Monday, October 23, 2006

Totems

"Hung there in the thermal
whiteout of noon, dark ash
on the chimney's updraft, turning
slowly like a thumb pressed down
on target; indolent V's; flies, until they drop.

Then they're hyenas, raucous
around the kill, flapping their black
umbrellas, the feathered red-eyed widows
whose pot bodies violate mourning,
the snigger at funerals,
the burp at the wake.
They cluster, like beetles
laying their eggs on carrion,
gluttonous for a space, a little
territory of murder: food
and children.

Frowzy old saint, bald-
headed and musty, scrawny-
necked recluse on your pillar
of blazing air which is not
heaven: what do you make
of death, which you do not
cause, which you eat daily?
I make life, which is a prayer.
I make clean bones.
I make a gray zinc noise
which to me is a song.

Well, heart, out of all this
carnage, could you do better?"
Margaret Atwood


A friend of mine is very fond of Turkey Vultures; she's not a birdwatcher, but is someone who loves nature and the out of the doors and all animals. Knowing my love of birds, she often mentions vulture sightings to me. I like to give her a gift at Christmastime and struggle to find something appropriate. Kathy is hard to describe. She's almost twenty years my senior, a child of the 60's and a hippie at heart, yet she was raised in a very wealthy family from what I understand. We work together at social services and her pragmatism and forthrightness with our clients is sometimes startling to me. I've known her for many years, yet feel that I don't really know her at all. Suffice it so say that she is not easy to shop for. One year as a *gift* I brought her along on a winter birding trip at Barnegat Light to see Harlequins and Short-Eared Owls. We froze our butts off and the short-ears were a no-show, but Kathy was a trooper standing out on the jetty.

Following a day spent kayaking in the Pine Barrens a few summers ago she told me that she considers Turkey Vultures to be her totem or spirit guide. She sees them often during her meditative walks through the Barrens. Finally knowing that she had a *favorite* bird I then set out to find her the perfect vulture-themed gift. Not! Turkey Vultures, it seems, are not the poster-child for avian beauty or affection. This year, though, I think I may have hit the jackpot with Letters from Eden by Julie Zickefoose. There's an essay all about tv's and pencil sketches and even a personalized inscription that Julie wrote special for Kathy.

I did a little digging around on the Web to see what I might find about vultures as totem birds and learned that the vulture is a powerful totem, bringing purification and signaling an end to hardship. I also found a creation story about how the vulture saved the world (which I'll inlcude below) and a neat American Indian Trickster tale about vultures.

In the earliest of times, the sun lived very close to the earth - so close in fact that life upon the earth was becoming unbearable. The animal world got together and decided to do something about it. They wanted to move the sun further away.

The fox was the first to volunteer, and he grabbed the sun in his mouth and began to run to the heavens. After a short while, the sun became too hot, burning the fox's mouth, and he stopped. To this day, the inside of the fox's mouth is black. Then the opossum volunteered. He wrapped his tail around the sun and began running toward the heavens. Before long though, the sun became too hot, burning its tail, and he had to stop. To this day the opossum has no hair upon its tail.

It was then that vulture stepped forward. Vulture was the most beautiful and powerful of birds. Upon its head was a beautiful mantle of rich feathering that all other birds envied. Knowing that the earth would burn up unless someone moved the sun, the vulture placed its head against it and began to fly to the heavens. With powerful strokes of its wings, it pushed and pushed the sun further and further up into the heavens. Though it could feel its crown feathers burning, the vulture continued until the sun was set at a safe distance in the sky away from the earth. Unfortunately, vulture lost its magnificent head of feathers for eternity.

I wonder how common it is for people to think of having an animal or bird as a spirit guide. Totem animals are those that a person feels connected with or particularly drawn to. I don't know that I feel such a connection to a particular bird or animal, but wonder if you do. ;-)

17 comments:

Susan Gets Native said...

What an absolutely great story!
(But you know I have to mention Earl)...

I'll bet you any amount of money that Earl would not have tried to move the sun. She would have let all of us burn up.
:-)

A totem? Well, great blue herons hold a special place in my heart. They make me think of my Mom. It was the first bird I remember someone identifying for me, and I was so impressed with the fact that my Mom KNEW what this huge bird out by the river WAS! And I feel a sense of peace when I see one. They stand so still, so patient, waiting for the perfect moment. How would the world be if we could be like that?

deb said...

so perfect so thoughtful of a gift.

GreenmanTim said...

My mother believes her father became an Osprey when he died. I have seen her address them by his name as they glide above the bluff overlooking the bay on glorious days in June.

Endment said...

This is super!!!
You had my attention from the beginning of this post

The vultures soar overhead and I watch them from the skylight... They will always carry a bit more enchantment from this day on

Ruth said...

No, I don't have a "totem animal", but I really enjoyed reading your post today. You are a very thoughtful, kind co-worker and friend. The poem is beautiful, and I love the vulture story.

LauraO said...

