Opossum

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For those of you who, like me, haven’t really had much to do with opossums, here is some basic info:

  • They are about the size of a house cat.
  • They have a long tail which seems to be a bit like a rats in that it’s furless.
  • Their feet have what is essentially an opposable thumb so they can clasp things.
  • They adapt to a wide range of environments but prefer places which provide some cover.
  • They are nocturnal and solitary.
  • In the wild they life about a year but in captivity this goes up to a massive 10 years.
  • The opossum is a marsupial, in fact it’s North America’s only marsupial.

When threatened, the opossum curls up and plays dead and this is the source of the American saying “to play possum”.  To make their death seem even more real, they can emit a scent which smells like death and also foam from the mouth.  They don’t actually have control over this reaction, it’s an unconscious response to fear.  The opossum is here to give you a nudge to examine your own unconscious reactions.  It might be how you react when afraid, or it could be how you respond when angry or when someone pushes that button that enrages you.  Opossum may also be here to teach us that there is a time for inaction, a time when not doing something is better than doing something.  Less prominent but perhaps still a good reminder is not to judge by appearance.  Also, be aware of people deceiving you.

Despite their fairly unique approach to danger, they can also run quite fast and climb well.  A third option if they are attacked is to make themselves look more dangerous than they are – they hiss, arch their back and bare all 50 of their teeth.  Essentially, they have a range of options in their toolbox and they are adept at choosing what is best for the situation in front of them, unless playing dead chooses for them.  Try and find a range of ways of responding to challenges and you’ll fare much better.

Much mythology explains the behaviour and characteristics of animals and with the opossum, both their habit of playing dead and their prehensile tail are explained by a Cherokee story.  Once upon a time the Opossum had a fluffy, bushy tail, a bit like a Squirrel’s.  But Opossum was vain and demanded admiration for his tail.  Over time this got boring and draining and no one really wanted to admire it anymore.  Rabbit decided enough was enough and set out to trick Opossum.  Rabbit sent Cricket to style the tail and whilst it was being brushed Opossum fell asleep.  When he woke, his tail was wrapped in ribbon and later that day, the ribbons were removed and revealed a tail which was no longer fluffy and bushy like Squirrel’s.  Instead it was as bald and scaly as Snake.  Opossum fainted with the shock and the shame and to this day, when Opossum is shocked, scared or ashamed, he will faint.

This story highlights the moral issues around vanity and pride but interestingly, when the Europeans began to colonise they saw the opossum as versatile, adaptable and maternal.  Perhaps their maternal reputation came about from their big broods, up to 13 babies, which climb into their mum’s pouch as teeny tiny creatures.  Once they are bigger, they ride around on mum’s back, creating a comical sight that screams motherhood.  In some parts of Mexico, their tails are eaten to improve fertility.

As an interesting aside, the male opossum has a forked penis and, to match, the female has a bifurcated vagina.  This led people to speculate that the males impregnated females via the nose…

As well as having lots of children at once, they also have a lot of litters.  This, combined with a flexible diet and adaptability mean the opossum makes a successful coloniser and can live well in a wide range of places, under differing conditions.  Change is not something that the opossum need fear, they have the tools and ability to cope well with it.  Humans are less embracing so channelling the opossum can create a healthier response.

Grip and dexterity are important parts of the opossum’s life; are you holding on too tightly to something that is unhelpful? Are you grasping at straws? Are you grasping things easily?  As well as their clasping opposable thumbs, they have their prehensile tail which, in addition to being used as a tool, is also used to balance.  This brings in possible questions around equality, about harmony and about stability.  This could be in your environment, in your emotional life, your family life and so on.

Like so many rodent-esque creatures, these guys are misunderstood. Their reputation as pests overlooks their role in pest management, in keeping rubbish levels down and even slow down the spread of lyme disease.  Far from being unclean, they spend a lot of time grooming themselves.

They have an interesting history, having seen dinosaurs – they are one of the oldest mammals on record – they existed in north America, then left and then re-enterered to take the place of north america’s only marsupial.

To survive this long requires excellent adaptation, in the case of the opossum this includes having a reduced tendency to contract rabies and immunity to poison and venom.  For example, they can survive attacks from the pit viper which would normally cause a quick death from haemorrhaging but this marsupial is able to block the activity of the enzyme which causes the damage and can thus neutralise the toxic effect.  Size and deadliness really doesn’t matter when it comes to the opossum and the snake!

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Mountain Lion

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Mountain lion * Cougar * Puma * Catamount *Florida Panther

There are different names for this feline which depend on where you live.  Spanish explorers called it leon (lion) and gato monte (cat of the mountain), hence mountain lion.  Puma comes from the Incas and cougar is thought to come from cuguacuarana, an old south American Indian word.  The Florida panther is a subspecies of the mountain lion found in swamps in florida and is extremely endangered with about 50 cats left.

As well as their name changing as you range through their territory, so does their colouring.  In warmer areas they tend to be a darker, reddish brown and in colder areas, are more silvery grey.

Whatever you call this creature, it’s the largest cat in north America and is found in mountainous regions.  It’s solitary and territorial, feeding primarily on wild animals but they have been known to take farm stock which has caused issues.

