“Follow it!” Murray exclaimed as I stepped off the path careful not to snap a twig under my hiking boots and scare it away. It was a little bird that made a very unique chirping sound. It landed quite close to me in a bush as I hiked up the forest path.
The little bird didn’t seem to be bothered by my close proximity, but when I detoured off the path towards it to get a closer look it silenced and I lost sight of it. Its brownish-grey feathers blended in perfectly with the natural tones of the forest underbrush. It seemed to have suddenly vanished although I didn’t hear the fluttering of its wings or see it fly away.
“Ah that’s ok. It didn’t feel right anyways,” I thought to myself. It was just another songbird among the many other warbling and tweeting birds on our hike through Gabriola’s west coast rainforest. It didn’t seem to fit what I was looking for.
We followed a trail under a canopy of moss-adorned cedars and bright big-leafed maples, through thickets of majestic sword ferns, over little streams here and there and past many old decaying logs and stumps that provide such a fertile habitat for new spring growth. My lungs expanded with the healing, fresh air all around me and I exhaled slowly. My eyes drank in the tranquil beauty, my mind quieted and my shoulders relaxed.
It was going to be a 16 kilometer day in total, but this wasn’t just any hike. This one was special. We were on a quest looking for something unique; something that stood out differently compared to a normal forest encounter. Our senses were keen searching for something that displayed an unusual quality. What would that be? We didn’t really know to be honest. All we knew is that when it presented itself we would know we had found it.
To give you some insight into the purpose of our quest I will need to explain the ancient history of Gabriola Island, the spiritual beliefs of the First Nations and other indigenous people and also about my friend, Murray, who has retreated twice to this island to live during challenging times in his life.
Gabriola Island is one of the Gulf Islands located off the south coast of British Columbia in the Georgia Strait and a short 20-minute ferry ride east of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The island’s lush forested land mass is approximately 57 square kilometers and home to a small number of animals including deer, squirrels and raccoons. It is also visited by approximately 250 bird species and various aquatic sea creatures including seals, otters, killer whales, sea lions and a myriad of fish and shell fish, like oysters, clams, star fish, octopus and salmon to name a few.
The island has a very strong ancient and spiritual First Nations history which has been marked by several 2000 – 5000 year-old petroglyphs carved into sandstone rocks by the early First Nations people. The earliest known inhabitants of the island are the Salish Snuneymuxw people, dating back 5000 years.
Have you ever heard of the terms spirit totem or spirit animal? You must have heard of and seen photographs of totem poles; tall poles carved from the trunks of red cedars, depicting colourful images of animals, or totem symbols. A totem symbol is often an animal, but can also be a plant or sacred object of sorts.
According to First Nations belief these special totems are thought to hold strong ‘spiritual’ meaning. Some of the more prominent totem symbols are the thunderbird, bear, killer whale, raven, wolf, frog, salmon and eagle. A quote I read by Ojibway scholar, Basil H. Johnston, describes the meaning of a totem, “That from which I draw my purpose, meaning and being.”
The First Nations people are not the only group of people who find spiritual meaning in animals, plants and the natural world. I stumbled across it while I was traveling in South America as well.
Certain animals were important symbols to the Incan people. For example, the condor, anaconda and puma. The condor is thought to be the connection to our spiritual being and our way to enlightenment; the only bird big and strong enough to fly to the heavens. The anaconda represents our inner awareness of self and our own transformation. In nature the anaconda sheds its skin and is symbolically reborn. The puma represents strength, courage and the ability to tackle our fear. Even the city of Cusco, which I lived in for six weeks while traveling in Peru, was originally designed in the shape of a puma to deliver the message of strength to any attackers.
Many indigenous cultures worshiped mother earth and the natural environment in all its forms whether it be Inti, the sun god; Mamaquilla, the Incan moon goddess; Pachamama, the Incan earth mother; Apu, the mountain spirit; as well as the many plant spirits such as San Pedro and Ayahuasca, which are ingested as part of a healing and spiritual ceremony conducted by a Shaman. The natural world is believed to be very spiritual to many cultures and some believe that we each have a ‘spirit helper’ which could be in plant or animal form.
So this brings me to our purpose for hiking through Gabriola’s rich forest of big-leafed maples, red cedars, gnarly-branched gary oaks, red-peeling arbutus trees and the many species of creatures that call this rainforest haven home. My friend was taking me on a quest to find my spirit totem or spirit animal.
Murray has come to this island many times beginning approximately 16 years ago when he retreated here looking for peace and solitude from the chaos present in his life. At that time he felt empty and adrift. He said he was looking for more meaning.
He went for a walk in the woods one day in search of the ancient First Nations petroglyphs. Along the way he noticed a couple of ravens hovering above him which seemed to be following him. They accumulated in number as he got closer to the site and after rounding a bend in the road, a raven sat eyeing him up from a fence post and another from the top of a sign. At that moment, as he was looking into the eye of the raven on top of the sign, he said he felt a special connection; a knowing of sorts and since then he has called the raven his spirit animal.
From what I have found out on-line, the raven is about “rebirth, recovery, renewal, recycling, reflection and healing. It signifies moving through transitions smoothly by casting light into the darkness.”
Murray has taken a few of his friends and family members to the ancient petroglyph site the same way he walked there himself many years ago. He says that he is often successful in sensing others spirit totems. He believes that everyone and everything is connected and when the spirit totem presents itself it’s obvious to him. He has a sense or an immediate knowing when he’s found it. He likens it to fishing. He said, “After you’ve been fishing for a while you may feel a nibble, but then bang! There is no denying the fish that just hit the hook hard.”
So we carried on through the forest and eventually along a country road admiring the scenery and many birds including a couple of bald eagles that hovered up above. A fish nibbled on the line, but didn’t bite; the eagles didn’t seem right somehow. They did nothing unusual. A couple of large ravens glided past and cawed. Murray responded back and before we knew it both of us were calling out, mimicking them. As we walked more ravens accumulated. We counted five gliding on the thermals above us.
We entered the trail to the site and Murray said, “You’re in the zone now.” I quietly observed my surroundings. There were a few birds and a couple of slugs on the path, but nothing seemed unusual. The two bald eagles were gone. There were a couple of people up ahead kneeling down studying some foliage. Murray mentioned, “That’s strange. I’ve never seen anyone in this part of the woods before.” The couple said, “Look, it’s a chocolate lily. They are very rare.” Murray looked at me and gave me a nudge. I looked at him in disbelief. The fish had hit the hook and I must admit I was a little disappointed that my spirit totem could turn out to be a plant.
I’m still not entirely sold, but Murray says I will not fully understand the lily yet; that the meaning will come in time.
When we returned to the cabin that evening we looked up the meaning of the chocolate lily on-line and although there wasn’t anything specific about it we found something that describes the spiritual meaning of lilies in general. It said, “As soul medicine for our Spirit, gentle lilies address issues of the feminine and women’s worth: creativity, purity, beauty, spiritual sensitivity, sexuality, motherhood, birth, rebirth, grounding embodiment, receptivity, compassion and love.” Read more about it here.
Whether I have found my real spirit totem or not, Gabriola Island remains a very sacred and spiritual place with a very ancient First Nations history. Just walking through the lush west coast rainforest and along the wild beaches was healing enough for my own spirit and who knows, maybe one day a light will blink on in my mind and I will think back to when I discovered the chocolate lily and finally I will understand what it was all about.
Check out my Gabriola Island photo collection.