The other day I ventured out for a walk in a park that, sadly, I haven’t visited for many years. This piece of nature is located in the centre of my city. I decided to park my car in an outer parking lot and take the trail that leads to the duck pond and a waterfall. As I kid I spent many a summer afternoons swimming in the cool, calm pool below the falls. As a young parent, a favourite pastime was to bring the kids to feed the ducks. Nostalgia was definitely a factor for this chosen path.
After enjoying the beauty of autumn and snapping a myriad of pictures and videos on my trusty iphone, I veered off to a higher path with the thought of circling back around to my car. It was there that I found these sleeping giants.
I live in the land of the Coast Salish people. The local first nation tribe is the Snuneymuxw (Sna – nay- moo) band. Totem poles are a common enough sight on Vancouver island. In fact, the town of Duncan, to the south of us is known as the city of totems. As a child, I learned the history and purpose of these carvings and understand the importance of these story telling, cedar markers for the west coast, indigenous culture.
To see these totems laying off to the side of a city park path though, was a surprising sight.
The informational sign on the pathway mentioned the cultural significance of the fallen totems to the Coast Salish people. Totem poles are created to document creation stories or to signify the clan members of a particular community or the lineage of a family. Each totem pole typically features symbolic and stylized human, animal, and supernatural forms.
Carved out of redwood cedar, special care is taken to choose the perfect tree that will eventually become a totem pole. The Coast Salish believe that each tree has its own personality and uniqueness so it is blessed and honoured in ceremony before it is cut down. Redwood cedar is rot resistant and a totem pole can last up to 100 years before the ravages of nature and time take hold. But like all things from nature, they will eventually weaken and degrade and in time, a totem pole will fall. To the Coast Salish, this is understood, it is the natural cycle of the totem and the tree it was made from.
So here they lay, placed here on purpose. I can remember them once standing proud in another park in the city. They must have become unsafe to be displayed in a public place and so, with the Snuneymuxw in consultation, these totems were brought to their final resting place. Here in this peaceful spot, they have been left to return back to the earth and as a cultural learning opportunity for all.
As I was walking around these sleeping giants I felt as though I was at someone’s grave site. Each face, each spirit staring stoically at me, no longer able to voice the wisdom it was carved to represent. I felt like I was interrupting their slumber.
But there was still a message here for me. A lesson to learn from the decaying wood. As I walked away and pondered thoughtfully about the scene I just left, several thoughts came into my head. Then three pieces of wisdom emerged that were meant for me to take in and remember.
The first was a reminder of the cycle of the seasons; of birth, death and rebirth. Here I stood on this autumn day witnessing the slow decay of not only the totem poles but of nature itself. All life comes to an end and mother nature was doing what she has done since the beginning of time. She was calling back the spirit of her subjects, the living, growing essences of nature. It was time to return back from wench they came and prepare for a winter slumber.
The second reminder is that even though we humans have distanced ourselves from the cycles of nature, we are still very much a part of it. October is the time of the year that we too should call our spirit back in preparation of the quiet season of winter yet to come. As members of modern society, our personal energy gets pulled and fragmented as we struggle with the stresses of life. A simple mediation asking for our missing spirit to return to us is a great way to re-balance and re-ground our energy.
The third piece of wisdom these slumbering giants gave me is meant for us all. The symbolic animal totems of the mightiest nations, the strongest industrial powerhouses, the cultures most focused on wealth, power and greed are showing signs of decay as well. The free and mighty eagle of the United States, the powerful bear of Russia and even the mythical dragon of China are currently in a battle for the top position of the metaphorical totem pole of the world but the structural material and resources used to built it with are beginning to weather and weaken. Soon, rot will take hold in the cracks that are now beginning to form.
But what the most powerful symbols of the world don’t seem to know, is actually the most important piece of wisdom I learned from the traditions of Coast Salish people when they carve their totem poles. It is the first spirit symbol, or the low man on the totem pole that is considered the most important. It is the one that resides closest to mother earth. It is the one whose traditions are still “rooted” to the ground and when a totem finally does fall due to rot and decay, the spirit at the bottom also has the least amount of distance to fall back to earth. Kinda gives a new perspective to the saying, “Oh how the mighty fall.”
Every indigenous community around the world understands that we all are intricately woven with the cycles of life. From the passing of the seasons to the historical rise and fall of dominating powers in the world. Nothing is exempt from the life, death and rebirth patterns that govern our universe.
These decaying totem poles are a testament to this immutable truth. For me, happening upon these sacred markers was more than a cultural learning experience, it was a gift of wisdom. One that I will root into my traditions as well.