They are excellent hunters, very patient and can sit still for hours waiting to ambush prey, even killing animals much larger than themselves.  They hunt in daytime but still remain elusive, mysterious and invisible, moving through the landscape silently and stealthily.  When they have the time, and appetite, they will leave nothing but blood splatter and fur.

Teaching us the importance of patience and silence, the mountain lion may well be an ambassador for meditation.

When they do move, they excel at that as well.  They can jump 18 feet from the ground into a tree and have been known to jump the equivalent of a two story building up or down a hillside.  They run very fast and can maneuver easily, much like cheetahs, changing direction with ease.

Over and over, when I was researching this creature, I kept coming up against the idea of leadership, something which feels strange when we are dealing with a solitude loving cat.  Instead of a dictator style leader, we find the mountain lion cast as reluctant leader, he has the power needed and the physical strength some argue you need but he also has grace and leads without insisting others follow.  Instead of creating rules that must be followed, he demonstrates and teaches, and leads, by example.  The mountain lion is a quiet leader who defies the common expectations we have of rulers.  In doing so, he shows us what it is to step into our own power, to honour (or at times to find) that part of us which may remain hidden.  In believing in himself, he becomes powerful in his own way.  He follows his convictions and in doing so, he becomes king of the mountain.

As they are solitary animals, they only pair up for the breeding season.  During this time, males and females sleep and hunt together for a couple of weeks.  The babies will then remain with their mother for the first year, sometimes for the first two years.  It is then that they’ll learn how to hunt; mum will teach by example and the cubs will also learn from their own failures.  Like the cubs, we too learn through experience.  We can read and read and read but we’ll never know how to play tennis unless we pick up a racket.  If we never buy any ingredients, all the knowledge we learn watching cooking programmes will never go to use.

They are good mothers and when mum has to leave her babies to go and hunt, she tucks them away in dens and crevices.  When preventative protection isn’t an option, the mother will show great strength in defending her children.  She is a responsible and loving mother.

“Responsibility is no more than the ability to respond to any situation.  Panic is not a part of this sacred medicine.”
– Medicine cards

Despite only coming together to mate, mountain lions leave messages using faeces, urine, scratched logs and other marks.  Just because you don’t see someone very often, doesn’t mean you aren’t in touch. Some of my best friends over my life have been people who’ve lived miles away from me.  Instead of building or maintaining a relationship based on physical proximity, I have friends who I share interests or experiences with and instead of regular coffees and catch ups, I send them texts, emails, messages and post.

When we looked at the coyote, human wildlife conflict was an important topic to consider and whilst mountain lions share the potential for danger, they don’t often enter human worlds.  They do their best to avoid us and when they do, they would rather flee than fight us.  Where coyotes encroached on our habitats, mountain lions have shrunk their home as humans have expanded.  When Europeans first settled in North America, mountain lions lived from coast to coast.  Now they are confined to the west (excluding the small Florida population).

In mythology, we have the stories which display the strength, grace and power of the mountain lion.  They are depicted as courageous and in the story of the Wolf, the Fox, the Bobcat and the Cougar, those creatures protected a group of North Americans from some evil beings.

In the story of the puma and the bear, we learn about the importance of preparedness and the perils of cockiness.  Bear ran off with Puma’s wife and boasted that he was so strong that he had nothing to fear from Puma and so he didn’t think to prepare for a fight.  Obviously Puma won and Bear was killed, Puma’s wife was banished for her infidelity.

Mountain lions seem to have been called on for their skills as warriors, as defenders and as hunters.  They have also been associated with healing and in particular, for curing illness caused by witches.

Given their secretive nature, perhaps this is a card that is asking you to seek out what is hidden, or leave well alone.  Like much of this card, there is no straightforward, clear cut answer.  You must use your intuition and feel your way into it to find your own personal meaning and understanding.

Coyote

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“Coyote… you devil!
You tricked me once more!
Must I sit and ponder,
What you did it for?”
– Medicine cards

Coyotes are similar to wolves but are about 1/3 the size of them.  Intuitively this says to me that we should consider the wolf but take it with less intensity.  Like wolves, coyotes are one of north Americas top predators.  There are some similarities, they are also loyal, they like to sing – apparently being enthusiastic singers from birth – and they are superbly designed killers with an excellent sense of smell and hearing.

But where wolves are pack animals, coyotes are not.  Instead they form small family groups and when they grow up, the young head off to find a mate and create their own small unit and establish their own territory.  They are also more adaptable than wolves, and in ideal circumstances are scavengers.  This has led to conflict with humans as they encroach on ‘human’ spaces and take advantage of the helpfully available livestock.

We have unintentionally created great environments for coyotes, providing food and cover for them, and as land use has changed across America, they have been able to vastly extend their range.  Whilst some people are angry that coyotes are killing livestock and naturally existing deer populations (a bounty programme has been created which incentivises hunting and killing coyotes), others encourage their presence – in one documentary I watched, someone was even going so far as to put out a heated pet bed for them on cold nights…  This divide in opinions seems to depend on where the humans in question live, as opposed to where the coyotes live; in rural areas they are persecuted and in urban areas they are encouraged.  This vast divide says much more about humans than coyotes.

