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My father appreciates handmade objects of beauty, particularly forms that transcend time and contain messages that speak silently to the heart. This is his art and his sacred gift to me.
I have a childhood memory of standing in front of a display case filled with Plains Indian artifacts, holding my father’s hand and him asking me, “How many hours do you think it took the woman to weave that basket? Just imagine… she collected the reeds, dyed them and then wove those tiny strands into a bowl with a pattern, no less. How did she know how to do all that and who taught her? What do you think she collected in it? It’s a far cry from our silly green Tupperware bowls, don’t you think?” We stood there in awe, wondering together. When we walked in the woods he would call out tree names, just by reading the leaves or the bark. It was a mystery to me how he knew them and I hoped I could unlock the secret someday. He would look up and say, “That’s the mighty White Oak. Oak, Hickory and Maple stretched from New York to the Mississippi before white people came. They say a squirrel could travel by tree without ever touching the ground, can you imagine the primeval canopy…”
From him I learned we weren’t the only ones.
When I was a teenager, my father hauled a twenty foot long log into our garage and began to carve a totem for the school where he taught fifth grade. He poured over books about Northwest Coast Native designs, sitting next to the wood stove developing sketches. The work of the Haida spoke to him in particular with it’s graphic complexity and striking animal faces, whose spirits leapt from the pages of the book. He chose animals that were native to Indiana where we lived: Beaver, bear, fox and eagle and adapted designs for his totem. One night while he straddled the log and carved, I sat in a chair nearby as chips flew from his chisel and landed in my lap. I fed them to the fire as we discussed the social benefits of the potlach ceremony. Later, when I asked him how long it took to carve the totem he laughed and said he stopped counting after 440 hours, meaning some things are worth the sacrifice.
From him I learned we aren’t the only ones and that beauty is worth devoting yourself to. Which seems particularly significant to me now, given this is my 40th year on the planet and the beginning of life’s waning cycle. Aware of my own mortality, I feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to protect what is alive and what wants to come alive. The honeybees and other pollinators are in trouble due to pesticides, and as they go, so do we and many other living things. They are the tiny giants on whose shoulders we stand. As I walk through this gate of transition in my own life, I’m fueled with a fire to help keep the land, the bees and the people well.
I called on my father to help me carve a log bee hive for my birthday. Trees are the natural home for bees- and as a matter of fact in Europe, and in the Ukraine in particular there is a long-standing tradition of carving log hives for bees. I found a local mill owner who graciously supplied the log and hollowed it in exchange for bee classes next season. The log I chose was Western Red Cedar, traditionally carved by Northwest Coast tribes and a tree of great power. The log was decidedly feminine, with skirt-like flutes at the bottom, chosen in honor of the female monarchy it would house.
When my father asked what I wanted to carve I told him I wasn’t sure, but that the image of ‘She Who Watches’ or Tsagaglalal was in my thoughts. ‘She Who Watches’ is a 10,000 year-old Wishram petroglyph and pictograph carved in the rock canyon above the Columbia River not far from our home in White Salmon, Washington. She was a chief who was concerned that her people had abundance. As the legend goes, Coyote warned her that the world was going to change and that there wouldn’t be chiefs any more, so he turned her to stone to forever watch over her people.
We chose the image of ‘She Who Watches’ for the ‘head’, and for the body, a bee. The lemniscate, or waggle dance of the bee forms the breast and heart. The hive entrance is at the triangle of the bee’s belly. Remarkably, we carved the hive in three days in our front yard wood shop.
Like the chief ‘She Who Watches’, the bees preside over our existence on the planet, providing for and protecting us. ‘She Who Watches’ is also seen as a death mask, carrying a message of warning for the future. The same can be said for the bees, who act as psychopomps, or spirit guides. They are warning us of the peril in our ways. Will we listen? What beauty will we devote ourselves to?
***Thanks Dad, for sharing your art with me! Through the process of making the ‘She Who Watches’ Hive I learned that ancestors and spirit allies come to life by our ability to perceive them, though our very own breath, imagination and willingness of our hearts and hands. Love you xo