When mining for bits of mythology about the Totem Cactus—through etymology, biology, history—one finds a variety of avenues of wonder and learning.
There is its appearance, to start. Covered with lumps and bumps and carbuncles, the skin of the Totem Cactus has been compared to a mixed bag of anthropomorphized forms: female breasts, old warty noses, a collection of faces. It is this latter resemblance that led to the plant’s common name, another path for consideration.
I am not a member of the First Nations or Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, and can’t speak to the lore of their iconic totem poles. Intricately carved from the region’s red cedars, these pillars signify a rich narrative of lineage and legend whose decoding is particular to members of the group that carved them.
Colonizers destroyed many of the poles and pressured their makers to cease forging new ones; nearly all totem-pole creation had ceased by 1901. Most of us have only seen roadside gift-shop facsimiles or heard the bastardized summation of their refuted hierarchical structure: “lowest man on the totem pole”.
In considering all these various facets of the Totem Cactus, though, one can sense a connective fiber. It leads the wanderer towards this particular moment, where not only the cactus but we as a species—creators, oppressors, observers all—are altering. As we struggle to find meaning in what nature’s representations might suggest, we find a directive to refine our own natures.
An evolutionary transition is a state in which certain factors combine to shift the organization of a life form. We and everything we see has been touched by and is somewhere along the spectrum of this process of transition, as life itself sorts out what best suits each of her creations.
Slightly different from cooperation or symbiosis, mutualism is an ecological interaction between two or more species where each has a net benefit. In obligate mutualism, one organism cannot survive without the other. Scientists suspect that the Totem Cactus and her loyal Senita moth are in such a stage of coevolution right now, slowly transforming into a relationship of total reliance.
As the sun sets on North America’s Sonoran Desert, the Totem Cactus unfurls her delicate night-blooming flowers, summoning the moths whose females have developed highly-specialized scales on their abdomen to pollinate the cactus. During her visits, she lays one egg on a flower petal. As the petals close near first light, the larva hatches and bores into the cactus’s developing fruit, spending a few days feeding before flying free.
Not all baby moths make it, and not all seeds and fruit are consumed; it is a perfect balance of mortality and destruction that ensures the hardiness and continuation of each species. The moths have evolved to be completely reliant on the Totem, and certain aspects of the Totem’s flowering season denote her favoritism for the moth over other pollinators.
That the Totem Cactus and Senita moth are at such a threshold of specific interdependence is something ripe, and human, to romanticize. We crave so deeply the ideal of reliance upon that one perfect specimen that will sustain us. I imagine greeting cards asking the recipient to “be my Senita moth”, and the rejoinders of the unrequited claiming, “but I adapted my abdominal scales for you!”
The pressures of natural selection revolve around nothing so ephemeral, or conscious. This fact doesn’t diminish human love, but puts it into context. The complexity of the process of obligate mutualism is intricate and mathematical, grander than both the cactus and the moth. The same can be said for our yearnings.
We see what we want to see, creating mythologies around systems whose mysteries are only partially available to us. Throughout history, dominant cultures have encouraged or suppressed behaviors and expressions that respectively supported or challenged their worldview. This has led us to the evolutionary space we inhabit right now: we can allow fear to whittle our perspectives, or we can realize our interconnection, and expand.
The word “totem” supposedly derives from the Algonquian or Ojibwe words odoodem/doodem, loosely denoting an emblem of kinship. This can translate to the idea of an animal spirit that appears in your path, or any significant token that symbolizes a connection to nature or others.
We have gotten so far from the heart of this definition, forcing “kinship” to apply to our own narratives and removing the role of nature and community altogether. It’s not really our fault; modern life makes it damn near impossible to reconcile that we are but one facet in her grand experiment.
The Totem cactus, with all her loaded symbolism, can serve as a balm to our sense of disconnection. She gently centers us in considering the miracle of the whole—those forces and circumstances that have led us to this particular moment where we are being asked to evolve. So much of it is not up to us, but so much of it is.
Perhaps then, her greatest medicine is in that meditation, in just sitting with the Totem Cactus and her singular frame of existence, in the midst of her species’ transition. She is akin to the Moon card in Tarot, which depicts such a state of held tension and uncertainty. The towers on the horizon mirror the Totem’s shape and may spark fear, but it is under the light of the moon (representing our subconscious) that nature’s great work occurs for the cactus.
It is a gamble to evolve; one’s success is never assured. But it is riskier not to. We may not be able to see the fruits just yet; it may be generations in the making. But what you choose to focus on now matters in the grand scheme of the collective. What an auspicious time to be alive.
A mantra when tending Totem Cactus:
I am interconnected with all beings in all forms.
I trust in the unseen forces that want me to thrive,
and care for others as I do myself.