“They don’t belong here, shoot them all.”
                                                 “We love them, we stole their habitats
and we owe it to them to let them live here.”

Neither these views are entirely correct but its clear that it’s an emotive issue that splits opinions.  Even how we say coyote is divisive… coy-ote or coy-oh-tee…

“We tolerate animals only on our own terms. Mutualism is the existence in nature of a relationship that benefits both parties, the crocodile and the plover bird, for instance. The plover bird picks clean the teeth of the crocodile, who in turn does not snap its mouth shut. Dogs started out as wolves who entered a symbiotic relationship with man, helping to bring down big game in return for a place by the fire.”
Aminatta Forna

Although she was talking about the fox, what she had to say was very relevant here.  Like the fox, coyote is “a creature that chooses to live close to humans but refuses subordination, has submitted neither to domestication nor taming, will not bend to anyone’s will.”  We find this irreverence challenging, reminding us of our own limitations when it comes to taming and controlling nature.

I checked my emails half way through writing this and right there was an email linking to an essay about urban coyotes! It described them as “quintessential adapters, they consistently defy human expectations.”

And I think this is something we need to think about in terms of the meaning of the coyote card.  There is the reminder that we can adapt to changing circumstances, to changing relationships, to changing beliefs.  We may not like change but that doesn’t mean that we can’t deal with it.  Additionally, the defying expectations is an interesting point to ponder; do you defy expectations, where, why not, where do you want to?  We can get stuck in a vicious circle where we are known as the quiet one, so people expect us to be quiet, and thus we are quiet, or loud or gossipy or scientific etc etc.  There is nothing to say you need just be that, but we get comfortable there.  I was always the mathematical one, but people who’ve only known me for the last few years would see me as the arty one.  I am, like you are, many versions of myself, sometimes complementary and sometimes seemingly in conflict, but all are me.

Returning for a moment to the coyotes which aren’t just encroaching on human habitat but are actually integrating themselves:

“Coyotes let us know that the mental boundaries we keep—between the human and the wild—are more porous than we may have ever imagined. In the midst of our attempts to control the landscape, to put humans here and nature there, coyotes express an alternative set of ideas about boundaries.”
– Gavin Van Horn

Coyotes, more so than wolves, look like dogs and perhaps they challenge our ideas about our own civilisation in that way as well.  If they can look like our tame pets but remain wild, what does that say of our own animalistic natures?

As they are territorial, boundaries are important and they are regularly patrolled and remarked.  Whilst I’m not suggesting you take to scent marking, perhaps you could be looking at other ways of building and refreshing your own boundaries.

Coyotes are resourceful and clever, learning quickly which turns out to be very important when it comes to play.  Like many animals, play is a way of practising life skills but there is a protocol which marks the lines between play and fight.  If you are playing, you bow first then play.  And fairness and honesty matters.  If you bow and then attack, you won’t be chosen for play so much and so you won’t learn the skills you need, you may also find you have to leave the group and will probably die.  Play fair guys!  And know that there are consequences if you don’t.

Stealthy and secretly, they move through the landscape like ghosts, silently and leaving as little trace as possible.  When a pack moves, they often walk in single file, paw print in paw print, leaving the impression that only one coyote has moved through the land.  This puts me in mind of the countryside code – take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.  An interesting association given the debate about hunting coyotes…

Coyotes watch and assess situations with powerful amber eyes and keen radar like ears.  This observation, paired with their intellect, makes them virtually indestructible.  Even putting out poisoned bait doesn’t trick the coyote as their exceptional nose sniffs it out.

Some North American mythology tells of how the coyote create the world along with the wolf, in one case they sang the universe into being.  Known to some as God’s dog, Coyote has been said to be the creators spy on earth.  Another myth involved the coyote being sent to earth to help clumsy and stupid humanity.  It is said that the north American peoples knew that coyote was intelligent and resourceful and believed that they were sent by the gods to teach humans how to live.  The gift of fire is also attributed to the coyote.

There are also many stories where the coyote takes on the role of the trickster.  He can trick himself and fall into his own traps but he can also make others laugh – so much depends on what trick he chooses to play.  He asks us who we are tricking, who is tricking us, is this playful or hurtful? Don’t be tricked by appearances when coyote visits you, things often aren’t what they seem to be on the surface.  You may need to dig and search for the wisdom or the message.

As a trickster, coyote has been referred to as a troublemaker, prince of chaos but also, because of this tendency to mix things up, as transformer, as catalyst.  To make change, you must break conformity and take a risk that this change will not turn out for the best.  Because Coyote isn’t afraid of change, he does make mistakes, but through these, he has become wise.  They may fall but they can put themselves back together again.  They may get hurt, but they can heal.  One belief around the coyote echoes this; the Chief Coyote was said to possess the indestructible disc of the sun which gives him immortality, or a daily renewal.

He teaches us not to take ourselves so seriously, that laughter can be a powerful message and that staying playful can be healing.  Do things for the fun of them.

