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.