TOTEMIC POLEMIC

Most folks these days are familiar with the word TOTEM but know only enough about the topic to disclose their ignorance. Well I read a book about it, so now you’ll soon know everything, like me. Put simply, totems are ‘tutelary’ spirits, the perceived essence of an animal, plant or element of nature with which individuals and groups identify. Specific traits and capabilities, life purpose and even fate are seen as received from totems, or shared with them. Such animistic beliefs have been universal in native cultures and primitive civilizations around the world forever, and can still teach us plenty about our not-really-so-modern selves.

The book’s final chapter tells how to find one’s totem, and after reading that far I thought why not give it a try. At least the process isn’t complicated or expensive. All you do is clear your mind and simply walk out somewhere, anywhere, with no specific goal or intent other than discovery. If you do it right, your totem will manifest.

Following instructions, I wandered toward a single live oak on an open hillside at the base of a mountain backlit beyond. (Don’t know if it mattered, but I intentionally chose the evening of summer solstice just before sundown for my experiment.) As I approached, three birds flew from that tree directly at me to orbit close at eye level in a blurred 3G turn. One was inching closer every time around. Spontaneously, I extended arms as in supplication while it whisked between my hands and face. I steeled myself to not flinch, then just when it couldn’t veer any closer without flicking my nose they all sped as quickly away, straight toward the silhouetted mountain exactly as the sun dipped from sight.

Only minutes after I’d started out, deep shadow swallowed those birds and they were gone. Stack of Bibles dang it, that’s exactly how it happened. I walked on up to the tree, climbed it, and found no nest or other sign of the birds there. Then dusk began, and after that came summer.

Though not so pompous as to expect an eagle as my totem, I confess presuming it would be the red tailed hawk. Not quite. These little zoomers were sparrow hawks, more precisely known as kestrels, and sure enough, my general manner of flight does resemble theirs more than those larger raptors who claim all the gravitas. According to this protocol it was official, the sparrow hawk is my totem.

A few years later I got involved in promoting and demo-ing the first production sailplane for decades built in America, an innovative ultralight design that happened to be named SPARROWHAWK. (Compared to more conventional sailplanes, its manner of flight also resembles the kestrel’s. Surprised?)

Then a few more years later, hundreds of miles away, guess what. At that ride operation we kept our 2-32 tied down near the end of the prevailing runway, and one morning heading out to preflight I was assailed again by… sparrowhawks. After wheeling around my head as before, this time they flew not into a sunset, but straight down the taxiway to the glider, and frolicked over it too, waiting for me. When I got there they repeated the performance one more time before rushing away to bless whomever’s lucky soul was next on their busy schedule.

That’s all the evidence I have for now, and you could say it’s merely circumstantial. But be honest, aren’t most of the moment-to-moment decisions we make each day based on little else? It’s also worth noting that in all this time evidence to the contrary, circumstantial or otherwise, remains zero. And ultimately, even if it’s all a load of nonsense, do you suppose the kestrel minds?