Lovely post. Oh yes, there are many people from almost every culture around the world who not only believe in totem animals, but know how to contact and work with them.

The totem is a guide, helper, and protector, and mirrors the traits and sometimes the weaknesses of the person. The belief is that everyone has a spirit animal that guides and protects them anyway, but the partnership becomes stronger if the person acknowledges the totem and communicates with it. It's really pretty fascinating.

LauraO said...

also forgot to mention...I'm guessing yours is a rabbit :-)

Patrick Belardo said...

I love the tale. I don't know if I have a totem, but it wouldn't be a bird that pees on itself to cool off (no offense to your friend). :) Maybe the Hawk Owl can be my totem to go along with my blog.

Anonymous said...

I've always felt a close connection to red tail hawks, and I guess I would call them my totem. Five years ago when we moved into our house, on the day of settlement, one flew above the house. Sold!

That first year I spent a lot of time cutting down Norway Maple sapplings (very satisfying) and witnessed a red tail catching a squirrel not 20 feet from me, and then she took it into the white oak nearby and ate it! It surprised me how long it took to eat it (30 minutes?) and how loud it was (ripping at the flesh)!

Now there are quite a few that I see and hear often when outside working on the garden. My husband is amazed that I always seem to be able to see them perched in trees as we drive along.

Heather
Wayne, PA

Jenn said...

I don't think I have a totem animal, per se.

But I do call on the spirit of two animals to get me through tough times - the armidillo and the hedgehog. They sheild their troubles with their armor and just keep moving forward. Not bad lessons in attitude.

If there was an animal I wish was my spirit guide, it'd be the hawk. Even growing up in Detroit, I lived near a large park (Rouge) and we would occasionally see the red-tails overhead. Now that I am in a more rural setting, it seems I mostly see the Coopers or the Sharp Shinned hawks. Such cool birds (although I know those who set out bait for birds - otherwise known as feeders - curse the hawks for taking advantage of the easy food supply. Not sure what they expect, really.)

Sandy said...

My daughter swears everytime she has to make an important decision, there is a hawk around. Yes, I believe in totems.

dguzman said...

Neat post--I have always loved birds for their freedom of flight, but I don't know if I'd call them my "totem" animal. Still, I'd love to come back as a bird.

LauraHinNJ said...

Susan: Great-blues are *great* birds, even if they do steal fish from some people's ponds. I love seeing them in the winter time, when they look so cranky hunched up the marsh.

They seem to have a real effect on people that don't know birds. One visits the pond next to my office and coworkers are always coming to me to tell me about the huge bird that is out there.

Deb: Hi stranger. We'll see if she likes it.

LauraHinNJ said...

I want to apologize for not linking to Julie Z's book or to the creation story I included. Blogger was really wonky last night and anytime I tried to add a link, the text of the post became so tiny that it was unreadable. Does that happen to anyone else? Blogger is so mysterious!

LauraHinNJ said...

Tim: Were osprey a favorite bird of yoour grandfather? Is that why your mom makes the association?

After my dad passed away my brother mentioned always seeing a red-tail whenever he thought of my dad. I wonder if that is still happening Kev?

Endment: Must be nice to have a skylight and see the vultures from the inside. I use the sunroof on my car that way, sometimes, but try to refrain from birdwatching while driving!

Ruth: I love these type of stories and really like the Trickster tales that are so common in the Hispanic and American Indian cultures.

The poem made me laugh - I love the lines about vultures sniggering at funerals and burping at wakes - created quite a mental image for me!

Laura: would you have a link to a good site about totems? I found many, but some are kind of *out there*.

Rabbit as my totem... maybe. I do wear a rabbit on my neck - maybe I'll post about that sometime.

Patrick: But vultures are good totems! Think of the state our world would be in without them to clean up. I'll see if I can't find some info about hawk owls as totems - maybe some deep insight into your personality. ;-)

Heather: Hi! Thanks for sharing your totem tale. Red-tails are a good one to have, I guess.

There's a cemetary across the street from my house where a red-tail often hunts; I like to watch it with my bins, but I'm too far away to get the full sensory experience like you describe!

Jenn: Those sound like totems to me. Native cultures are so smart to look at the animals and other life around them for lessons - I think many of us don't do enough of that, thinking ourselves apart and above other life.

I think it'd be kind of interesting to compare the characteristics of different hawks and how they hunt in terms of life lessons there may be for us. Maybe those accipiters are trying to tell you something that the red-tails of your youth could not. ;-0

Sandy: Hawks are popular totems - maybe your daughter should have a look at what they're telling her.

Dguzman: Other animals besides birds are thought of as totems. I agree, it would be neat to fly!

LauraHinNJ said...

Just wanted to thank everyone for their comments here - this has been a really interesting topic.

Anonymous said...

I'm just a stranger who found you through Google, but I'm also someone who considers the vulture my totem animal. I love both Margaret Atwood's poem and the folk tale you posted. Thank you.