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The Ponies of Assateague, and Connecting With Totems

March 25, 2009 2 comments

On Sunday I had a close encounter with the ponies of Assateague Island National Seashore. In one incident, a palomino pony came very close to the car, and I was able to stroke its mane briefly. The second incident occurred near the island’s visitor center, were my fiancee and I were able to watch a small family unit of a brown male, female and a male foal graze on the lawn outside the parking lot. The foal came up real close to me, and I was able to stroke his forehead briefly. We spent some time sitting on the lawn observing them. They seemed very unconcerned with our presence, at peace with the land and with the naked apes watching them. One could say I’m an ass in that I shouldn’t be touching wild animals–and to be honest, that’s the big rule I keep that I ended up breaking. If it wasn’t for the ponies initiating the contact, I probably would have (and still should have?) kept my hands to myself.

This got me thinking about a couple of things, though. First was the meaning and message behind these ponies. I’ve seen them off and on for most of my life, ever since I started traveling to the coast with my family as a small child and could consciously remember doing so. They seemed to me to be like the mythical hippocampus, a union between land and sea. They were also elusive. Some days you’d visit the island and travel the whole length of it, not seeing a pony in sight. Another time you’d see several, and they would sit on the side of the road, some of them waiting for cars to slow down, habituated by unscrupulous visitors trying to feed them. They were trusting, sometimes to a fault. They also reminded me of endurance, perseverance. They’ve adapted to that island since they came there in the 1600s, most likely from a sunken Spanish vessel off the coast. Marooned on foreign land, they’ve made the best of the situation, and flourished.

The other thing that got me thinking was that I had always taken the island for granted, with the easy access I’ve had to it. In fact, I’ve had many experiences in my life were I could have direct interaction with many different types of animals in many settings. My totemic work reflects this strongly, and generally I can’t seem to understand, nor relate with, people who write long and intricate totem dictionaries of animals they’ve had no personal interaction with. There is the issue of globalization, but there is also the issue of old school. The animistic cultures and societies of the past built their totemic view of animals by direct personal experience, interaction, and sharing the environment with these animals. This seems to be a very different tack from many of the totemists of today, who base most of their views on wildlife books and programs, and UPG. Now, there isn’t anything wrong with that in itself, but it really opens up a whole new world when you take that extra effort to see the animal in person, even if it’s just in a zoo (although zoo animals tend to display atypical behavior, you can still learn a lot about an animal by observing even the abnormal behaviors.)

I’m a bit spoiled in that I’ve had the opportunity to work in veterinary clinics, pet retail, wildlife centers, parks, in addition to living close to numerous parks, refuges, zoos, museums and other places were one can seek a more personal connection with the natural world. Not everyone has this sort of access. It’s something I need to remember, and maybe have patience with, when interacting with fellow totemists. The thing I have a problem with is those who write totem dictionaries disseminating information about an animal that is incorrect from a biological standpoint, and from a symbolic standpoint it completely flies in the face of what is otherwise known about the animal. That is something I have a problem with. To spread misinformation, even unintentionally, just isn’t cool. People need to be more mindful.

I think what needs to be done is to call attention to these errors, and encourage people to seek more direct experience with the wilderness around them. Even if you live in the middle of the city, nature survives somewhere.

I guess it’s something I’m still rolling around in my head.

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