This issue, long-time EHS contributor Jennifer Lawrence sits down with author Lupa. Here, the prolific author discusses her books on animal, fungus, and plant totems; therioanthropy and cultural appropriation; the Patreon community; and what she wants to be when she grows up.
Eternal Haunted Summer: Now that Plant and Fungus Totems has been out for a little while, what sort of feedback are you getting on it? Is there much difference between the response to that and the response you got to New Paths to Animal Totems?
Lupa: The feedback has been overwhelmingly good, if a little quiet comparatively speaking. There are a lot of people who are interested in totems other than animals, and when they see the book exists they’re generally pretty delighted and curious. However, because animal totems are what most people are familiar with, it may not have even occurred to them there was any other sort. So there’s sometimes a bit of confusion as to what the book is really about. I’ve had people ask whether it was about herbalism, and I’ve lost track of the number of times people have assumed it was a book on mycology! Both of those topics are relevant, to be sure, but it’s been a little more of a challenge to get the word out compared to any of my books on animal totems. Thankfully I’m patient, and, as I said, the response is pretty positive.
EHS: With these two books out, are you planning on future volumes in this “series” (such as it might be considered)? For example, the standard “20 Questions” triad is “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral”; can you see yourself writing a book on the totems of stones and crystals? What about the totems of the four elements, or things like streams, clouds, mountains, valleys, ravines, marshes, and other geographical or atmospheric features? The ancient Greeks, for example, attributed spirits/nymphs to these things — oreads, naiads, nereids, the Napaeae, the Four Winds, etc.
Lupa: Wellllll … sort of. I might do a book on working with mineral and other geological totems in the future; however, the one that’s likely to go to press next is on bioregional totemism. That’s a topic that I addressed in both New Paths to Animal Totems and Plant and Fungus Totems, dedicating a chapter apiece in them. A bioregion is a section of land that’s defined by having a common set of flora, fauna, fungi, climate, geological and other natural features; often it’s the watershed of a given river. So bioregional totemism is about working with the totems associated with a given bioregion in order to connect with the land there. In the book, whose working title is The Totemic Ecosystem, I bring together all these totems — animal, plant, fungus, geological, etc. — into one system focused on exploring and deepening your connection with your bioregion, whether you live there long-term or are just visiting. Many pagans talk about being close to the land, but this book is about walking that talk more fully and immediately in one’s everyday life, with the aid of the archetypal beings that watch over it.
It’s a bit more challenging to talk about geological totems, because it’s not as simple as Obsidian, Quartz, Sandstone. Pick up a piece of basalt, for example, and you’re holding a stone connected to multiple totems: Basalt, Feldspar (one of the primary minerals in basalt), Volcano (the force that creates basalt), and in some cases Erosion (another “force” totem). This depth of knowledge, experience, and layered meaning is what sets a lot of my work apart. I don’t just toss people a dictionary of totems and say “Here are all the answers.” My material requires readers to work at creating relationships with the land and its totems and other beings. So that’s part of why the book on geological/etc. totems will probably take longer to write; it’s not as simple as working with the totem of one particular species of animal, fungus, or plant.
EHS: Your first few books (Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone: A Primal Guide to Animal Magic; DIY Totemism: Your Personal Guide to Animal Totems; and Skin Spirits: The Spiritual and Magical Uses of Animal Parts) were published through Immanion Press/Megalithica Books, whereas your two newer ones were released through Llewellyn. Were there differences in the publishing process between the two publishers, and if so, can you describe what some of those differences were?
Lupa: Without getting into unprofessional detail, there are a few differences I can talk about. First, getting published with Llewellyn, which is a bigger publisher, does not mean that I was able to simply sit back and let other people do the work for me — especially with promotion! For those who don’t know, I spent a few years not only as an author, but also an editor, proofreader, layout tech, and publicity manager for Immanion/Megalithica, which gave me valuable experience on the “hidden” end of publishing. So by the time I submitted my first book to Llewellyn, I already had a decent promotional platform in place and knew a lot of the right questions to ask. That being said, I really appreciate the extra distribution and renown that Llewellyn has as a larger, more established company; the publicist I work with there has been instrumental in getting me some promotional opportunities I might not have even known about, let alone been able to get into, otherwise.
