot, leaving an unhealthy mess where we want to do more “important” things — picnic, walk our dogs, go swimming, and so on.

In the plant kingdom, I find myself drawn again and again to fungi and lichens, which break down rotting plant matter and help turn it into fertile soil — again, the same job that the others perform, helping keep the Earth we all share a little bit cleaner.

I live in a suburb of Chicago (on the Indiana side of the border), and there aren’t any deep, dark, mysterious woods for me to go journeying in or exploring — at least, not without a car trip of at least half an hour.  Instead, I spend a lot of time at my nearest park, one block away, which borders a small lake in my town.  Plenty of gulls and pigeons and crows there, and probably plenty of rats, too (or at least, plenty of rats at the various industrial plants on the other side of the lake).  I spend a lot of time emulating my totems, and cleaning up the garbage that other humans leave behind.  If it’s organic — banana or orange peels, dropped potato chips, old bubble gum — I leave it where it falls, because it’ll degrade and eventually end up as part of the soil.  The rest of it — styrofoam from countless fishing coolers and floats, foam rubber, nylon fishing line, plastic food wrappers, aluminum soda pop and beer cans, broken glass — gets bagged up and thrown away.  I visit the park at least 2 -3 times a week, more often if the park is exceptionally messy or if the weather is cooperating, and do what I can to make the world a cleaner, better place.

On these trips, it’s inevitable that I occasionally find biological traces, both from my totems and other creatures.  When I can collect these bits and pieces without breaking any laws, I do so.  Illegal to pick up crow feathers, because of the Migratory Bird Act; the same is true of the Canadian goose and swan and duck feathers I see there from time to time.  But pigeons and gulls don’t migrate, and aren’t in the least endangered.  Likewise, I’ve found entire carcasses before — squirrels and chipmunks and pigeons and gulls.  Some are clean; some reek of decay and teem with maggots (and those, too, are scavengers, pretty much completely harmless to humans unless said person is falling apart from gangrene).

This blog is meant to journal my ongoing discovery of these spirits, record the traces I find (whether or not I can pick them up and bring them home), and note down my ongoing relationship with these scavenger spirits.  I won’t claim any special status or exceptional wisdom; I’m new at this and bound to screw up from time to time.  But I think it’s important to get it all down and hope I learn something from it.  And along the way, maybe folks will end up with a little more respect for the lowly scavengers they share the world with.

*And really, what’s so bad about rats?  Aside from their unfortunate tendency to carry diseases that humans can catch — and the fault for that lies more with humans and their unclean, overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions — rats perform the same vital service as gulls, pigeons, and crows — they clean up the garbage that humans leave behind.  I’ve had plenty of interesting experiences with rats, going way back into childhood on a farm, and I’m happy to count them among the spirits I connect well with.