Skunk

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Like some of the other animals I’ve looked at, the skunk’s reputation foreshadows them and whilst I will discuss their odour defence system, I want to start by looking at…

Skunks are part of the weasel family and whilst they tend to be pictured with one white stripe, they actually have two which join at the back of the neck.  They are solitary animals which tend to live in abandoned dens, rarely digging their own, instead taking advantage of existing options, and we’ll see this resourcefulness in other aspects of skunk life so it’s something to keep in mind.  As well as being opportunistic when it comes to home arrangements, they are also opportunistic eaters.  They eat a wide range of foods including animals which we commonly consider pests eg rodents and crop eating insects.  As such, you might have more to thank a skunk for than you think.  Their resourcefulness is complemented by an adaptability which allows them to live in a wide range of environments including deserts, woodlands and the suburbs.

Even before we get onto discussing reputation and scent, we’ve already got excellent fodder for reflection; the elusive and solitary nature reminding us that there’s a time to be alone and a time to be with others, the idea of taking advantage of opportunities that are around us and the idea of being adaptable to get the most from those opportunities.

Skunk mums are very protective but on the whole, skunks are actually quite peaceful and graceful, able to teach us how to interact with others in peace, to live and let live.

But what, you ask, of their terrible smelling spray?  How can that possibly be an example of pacifism?  Well… Whilst they are well known for their smell, they only spray musk when they are threatened and it is a last resort.  Before spraying, they give warnings – they stamp their feet, change position so they are facing away from the target and lift their tail.  It is only after this that they will spray and if you haven’t paid attention to the warning signs, watch out as they can spray up to 15 feet!  The scent is made up of seven different chemicals and if it gets in your eyes it will certainly burn and may cause temporary blindness.  Because of this, the skunk earns respect.  Note also that although the skunk defends itself, it isn’t aggressive and the impact of it’s weapon is temporary.

They also use their black and white lines to highlight their defence, like the badger, so if you’ve reached the point of spray, you’re really not listening to the skunk.  Pay attention to the signs, there’s rarely a bite without a bark…

Whilst the skunk’s musk isn’t what we tend to think of as a pleasant smell, it’s actually used in perfume and has even been considered an aphrodisiac…  Scent is a very powerful tool, smells are known to evoke memories and can be a powerful route to nostalgia or emotion.  They can be used to attract – pheromones and perfume – and repel – tear gas.

When talking about smell its worth noting the role it has in how we think about things.  Traditionally ‘good’ smells have been associated with virtue and higher classes of people and ‘bad’ smells associated with disease, lower classes and laziness.  But having said that, humans, at least in the western world, tend to neglect scent, instead heavily privileging sight and sound.

Because of their reputation, humans tend to steer clear of skunks, a response that would generally be disproportionate given their size, or lack of.  This means that the skunk could come to be associated with loneliness and being on the outside but equally, the skunk may have taken their treatment and essentially give people the middle finger.  Reading about how the skunk is seen in the medicine cards and the animal allies, the latter seems to be the case.  Both talk of the skunk taking his own, unique, path through life.  There is an element of nonchalance and an aura of confidence with the skunk.

For those of us who think skunk and think only of smell, take this as a nudge to consider people and get to know them before you take their reputation as gospel.  Perhaps instead of ignoring people who are cast as scapegoats and stigmatised, get to know them and decide for yourself.  We also need to note that the skunk is judged based on a behaviour that is only engaged in a tiny amount of the time.  Perhaps we need to give people the benefit of the doubt.  How someone behaves on a day they’ve had really awful news should not define them.  We all do and say things we wouldn’t in other circumstances.

Unable to find validation externally, the skunk has turned inward and found a much more potent validation within himself.  He feels sure but not cocky.

“Learn to assert, without ego, what you are.  Respect follows.  Your self-respectful attitude will repel those who are not of like mind, and yet will attract those who choose the same pathway.  As the odour of Skunk attracts others of its kind, it repels those who will not respect its space.”
– Medicine Cards

Sometimes, lacking the respect of others, the skunk goes one better and respects himself.  He projects this through his body language and how he holds himself.  He knows his own worth and he stands tall because of it.  You do not need to be physically strong in order to be powerful.  There is strength that comes from knowing, respecting and loving yourself and this brings a quiet power.

Note the subtly here between feeling your self worth and becoming self obsessed.  I feel like the skunk knows he has flaws but he doesn’t let them define him.

Skunks are also commended for being true to who they are, they are misunderstood but instead of trying to conform, they just focus on being themselves; a great model of self acceptance.

In arguing for the striped skunk, the iconic species, to be the emblem of America, Ernest Thompson Seton wrote:

“It is, first of all, peculiar to [America].  It has stars on its head and stripes on its body.  It is an ideal citizen; minds its own business, harms no one and is habitually inoffensive, as long as it is left alone; but it will face any one or any number when aroused.”

Because it is declaring itself to be a danger right there on its back, and because it knows if things get tough it can release the odour it is so famous for, the skunk can walk around with confidence and fearlessness. It knows it’s correctly armed and sure of how to use its defences.