As to the actual editing and polishing of the books? The process with Immanion/Megalithica can be a lot faster and streamlined, especially if the book is already pretty well-written and edited when it’s submitted, because they don’t handle nearly as many titles, and use print on demand technology to get the book to press faster. The process at Llewellyn, though it has more steps, is more polished and standardized, which helps offer a roadmap for when my book will be ready to release into the wild. In both cases, I’ve felt like my book remained mine; the editors I worked with in both cases took good care of my creation, and helped me make my writing better rather than turning it into a commodity for the lowest common denominator, and I’m proud of all my books because of it.
EHS: For those who are not familiar with your work, you come to animism/totemism from the point of view of a formerly-Midwestern white chick/ “neopagan progressive geek urban dweller who escapes to the woods when she can” (source). In the past, you’ve described getting a lot of criticism from people who tried to tell you that you were “doing it wrong.” It’s also noteworthy that you’ve spoken out in great detail about cultural appropriation. Can you tell us if the confluence of these situations influenced your decision to write New Paths to Animal Totems and Plant and Fungus Totems, and if so, how?
Lupa: Mmmmm, not so much with those books. I wrote New Paths to Animal Totems and Plant and Fungus Totems after a hiatus from writing during grad school. When I finally felt like writing again, I wanted to go in a different direction. With Immanion/Megalithica I was rabbiting down branches of really specific, intermediate to advanced practices, not all of which had a wide appeal, but that had a small core of dedicated interest. When I renewed my love of writing, I wanted to try writing a more general text, something that could appeal both to my current fans, many of whom are skilled practitioners of spiritual arts themselves, and to newcomers who may never have considered totemic work before.
With regards to cultural appropriation, I am the editor and a contributing essayist to Talking About the Elephant: An Anthology of Neopagan Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation, and I spoke recently on it at the Wild Hunt. That statement pretty much covers my thoughts on the matter at this point in time and I don’t want to be redundant here.
EHS: Given that Neopaganism and its many branches are a very wide and diverse bunch of people, are there folks within its ranks whom you consider mentors? Peers? Any who have been an influence not only on your path, but also on your writing?
Lupa: I’ve always been pretty staunchly solitary; I’ve had friends who are pagans that I admire deeply, and especially in the early days when I was just learning the ropes there were people both online and in person who gave me good resources to read and check out. I mean, really, there are just too many to list — people from early chat rooms and Pagan Pride events, authors and tabletop gaming buddies, folks who have written me with feedback about my works and those whose rituals and workshops I’m able to attend at events. I don’t think any other pagan isn’t my peer, and I have the potential to learn from anyone, even the most shiny new pagan who just figured out that there’s a name for what they believe. And it’s been that ongoing dialogue with literally thousands of people over the past almost twenty years that has fed my path and my writing, at least from the human side of it. If you’re reading this now and you’ve ever interacted with me, you can partly blame yourself for my addiction to writing stuff and sharing it. You’re welcome.
EHS: When you first started writing about totems and the animist path, what were your greatest difficulties in getting your message across? How has that changed from where you are now?
Lupa: Honestly, one of the biggest challenges then and now has been trying to differentiate what I do from all the other writers in the sub-sub-genre of totemism. There are scads of books on animal totems and spirits; Ted Andrews’ Animal-Speak is the king and reigning champion (seriously, how many copies have been printed by now?), but there are lots of copycats trying to do the same thing. And with few exceptions, they’re all following the same formula: introduction, write a little about historical totemisms, write some about how you, too, can find your special animal spirit, throw in a few meditations and rituals, and then lots and lots and lots of dictionary-style entries detailing a bunch of animals with some natural history, key words, and then a few paragraphs on stereotyped “meanings.” As far as many people are concerned, all they have to do to unlock the mysteries of a given totem is to open up any totem dictionary, read the relevant entry, and bam — you now know what that totem has to teach!
