It has always been one of my favorite photos of my childhood. It is, in fact, hanging on the wall in my hallway. I quite believe I even remember when the picture was taken, although I was no more than 18 months old at the time.
It is slightly faded, black and white sliding into sepia. My older sister and I are sitting on the front porch steps of our family home in Wisconsin. It was probably a late spring or summer day. We are both wearing light cotton frocks and the trees are in blurry full leaf. My legs are so short they don’t even curve down over the edge of the step. They stick straight out in front of me. Or, possibly, the tensed posture could be due to the excitement and intrigue over the activity in which we are engaged. We are feeding squirrels.
We always had family pets as I was growing up. And my father’s family were in farming. So, much farther back than I can remember, animals played a natural role in my life. But squirrels seem to be the first “wildlife” in my consciousness. And they’ve continued to delight me ever since.
This memory came to the forefront of my mind recently, as I have been researching “totems.” I acquired a book called “Animal Speak” at a Native American pow wow a couple of weeks ago. Within its pages there is a great deal of discussion about determining one’s own personal totems – animals that can play a significant role in our individual, mystical, spiritual lives. Those entities that can bring us messages, teach us, guide us, inspire us, even heal us, especially when we need their particular wisdom and character and energy.
The book explains how we can begin to identify our personal totems – often starting with childhood connections, and preferably wildlife vs. domestic pets or farm livestock. So there they were … the first of my totems … the squirrels on the front porch steps.
Totems are affected by other aspects of nature, I’m learning – such as colors and numbers, compass directions and environmental landscapes.
I trekked through my life experiences and found personal connections to dogs and wolves, cats and tigers, barn owls and herons, sparrows and wrens, dragon flies, lighting bugs, lady bugs, elephants and ants. One’s totem can change with time and circumstances, it seems.
I have just begun this study connecting me to nature in ways I never dreamed possible. And it deepens my appreciation for all that surrounds me – causing me to raise my eyes to overhead branches as well as lower them to the undersides of fallen trunks. It hushes my breath and it quickens it. It makes me listen for wings in the wind, and share my lunch with tiny, curious, visitors on a paper plate.
I suspect we all have totems, recognized or not. I suspect we would do well to meet them in open consciousness sometime. And discover how to walk the world in peace together.
There was a time when conventional wisdom believed that being kind to animals helped us be kind to other people. Perhaps it is time to work at this again.
Please, God, may we learn to be kind to one another, and walk in peace.