As I was writing about this, I was watching a VICE video on YouTube about people who own skunks as pets… These get “descented”, the process which means a skunk cannot spray scent.  There is a SkunkFest festival where dedicated owners get together to talk all things skunk and there’s even a contest of sorts… A vet in this video explained that owners treat them like children, dress them up and let them sleep in the bed with them.  One woman seemed to have more than a handful of skunks and the discussion with the journalist seemed to suggest there was a lot of work required and that the skunks ruled the roost…

Mythologically speaking, the fact that the skunk stands it’s ground and doesn’t back down means they are often associated with war and relatedly, with strength and courage.  Skunks also feature in a creation story from the Ojibwe and as an interesting titbit, Chicago comes from the Ottawa language and means ‘the place of the skunk’.

Common themes in skunk myths include disrespect and arrogance having severe consequences, vanity being punished and the skunk being clever and using trickery to outsmart others.  In one in particular, skunk gets the better of a vain opossum.  In Lakota mythology, skunks were said to be powerful because they stand up to danger and this meant that when heading into battle, Lakota warriors would sometimes take skunk tokens into battle.  Some Cherokees believed that the powerful smell of dead skunks would ward off disease and so they’d hang them over doors for protection.

Skunks are both cast as villain and saviour, as hero and trickster, as monsters and idols.  This dichotomy of pest or pet is also reflected in people’s views of the skunk – is it a cute and humorous creature that features in cartoons or is it loathed and considered vile?  We have already seen that actually skunks can be important in managing pest populations despite many people thinking of them solely as a pest.  Perhaps the best lesson we can learn from the skunk is that nothing is actually black and white.  Just as the skunk itself comes in a range of colours, so too should our thinking.

Seven of Wands

In the Animal Totem Tarot, the skunk is pictured on the Seven of Wands.  Where in your life do you feel constantly defensive?  How do you hold your ground?  How do you act when backed into a corner?  If you are being called to defend something you have created or are passionate about, and aren’t doing so or willing to, is this something that’s really worth your time?  Consider this call to defend it as a test of how important it really is to you.

Squirrel

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“Preparing for the inevitable change of the future but in a lighthearted sort of way.”
Animal Allies

Before I jump into my discussion of the squirrel, I wanted to touch on Jessica’s description (above).  This feels to me like a lighter version of the wheel of fortune.  The inevitable, ever changing cycles but dealing with them with less seriousness.  A sort of dark humour approach to life.

Perhaps the main thing you’ll know about squirrels is their hording tendencies.  They hide food away, ready for harder times and this card reminds us to plan and prepare and put something aside for the future.  There is also a reminder here about remembering where you’ve put things… I’m sure we’ve all put things in safe places only to forget where they are… Well squirrels do the same…  Only when they forget where they’ve stashed their nuts, they inadvertently help out the forest by letting a tree have a chance at life.  They are great at planning and organising but not so good at the follow through…

Perhaps it is not just literal resources that you need to preserve, perhaps it’s emotional and physical “spoons”.  Or perhaps this squirrel is suggesting you need to extend this thrifty tendency to your pennies.  Of course, conversely, you might be hoarding things, holding onto things you no longer need, not letting go or holding onto things for reasons you’ve long since forgotten.

Whilst they don’t recall all the locations of their food caches, they do have very good spatial memory – does this chime with you in any way?  I’m not sure how it would but I wanted to include it just in case…  Squirrels, like crows, use deceptive behaviour if they think that anyone is watching them bury their nuts.  This feels very seven of swords… (scroll to the end of the post).

The squirrel’s way of life is driven by the changing seasons so perhaps what you do needs to change accordingly. If you look back at the bear from the wild unknown, you’ll find an interesting note about flowing with the seasons and adapting behaviour and expectations accordingly.

As well as their chattering vocalisation, grey squirrels communicate with body language which is a good reminder that most of human communication is non verbal.  Most of the behaviour we see such as chasing and chattering is actually territorial fighting.  Is your body language aligned with your words and are other peoples words in line with their body language?  How are you sparring with those around you?  What ‘territory’ matters to you?

Whilst the squirrel pictured on the animal allies card is a grey squirrel, you don’t have to be talking about the species long before the topic of red squirrels comes up.  Where red squirrels have inhabited Britain for about 10,000 years, greys were released in the UK in the 19th century.  Originally from North America, they were imported and released into parklands as amusing novelties but they rapidly became common and now live in most of the country,having replaced the native reds.  As they started to spread, they were welcomed as ‘sociable, easily tamed animal[s]’ (Manchester Guardian, 1912) but by 1932, it was illegal to release a grey squirrel in Britain.  This change in attitudes may be a reminder that fashions change, that attitudes change and that we are just one part of an ever-changing world.  What is in today may be out tomorrow, what is bothering you now, may blow over by next week.

Unfortunately for the greys, the passion that some people have for the reds turns into a hatred of the greys. This can feel a bit like there are two gangs and you have to join one side or the other… Another way of viewing it is through the lens of immigration and prejudice against non native creatures.  The issue is very divisive and it may be worth reflecting on your own life – are you facing a similar situation over a different issue? Are you stubbornly sticking to your side without hearing the other side out?  Things in life are rarely black and white…

But back to the grey squirrels, partly as they are more common in the UK and partly because the animal allies card pictures one.  They are diurnal (active during the day) and spend their time foraging in trees (preferring deciduous forests where reds prefer evergreen forests) and on the ground.  The grey squirrel is unusual in that it can climb down a tree head first suggesting that you need to take a heads on approach yourself.