Which drives me absolutely nutzoid. First, every totem dictionary is just a compendium of the author’s own research and experiences; at best they’re a starting point for your own relationship with a given totem. Second, they just promote the quick-and-easy-answers trend in spirituality in general. Many people want the solutions to their problems spoon-fed to them so they can get back to some sort of equilibrium in life, and that’s missing out on some of the best stuff spirituality has to offer. Sure, when I figured out Gray Wolf was my primary totem years ago I could have gone with Animal-Speak which says Wolf means “Guardianship, Ritual, Loyalty, and Spirit.” Instead, Gray Wolf has come to mean a lot more to me, and our connection has diversified many times over the years. And I’ve worked with literally hundreds of totems in the past two decades; if I had stuck with what the Medicine Cards (by Sams and Carson) say, in that everyone has only nine totems, imagine how much I’d be missing out on! (I bet those cards never would have given me Allosaurus as a totem, and let me tell you — the totems of extinct animals are incredible to engage with if you have the opportunity.)
It’s the motivation that got me writing my first book, Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone, and it still motivates me eight and a half years after that book was first published. I want to encourage readers and practitioners to really challenge themselves, not just open up a totemic bible and get a bit of spiritual pablum fed to them.
EHS: Given that you’re known fairly well to the Neopagan community, both through your old blog and new one, as well as your books, are there challenges you’ve discovered along the way that caused problems that you wouldn’t have anticipated? For example, there are segments of the pagan community that are vegetarian or vegan; it’s seems likely that they might have disagreements with aspects of the work that you do. Have they (or other groups) given you trouble in the past?
Lupa: People are a lot braver online than they are in person. That being said, the vast majority of responses to my works have been positive or at least constructively critical, and the truly self-righteous crusaders have been thankfully few and far between. And that’s all I’m going to say on that matter.
EHS: You recently became a member of the Patreon community, where you invite others to sponsor your work in exchange for rewards. Can you tell us a bit about this and whether it has changed your opportunity to do different sorts of work? Are there other new opportunities you are looking forward to?
Lupa: I’ve been trying to diversify the ways I get my work out to the world a bit, and I’ve been experimenting with Patreon among other things. I’ve been at it for a few months now, and it’s been a positive experience overall. Right now I have over twenty patrons offering me over $350/month to make neat stuff for them, which for someone in a fairly niche set of media is pretty damned good. I offer a variety of reward packages for my patrons; along with getting to see my feed, which includes work in progress shots, previews of unpublished blog posts, and other goodies, patrons can also choose to have access to an exclusive monthly totem profile, or get nifty artistic creations or one of my books in the mail every month, and I’m open to suggestions for other things potential patrons might want.
It’s sort of hit a plateau over the past couple of months even though I’ve kept promoting it, so the model does have its limitations. That being said, I am very grateful for those who are my patrons, as well as those who would be if they had the money (and may be in the future as fortunes change!). It says a lot to me that there are over twenty people who like my work enough to want a regular feed of it in their email and snail mail!
EHS: One of the other issues you’ve been working with for some time is in educating other Neopagans about the legalities of owning certain types of animal remains: skins, feathers, bones, antlers. There is a wide array of laws both modern and older that strictly dictate which kinds of relics and from what animals can be legally owned. Most Neopagans understand that it’s illegal to own bald eagle feathers unless you’re a member of a federally-enrolled Native American tribe, but many fewer folk understand that the laws don’t stop there, and that it’s illegal to own a fairly large number of animal parts, especially where birds are concerned. It’s also true that some of the laws differ from country to country, although international laws bridge the gaps in some of those areas. Although you touch upon this briefly in some of your books (and somewhat more on your blog), what areas are there where people are most likely to run astray, and what would you say to those folks who say that they don’t care about the laws, they’re keeping that hawk feather/owl feather/fill in the blank, anyway?
Lupa: First, I do maintain a database of animal parts laws relevant mostly to the US here — it’s there as research fodder, not legal advice, but it’s a good starting point.
