More than anything else in my college application, I believe that pictures of this totem pole and the story behind it got me into Haverford (and early decision, no less). I was a reasonably accomplished scholar in high school - at least in subjects that held my interest - and possessed some raw musical, theatrical and artistic talent. My SATs were unremarkable and I was no athlete. I was a quirky kid, unquestionably bright but not a stand out in any conventional sense.
On the other hand, I did conceive, carve and paint this totem pole. To be more precise, I conceived of the idea as an independent project in lieu of the spring athletic requirement at boarding school and convinced my best friend Theo Hartman to do it with me. The bottom half of the pole (below the cross of nails) is his handiwork.
This all took place at St. Andrew's School - if you've seen Dead Poet's Society which was filmed there, the primary distinction between that fictional place and my school was that there were girls in our classes. St. Andrew's today is a very different place, and from what I can tell has become a truly humane learning community, an elite private secondary school that is shedding some of its elitism and knows how to foster adolescent creativity. It was still an extremely conservative prep school in the mid 1980s when Theo and I were Juniors there and had the idea for a totem pole.
We needed a faculty sponsor and our young art teacher filled the bill. We had no idea what we were doing but convinced the school to humor us, so one day in early April we set out along the shores of Noxentown Pond looking for an appropriate tree along its wooded fringe. We were allowed no power tools, but had a hand saw and an ax. We found a likely candidate for our pole in a standing snag that had been hit by lightning, and based on this propitious sign and no other knowledge of the properties of wood we set about trying to fell it.
Northern red oak is one of the hardest of the hardwoods of the Mid-Atlantic coast and that is what our pole turned out to be. I think it took us 45 minutes to saw through a tree that couldn't have been more than 14 inches in diameter. If we thought it was a challenge to drop, we had no conception of how difficult it would be to carve. On the other hand it was dense enough to last a century once we got it spruced up and stuck in the ground. It was a good 12 feet long. Lord knows how we got it back to school. Maybe we sweet talked our friends on the maintenance staff.
For the next month, the pole rested on two sawhorses outside the small art building on the edge of campus where we painstakingly chiseled away at our respective ends of it and draped it with a tarp when it rained. Each of us got about 5 ft of the pole to work on, with the remaining at the bottom destined for a hole filled with Sakrete® when the job was done.
Both of us lamented the absence of visual student art around campus, although the flag-stoned halls and paneled walls of Founders Hall featured original Pyle illustrations of Robin Hood and an NC Wyeth Mural. We figured we'd rectify that deficiency by sticking our totem pole smack in the middle of the central gully about which the rest of the campus wrapped like a crescent. The site was conveniently across from the "smoke shack", that exile home of malcontents, ne'er-do-wells and social outcasts that to me felt like the one place at St. Andrews where I truly fit in, even though I didn't smoke (though doubtless inhaled). The Shack was a plywood hut with a corrugated roof, painted green, and the sole place where student smoking was permitted. A freak flag flew from the open doorway. Above it loomed the turrets and battlements of the school: a peasant's hut in the shadow of the manor.
None of that mattered to the denizens of the shack, which had its own arcane history and customs. For two years, I was the Emperor of the Shack and keeper of its Chronicles. It is long gone, now, and while deservedly discredited by a more progressive, health-conscious age, it fulfilled a far different purpose of fellowship for the "shackies" and I still keep the sliver of green wood handed to me by the new Emperor on the day I graduated. It is as precious as the relic of a saint, but probably not St. Andrew.
We put a great deal of thought into the symbolism of the figures we carved on the totem pole. None of them were imitations of any Native Northwest style: this was our own vision. True enough, I placed a mythical bird at the apex of the pole, but it was no Thunder bird. Painted in the livery of a Snowy Owl with a fish in its talons (St. Andrew, after all, was a fisherman), it had something of the furrowed brow of Sam the Eagle from the Muppet Show, and my Headmaster thought perhaps he detected a caricature of himself in the hooked beak and square jaw of my creation. As part of the portfolio of totem pole pictures that I submitted with my college application, I included words to the effect that this bird represented "wisdom, strength and nocturnal pursuits" and I'm sticking with that story.
Theo and I had recently seen Godrey Reggio's film Koyaanisqatsi - a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance" - and deemed it appropriate for inclusion on the pole. Below that I placed a turtle, which in some Indian traditions carries the world on its back. In this case, I took the opportunity to add a jagged lighting bolt to the shell, a symbol from the iconography of our favorite band, The Grateful Dead, but also of a regrettable accident in a shell with a balsa hull that ended my brief career as an oarsman. I'm nothing if not subversive.
Still, my Episcopal School could find little to object to in the simple black cross I carved after the turtle: an homage to the cross of nails fashioned from the melted lead of the roof at Coventry Cathedral. Bombed to a hollow shell by the German Luftwaffe, the cathedral today is a shrine to reconciliation among all peoples. I sang there the month before we began our project and was deeply moved by the experience.
After Theo finished his marvelously grotesque figures on the lower half of the pole - demons and dragons and pot-bellied gods - we stained the whole affair with some incredibly toxic preservatives and stuck it in the ground. We then painted it in oils, the pole standing upright on its slope in the gully, and enjoyed the view from the Shack of our artwork on permanent display.
Permanence is a finite commodity, of course. Theo and I went off to College and for a few years the pole remained a fixture of the gully. All around it, however, the school was expanding, and sometime in the 1990s the Shack came down and the pole soon after. Part of me was outraged not to have been told of its impending demise, for it was not relocated but is now lost to the ages. But old grievances lose their bite and reconciliation is possible. There is now a huge studio and performing arts center just up the slope from where the pole used to stand. Student art is everywhere at St. Andrews. I take satisfaction in thinking that in a small way, perhaps our totem pole planted a seed.