Whilst they do live up to the stereotype of eating nuts, they also eat bulbs, tree shoots, fungi and even birds eggs and baby birds.. This probably doesn’t help them to negate the perception of grey squirrels as rats with tails…

As well as being considered an arch nemesis of the red squirrel, greys are thought of as pests, especially in young forests as they like to strip the bark of saplings.  Gardeners often cast them in the role of nuisance, trouble maker as well.

Grey squirrels are carriers of a squirrel disease that affects reds significantly more than greys and this is one of the reasons why the red population has decreased since the greys were introduced.  This puts me in mind of those toxic people in your life, the vampiric friends who suck the life out of you but don’t seem to notice or be fazed.

But the squirrel card isn’t bad news, I happen to love them and think they can be rather entertaining and at times elegant to watch.  A beautiful aspect of the grey squirrel is it’s scientific name – Sciurus carolinensis – with sciurus translating as shadow tail which I find very evocative.  According to Wikipedia, it alludes to the squirrel sitting in the shadow of its tail!  And talking of tails, allegedly, of all the animals in eden, the squirrel was the most shocked when Adam and Eve ate the apple and hid behind his tail.  His reaction was seen as honourable and thus the squirrel was granted a bushy tail.

In North American Indians mythology, squirrels apparently tend to be noisy, aggressive gossips who cause trouble.  That said, they can also be great examples of preparedness and messengers who bring warnings.  I feel like we’re seeing a lot of polarisation with the squirrel – the battle of red and grey, of forest helper and gardeners nemesis, the aggressive gossip who can also bring helpful warnings.  It feels to me that this is a card that wants you to think about extremes.  Most behaviours, attitudes etc can be harmful when taken to extremes.

This idea of contrariness is echoed in European beliefs where, despite the squirrel being seen as a pest, it was considered unlucky to kill one and somehow it was also thought that burning a squirrel on a bonfire was supposed to drive away vermin.

Another appearance of squirrels in mythology can be found in norse cultures.  The squirrel Ratatoskr lives in the world tree and carries news and gossip between the different inhabitants of the tree.  This echoes the north American idea of the squirrel as messenger.  They can scurry from branch to branch, chattering away to different animals who live in the forest and thus they are natural messengers although it seems, in folklore, that they carry both mundane and more important warnings.  As squirrels can climb and climb, they can eventually reach the heavens and thus they carry mundane and spiritual messages.  It is down to us to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Armadillo – Animal Allies

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The armoured armadillo clearly talks to us about personal boundaries – its name even means “little armoured one” in Spanish. In this sense, some of what I’ve covered about the turtle, crab and snail will be relevant – the Aztec’s actually called armadillos ‘rabbit-turtle’.  Unlike these though, the armour is made from several bony plates.

The armour can offer protection from predators but apparently armadillos often chose to run into thorny bushes instead of relying on this, that said, the armour does protect against the sharp thorns!  Like the pangolin, the armadillo asks us how we react when you are threatened.  We should also consider what makes us feel uncomfortable and, just as importantly, what makes us feel comforted.

The armadillo’s armour can be a line that is drawn between it and the world, as an impenetrable barrier, as a way of keeping things out and thus we need to consider whether we are letting the wrong things in or keeping the right things out.

Whilst many people believe that all armadillos can encase themselves in their shell by rolling up, it is actually only the three banded armadillo that can (I’m thinking this is the nine banded armadillo).  Often in life we react to pain by retreating fully inside our shell, the armadillo is here to remind us that vulnerability can be a helpful response.  Yes it can hurt, but it can also be beneficial in the longer term.  Brene Brown talks about vulnerability hangovers which can be a great way of feeling into that awful exposed feeling you get when you are vulnerable.

Another way we can consider the idea of personal boundaries is with regards to privacy and there is a importance to having your privacy and respecting others.  I think considering whether you are honouring your privacy or whether you are being (unnecessarily) secretive or guarded.  This is something I discussed when I was looking at the fox from the wild unknown oracle card as it was also pictured on the seven of swords tarot card.

Not being fans of the cold – they can die from poor weather – these animals live in temperate and warm habitats.  In fact other than to mate, the only time armadillos socialise is to keep warm.  Most species dig burrows and sleep in them for 16 odd hours a day.  They forage in the early morning and evening for bugs and insects using their keen sense of smell to compensate for their poor eyesight.  They are especially fans of ants and termites and are equipped with strong legs and huge, sharp claws that can dig into nests.  Their long, sticky tongue also comes in useful for getting the ants and termites out of tunnels.

