“Totem poles are about cultural identity. They are a way of native people saying “We’re here. We’re still here and our culture is still here…you treat a totem pole with respect, just like a person, because in our culture that’s what it is. A totem pole is another person…born into the family, except he is the storyteller,” wrote Norman Tait, a British Columbia First Nation sculptor and carver, in Hilary Stewart’s book Looking at Totem Poles.
Totem poles are carved from a western red cedar tree, selected for their beauty, strength, and proximity to the sea or a river, so they could be easily transported to the village artist for carving. Before felling, the tree spirit was addressed in prayer, part of a ritual honoring the tree’s identity before it began a new identity as a totem, a community storyteller.
“Trees are communal…they grow together in large groups…they have relationships…and even communicate with other trees within their stands, including trees of their own kind as well as those of other species; they function for the benefit of the whole…and they enter into mutualistic partnerships with other species…to understand a single tree, we must understand the entire forest” writes David Suzuki and Wayne Grady in Tree: A Life Story.
Western civilization for the most part views trees as a commodity. Trees are another resource to extract from the land that become lumber, masonite, or paper. We say no prayer to the tree spirit before felling the forest. As a species we extract resources from the air, land and water on a vast scale, and turn these precious resources into articles for mass consumption. And a result, we greedily take, take, take, and our parting gifts are pollution and devastation on an equally vast scale. Open your eyes. See your impact both local and global. Question your motives. Trees are spirit.
“What’s happening in China makes a difference to us in the United States [and what’s happening in the United States makes a difference to China]. The amount that we drive cars or the amount that we misuse fossil fuels is going to or already has affected some other group of people or animals, the earth and the environment. These interconnected interpenetrating personal and global events are what we are being asked to be aware of. Once we become aware in this way then the teaching starts to transform us. This understanding will strengthen and guide our aspirations to respond to each situation anew with ethical and skillful responses. This is actualization of practice/ realization. This is the mind of the Buddha just this moment,” writes Uji Shinshu Roberts in “Astride the Highest Mountain: Dogen’s Being/Time, A Practitioner’s Guide” in Receiving the Marrow.
The days are dark and grey; the skies stormy and the ocean restless. Will we reach the shore? Or will we be battered by the tides? A weak hand at the tiller, doubt and anxiety grip our ship. We take our stand, voicing our opinion. Unsure. Will our words be heard, or will they fall on deaf ears, lost in the chaos?
Heroic action is needed to fight the fear mongers, but my special powers come from the brush in my hand. Will art signify in such a time?
In Defiant Spirits: the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven, Ross King proposed that an artist, and in this case, Tom Thomson, the great Canadian landscape painter and outdoorsman, could be “the hero in a time of need, [who] goes forth from his homeland and into an underworld of dangerous wonders. Here he contends against mighty forces and undergoes a series of trials before returning home, armed with special powers that give vitality to his community.” As an artist, Tom Thomson was engaged in the vision quest, “the single most pervasive literary plot in western literature…from Homer and the Bible, to Grail legends and the Native American hanblecheya.”
At this time in the history of our country, I believe each of us must undertake the vision quest; it is the eleventh hour and our land, and the creatures inhabiting the land, are under attack. To defend what we cherish, the hero within is desperately needed.
“When the aboriginal man goes walkabout, traveling along his ancestral songline, he chants the verses originally sung by his dreaming ancestor, singing the land into view as he walks through it. And in this manner, he renews not only his own life, but the very life of the land itself.” Each place has it’s story, a story of the land and the creatures native to that place and time, and those stories must be described and shared to be remembered, to remain alive. The Greek word Aesthesis, origin of aesthetics, means the “work of the senses: touching, hearing, seeing, smelling and tasting.” Stories are created from aesthetic experiences, but theses stories must be preserved to be remembered.
In his 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature lecture, the great poet Czelaw Milosz wrote that the poet must possess two qualities: to see and describe. The poet is the one “who flies above the Earth and looks at it from above, but at the same time see’s it in every detail.” Milosz makes the point “to see means not only to have before one’s eyes. It may mean also to preserve in memory. To see and to describe may also mean to reconstruct in imagination. A distance achieved, thanks to the mystery of time, must not change events, landscapes, human figures into a tangle of shadows growing paler and paler. On the contrary, it can show them in full light, so that every event, every date becomes expressive and persists as an eternal reminder of human depravity and human greatness. Those who are alive receive a mandate from those who are silent forever. They can fulfill their duties only by trying to reconstruct precisely things as they were, and by wresting the past from fictions and legends.”
We must see and describe, to make stories, to make memories and fight the nihilism lurking in the current chaos. And yes, using my special powers, brush in my hand, I will see and describe, I will spark the memory of particular stories, associated with particular places and times and particular creatures, and it will signify.
 David Abram. “Gary Snyder and the Renewal of Oral Culture.” A Sense of the Whole: Reading Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Counterpoint: Berkeley, 2015. p. 94
The break between storms brought me to the beach. Oh the rain! Such a much needed gift. But I am glad for this day to enjoy the hazy winter sunshine. Meeting my friend, we set up our easels and started sketching in oil, the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces, capturing the coming storm moving eastward over the Pacific. It was a beautiful day – cool and grey – and I lost myself in its splendor while trying to capture it on canvas. On my way home, I stopped in Pescadero purchasing some hot chocolate and fresh baked artichoke bread to warm my body and soul and celebrate this precious life after growing cold and warn by hours of plein air painting.
The wonderful novel I am reading is called War and Turpentine; Stefan Hertman’s homage to his grandfather, awarded the 2014 AKO Literature prize, is the story of a man “tossed back and forth between the soldier he had to be and the artist he wished to become.” War and turpentine. Painting the seascape, this passage from the book came to mind:
“There is a great deal on this planet to arouse an enduring sense of wonder, especially when seen in the light of one’s impending departure. The way molecules move in the water, for instance, yielding the subtlest play of shifting light as evening falls over the sea in a southern bay – say, on the rocky beach of the Italian coastal town of Rapallo, when the wind has dropped and the pink of the evening clouds performs endless variations with the deepening blue or the sky mirrored in the sea – and how living beings with eyes and consciousness, two incomprehensibly complex adaptations to this whole wondrous biosphere, can take it all for granted and go on breathing, flawlessly designed for just this sort of system.”