Feathers are a big area where I see people breaking the laws (whether they know it or not.) The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 makes it illegal to possess the remains, eggs, and nests of almost every wild bird in the US, including everything from robins and orioles to crows and ravens to raptors and most waterfowl. Even if the feather was found on the ground, you can’t prove it wasn’t ripped off a poached carcass, so it’s best to let it be. Nonetheless, whenever I go to festivals and other events — or even when I’m driving around Portland — I’ll see people with feathers in their hats and on staffs, or hanging off their rear view mirror. Less often I see people with hides and other mammal and reptile parts they’re not supposed to have, though the entanglements there are more with sales than mere possession. One law a lot of people don’t know about in Oregon, for example, is that it’s illegal to sell deer or elk antlers that are still attached to an intact skull plate; you have to cut off the antlers or break the skull plate. Yet I go to swap meets, antique shops, and vending booths that have these available, and I see them for sale online from people in Oregon, pagan and otherwise.
My general response is to inform them of the law in question and point them to the database, and leave it at that. I’m not a law enforcement official, and I know that fish and wildlife officials have more on their plate to deal with than some hippie with a molted hawk feather in their hat (unless they happen to walk by said hippie.) But the laws are there to protect the animals, and I encourage people to honor those animals and their respective totems by doing what they can to take care of them. This includes abiding by the laws set by people whose job it is to make sure overhunting, poaching, and other threats are dealt with as best as possible.
EHS: You’ve been — and continue to be — a writer, a blogger, a dancer, an artist, and a costumer. Is there one of these roles, over the rest, that brings you more joy? Is there a new role you’d like to take up in the future to add to these that would “round things out”, so to speak?
Lupa: Really, I’m happy just being a wannabe polymath. I have so many ideas for things I want to create and accomplish, and my main restrictions are time and money. I am 100% self-employed and I am the financial head of my household; most artists, authors, and other creative folk either have a day job or they have a well-off spouse supporting them so they don’t have to worry about the basics of paying bills with their creative endeavors. So while I do get to make cool things for a living, I’m also affected by the quirks of demand. A project that I think is really, really awesome may not sell for months or even years, while the simplest little creation may result in so many orders that I just get sick of making the damned things! It’s a good problem to have, though.
As to what I want to be in the future? Well, I’m thirty-six as of last Samhain, and I still haven’t quite figured out what I want to be when I grow up. I still have my Master’s degree in counseling psychology, and my efforts to do something with that have been back-burnered for a bit, but certainly not abandoned. I also have some other blogging and event ideas, along with a really, really awesome and complicated and probably materials-expensive art project that I’m going to start on as soon as I finish polishing up my current book manuscript (yes, I have one that’s even newer than The Totemic Ecosystem that I talked about above!). Honestly, that’s part of why I’m grateful for Patreon and my patrons; they’ve given me an extra boost of cash, some of which goes directly to bills, but some of which also ends up giving me a bit of financial breathing room and seed money for special projects. Seriously, if you want to see me do bigger and better things, go become my patron!
EHS: Finally: are you attending any pagan gatherings in the coming year as a guest/panelist/speaker? If so, when and where will those be, should others want the opportunity to listen to you speak or perform?
Lupa: Oh, geez, yes, there are a lot coming up! I’ll be presenting at PantheaCon in San Jose in February, and the following weekend at MythicFaire in Seattle; they’re both events I’ve presented at before, and I love them and their attendees quite a bit! I’m also excited to be a guest of honor at Paganicon in March, and I’ll likely be at PaganFaire in Portland, too. For less pagan-centric things, look for me in the Creation Station at NewCon over New Year’s weekend in Portland; I’ll be bringing back my popular workshop on recycling secondhand leather clothing for costuming and crafts. A little closer to home, I’ll be a guest at HOWL Con on February 7-8, 2015 in Portland; it’s a werewolf-themed convention that my partner organizes. And I have my own event that I run — Curious Gallery, a two-day arts festival celebrating cabinets of curiosity and their contents — will be on January 10-11, 2015 again in Portland.
And I’m open to teaching at other events and venues — just ask!
[Jennifer Lawrence likes the fey and the strange, which explains most of her friends. Her interests include gardening, herbalism, mythology and fairy tales, theology, Celtic music, role-playing games, horror movies, and the martial arts. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including Aphelion,Jabberwocky 4, Cabinet Des Fees, Goblin Fruit, and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology Unbound: A Devotional Anthology in Honor of Artemis. She lives somewhere near Chicago.]