There are physical aspects of the armadillo that remind me of the badger – the strong claws, the burrowing and underground life.  With this we can see the armadillo as being grounded, as earth medicine and as digging for something (or away from something).  Digging burrows means that armadillos define their own space and also creates a space which (hopefully) feels safe and secure.  We all have different things which make us feel safe and secure and armadillo is encouraging more of these into your life.  Armadillos are a bit picky about where they live and prefer a particular type of soil which again I feel is about valuing and considering the important of your environment.

Tied in with having a safe space and time alone is the idea of withdrawing from the world, temporarily, to recharge and to recuperate.  The armadillo sleeps for most of the day in order to do this but for humans this isn’t all that healthy… We do need to ensure we get enough high quality sleep and this will vary from person to person but sleep should not be the only time we relax.  How else are you taking time out?  How else are you engaging in everyday acts of self care and self compassion?

The nine banded armadillo has, unsurprisingly, nine bands!  And if you’re into numerology you might want to look into this.  In tarot, nine cards are about compromises, the final struggle and endings.  You’re almost there and you might need a bit of an extra push to make it to the goal or you might need to let go of such an exacting idea of what the outcome looks like.  What I find really helpful in understanding the armadillo is to think about it alongside the hermit card from tarot which is the ninth card in the major arcana.

Hermit

“I find solace and growth in quiet reflection, and I honour my need for solitude”
Jessi Huntenburg

“I think human beings must have quiet to survive.  And we have to go inside ourselves to find peace”
– Bob Roth

The hermit is about sacred solitude and going within to find clarity.  There is power in retreating from distractions and opinions of others to determine your own truth and ideas.  Meditation, stillness and pausing are ways of finding this with introspection, searching inwards and processing being more active ways.  Questions to consider include:

  • Where is my retreat?
  • How do I connect with my inner truth?
  • Is your solitude driven by a drive to sit with yourself or as a defence mechanism?
  • How are you making time for yourself?

protection * boundaries * defence * environment * personal space * relaxation * withdrawing * retreating

Badger

I was pleased to see the badger card in this deck as I’d already been planning on writing a post about these shy yet fierce woodland creatures.

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Left to right: Animal Allies, Medicine Cards

Nocturnal and elusive, the badger is generally a social creature.  That being said, Jessica Swift who created the deck views this particular badger as “a bit of a loner, preferring to deal with others indirectly rather than directly.”  I looked into this and it turned out be a geographical difference as I am in the UK and she is in the US.  As I am writing from the UK, I’m going to look on the badger as a social creature.  If on the other hand, you’re from the US or the solitary badger has more pull for you, do go away and read about it.

Badgers are goddesses of underground living.  They create complex, long lasting burrow systems which are built by both male and females. They evolve and develop over time and are regularly being added to.  They are active spaces which can last generations.  This means they become a key part of the landscape and can be there for hundreds of years.  A cete of badgers (the correct term for a group) will have a number of setts in their territory with extensive tunnel networks with multiples exits for safety.  These are also at various heights which ensure good ventilation.  The badger home is not a haphazard guess but rather the result of years of hard work and reminds me of the beaver in that respect.

As I was looking online to see how people view badgers as spirit animals and what the associated characteristics tend to be, tenacity and determination came up a number of times as did the idea of needing to put in hard work to ensure something is a success.  If I was going to allocate the badger a suit from tarot it would be the pentacles and not just because they are earthy creatures but also down to their work ethic.  There feels like a slow and steady, putting in the effort, type approach from these creatures that chimes with a few of the pentacle cards.

Returning to their subterranean world, we find an animal that is grounded, down to earth and has a deep affinity with the land and mother earth.  If the badger has appeared as a medicine, you may want to explore your connection to the earth whether it is standing barefoot on the grass or exploring growing your own food etc.  They are also often ascribed healing powers and I have come across quite a few references to root medicine or magic including medicine men and women using a badger’s paw in healing ceremonies to ‘dig’ the disease out.

Another way you might interpret their underground and overground lives is by leaning into the idea that our world sits atop a fairy or magical realm, such as the irish Tuatha Dé Danann.  In this metaphor, badgers could be seen as messengers, bringing us secrets or ideas from a different world.  Perhaps this could be extended to an invitation to see things from a different perspective?  Their underground homes could also be about seeing below the surface, looking deeper and getting beyond the superficial.

Digging deep may also be felt into as a metaphor.  Because they can dig deep, it is hard to keep a secret from the badger, they can uncover things which perhaps even you don’t yet knoe about yourself.  This could be a call to spend some time trawling through your mind and tuning into your feelings and, if badger magic is working for you, you may find this to be a healing process.

Badgers’ diet varies throughout the year.  They enjoy apples, earthworms, roots and insects to name a few of the items on the badger menu.  They are omnivorous and whilst they really do like worms, they can switch to other food making themselves very adaptable to seasonal change.  Are you, like the badger, keeping your options open?

Somehow I’ve made it this far through the post without exploring the iconic colourings of the badger.  Their black and white stripes on their face direct attention towards their intensely strong jaw and sharp teeth – their key defences – and highlight their powerful defence.  Courage and strength are often associated with badgers which combined with perseverance creates an animal you want to keep on side.  Related to this, Jessica Dawn Palmer says:

“Once badger has bitten into something it won’t let go.  It would die rather than give up, so badger teaches us how to stick to a project and see it through to its completion.”

