A Tale of Two Totems


Two Wednesdays ago (or should I say lifetimes?), I met the Ladies of the Round Table for coffee at the island’s public meeting space. It was a strange hour.

Instead of taking our seats at that infamous table where all truly important decisions are made, we sat on couches and chairs, six feet apart, talking about whose family members were stuck where and who was going to make a run for groceries. 

Walking home down the sandy road afterward, I thought about how these ladies, many of whom are a decade or two older than I, have endured a variety of crises in their lifetimes. That, I suspect, is what gives them their pluck. They just get on with it, whatever “it” may be.

As I pondered how I might get my own pluck on for this pandemic, I got the feeling that someone was watching me. I’ve had this sensation plenty while hiking in Montana. Even a walk through the woods to the mailbox feels like walking onto a stage, with wild animals eyeing me from the undergrowth. There it’s the mountain lions who are particularly stealthy. They watch you from the tree canopy. 

I didn’t expect to have the same feeling on Dewees. I did a quick pivot and, out of some lizard-brain reflex, scanned the nearest tree, an old live oak proudly set apart from the other vegetation. Sure enough, there staring back at me were sunken eyes and a menacing face. Roughly hewn from a log about two feet tall, the figure had wings (arms?) and a zigzagged mouth. Clearly, it was some sort of totem. But who had put it there and why?

I snapped a photo and texted it to Judy as soon as I got home, figuring she’d have the story and I’d have my blog post. I was surprised when she texted back, “What IS that?!?!”

Later, when I took her to see it (and the yellow rat snake wrapped around it!), she said I was lucky to have seen it at all.  “Right now, the old leaves have fallen and the new ones haven’t grown in yet. By next week, it will be relatively invisible for another year.” 

She recommended I ask Lori, the island’s environmental program director, about it. But Lori had never noticed it either. “Looks like it’s been there for a while,” she said. “Maybe came from the same source as the carving at Marsh Mallow Walk.”

What? A carving at Marsh Mallow Walk? I grabbed Chris and told him we were going on an Easter egg hunt. We put on our sun hats and Deep Woods Off and grabbed the camera, grateful for an outdoor adventure to distract us from the pandemic disasters du jour.

Lori gave us no hints, so we searched top to bottom, a welcome opportunity to find a Cooper’s hawk looking for lunch, and dewberry brambles loaded with unripened fruit. I made a mental note to beat the raccoons to them in the next few weeks, when they would be black and juicy.

It wasn’t until we got to the end of Marsh Mallow Walk that Chris called out, “Here it is!” The viewing platform at the end of the boardwalk had been built around a dead palm trunk with a jaunty Simpsons-like figure cut into it. We must have passed this thing a hundred times while strolling the beach. Funny what you can see when you look with your eyes truly wide open.

I suppose it’s safe to assume that this figure was fashioned by the same person. But when? According to the Internet, cabbage palms can live for up to 200 years. But that might be wishful thinking for a palm on the beach of a barrier island. Still, I can’t help letting my imagination do cartwheels through the sand. After all, the Sewee Indians probably did hunt here back when the island was known as Timicau. What if these totems are their handiwork?

“No,” said a neighbor. “I don’t think so. They’ve got to be fairly recent.” She and her husband were one of the first to build here after the island was lightly developed in the early eighties. “It was our own Garden of Eden then,” she said. When I asked if she knew who might have made the totems and when, she shrugged and said, “No idea.”

It would be satisfying to solve this mystery, seeing as none of us have answers to much of anything these days. But the more I think about it, maybe it’s just as well to conjure up my own meaning, the way one does when looking at any piece of art. 

In my version of the story, the totems represent guardian spirits who mean to remind us to watch our step and walk lightly on the earth. Beware, they say. You are more vulnerable than you realize, and more powerful than you think.

[To learn more about the earliest settlers of Dewees Island, click here to read Judy’s fascinating post on her Dewees Island Blog.]

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9 comments

  1. Monica, your blog is such a sweet respite from the daily headlines. Thank you. We had another 8 inches of fresh snow yesterday and overnight. But spring is coming, slowly but surely, and we’ve already had our first pastries from the Merc. The Park is closed, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped some of the more intrepid tourists. For the most part, we’re all sheltered in place in our very natural, physically-distanced cocoons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can almost smell those sticky buns now! Knowing the Polebridge community, you are looking after one another and keeping your spirits up. Eight inches of snow is hard to imagine right now. The flowers and birds and warm sunshine are on their way! Of course, the great thing about the North Fork is that it’s gorgeous no matter what the weather’s doing. 🙂

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  2. Monica, I loved your blog! Can you put us on your blog list? Allen and I have been on Dewees since the first lots were sold in 1992. The totem has been there as long as I can remember, but the other one you found is totally new to me. See what you can find out! Do they both appear to be the same age? Keep writing! You have a gift! ❤️Cozy Mitchell

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    • Hi Cozy. Thank you so much for reading the blog. If you’d like to receive notifications by email, you can sign up by scrolling down to the bottom of the page and clicking where it says “Follow Dispatches from Dewees.” You’ll be asked for your email address, and then you’ll receive a confirmation email. Be sure to confirm that you’d like to get the postings. Thanks!

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  3. I loved that first image – what a protector of the woods!! Is that part of the rat snake at the bottom? Good luck on nabbing those dewberries before the wildlife does, I’ve never managed to taste one dewberry here because it seems as soon as they ripen, overnight they disappear. I know that feeling of being “watched”. I think it comes from a deep connection with nature and wild things.I can’t wait to hear more about your exploring and life in Dewees!

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    • Thank you Monica. John and I are 2 days from the Northfork and rather than our travels through paranoid gas and restroom stops I got to visit Dewees It felt normal !

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s all relative, isn’t it? What’s normal? Guess we can start thinking about the world we want to create from the dust heap once this is “over” (another relative term). 😀

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  4. Monica, I love reading your writing! I am behind on the posts, but working to get caught up. Thank you for taking us on some of your journeys with you! Vanessa

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