Whilst this is an admirable quality, do be careful of holding on tightly to the wrong things.

The black and white markings could also suggest a polarity which is akin to that which we saw with the bear; both a fierce and strong warrior but also a loving family orientated creature.  Interestingly, whilst the badger is known for being black and white, it’s body is actually grey.  Having just been on a three week pain management programme which included elements of CBT, I am viewing this as a reminder that life is not black and white and that black and white thinking is normally unhelpful in life.  Instead we can look towards the more nuanced grey, the inbetween, the compromise, the middle way.

Another common theme that has popped up many times in my research has been the link between badgers and storytelling.  I have yet to find out why but for now I am hypothesising that it is down to their intensely strong jaw which could then be taken as being a powerful communicator and then, although it feels tenuous, a great storyteller.  Another (less feasible but rather sweet) image that has popped into mind is of a badger family all sitting around in their sett on a cold winter’s day listening to wise elder badgers telling stories.

As storyteller, the badger “was keeper of history in the form of legend and lore.  Badger knows both past and future while maintaining a firm grip on the present” (Parker).  Regardless of why, this association does give us some interesting areas to explore.  We can think of storytelling as a social activity that connects and binds a group.  We can think of the personal stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and who we should be and who others think we should be.  These stories are powerful and can affect how you view yourself but they are stories so if they aren’t helpful, change the narrative.  I know building self esteem and self confidence isn’t as easy as that but it is one tool in your tool box.  Maybe think about the stories that you’ve heard over the course of your life and why or how some of them have been important or made a lasting impression.

On the topic of stories, let’s have a quick look at fictional and folkloric badgers.  According to Wikipedia, “authors of fictional works employing badgers have often emphasised their natural reclusive privacy and their ferocity and courage when protecting themselves”.  Personally, I was a bit stumped when it came to thinking of fictional badgers.  There is of course Mr Badger from Wind in the Willows and the badger which Beatrix Potter created.  For anyone of my generation there was the badger in The Animals of Farthing Wood but then I got stuck.

Interesting, in contrast to Wikipedia, John Dougherty wrote in the Guardian that “badgers in stories are usually wise and kindly animals”.  It seems that, like their black and white stripes, badgers in fiction find themselves cast in two polar opposite roles.

“The roles played by the badger in folklore fall basically into three categories: that of vengeful transformer, grateful friend and roguish prankster”
Violet H. Harada (PDF)

Turning from fiction to folklore, we find the Chinese and Japanese badger is a shapeshifter.  Not only can this creature appear human, but they can also shapeshift into inanimate objects such as fence posts.  Really, anywhere you go there could be a badger hiding right under your nose!  This could be quite unfortunate as badgers were also thought to be able to predict death… They could not only see into the future, but they could also see the past lives of people meaning that as well as changing shape, the badger has a fluid relationship with time as well.

Moving round the globe to North America where badgers (US badgers obviously) are portrayed as hard working, protective parents who will attack when necessary such as when something that matters to them is threatened.  We also find the element of divination with a rite involving badger blood and what is essentially mirror scrying to see the future of the diviner.

We actually find a strange but true relationship in North America between coyotes (another of the animal allies cards) and (American) badgers – whilst the majority of their interactions are fairly neutral, they have been seen hunting together but also sometimes coyotes eat badgers and sometimes badgers eat coyotes.  Whilst I’ve not yet looked at coyotes, this feels like it could be an interesting area to explore, especially if you draw them both in a reading.  This relationship gets yet more complicated when we learn that the coyote waits until the badger has made a nest and then steals it for himself.

And now, back to folklore, we cross the ocean to Europe.  Medieval folk thought that badgers worked together to dig tunnels under mountains in quite a coordinated fashion – some badgers did the digging, some had soil pilled on top of their tummies and some then dragged these soil laden badgers out of the tunnel in order to move the soil out the way.  I’d love to know more about how this idea came about!

Other beliefs are comparatively more reasonable…  The badger was associated with the coming of spring.  In Ireland, the badger was thought of as unclean and known for biting, yet a gambler who put a badgers tooth in his pocket was said to be unbeatable…Badger hair was an ingredient in a potion which protected you from witchcraft and their skin was made into bridles so that the rider would have magical powers over horses.  At the other end of the spectrum, to see a badger was bad luck.  These mammals are a complicated mixture of contradictions.

Badger culling is a topical, controversial issue and casts the badger as a scapegoat.  It is also an issue which gets very heated and emotive and singles out the badger despite other actors being involved.  If we look again at the idea of storytelling, here we have a badger cast as the leading villain and taking all the blame for a crime that was committed by many.

Sadly their poor treatment doesn’t end there.  The phrase “to badger”  apparently comes from the custom of badger baiting (badgers have had a rough time of it regardless of which generation they are from…) and means “to persecute” or “to annoy”.

I feel like the badger, more so than most of the animals I’ve looked at, is a bit confusing.  There are many ways to lean into the meanings and I do think it’s one you’ll have to feel your way into by yourself.  I hope this post has offered some signposts for further exploration and that you can find your own path through the contradictions!