By Krista Schwimmer
Throughout the world, birds have been revered as gods and goddesses, messengers and teachers, omens and signs. Whole systems of divination have revolved around their movement. They have inspired us to sing, to soar, and to dream.
In many indigenous cultures, birds are part of what the Ojibway call, the totem system. “Totem” or “dodaem” in Ojibway means brother/sister kin. Tribes sharing the same totem, then, would have obligations to one another, as well as the totem or totems they shared. According to Ojibway scholar, Basil Johnston, in his 1990 book, “Ojibway Heritage,” he says that totem is “that from which I draw my purpose, meaning, and being.”
The modern spiritual movement has taken to bringing this concept to everyone by encouraging individuals to find his or her totem or totems, depending on the system one follows. It also encourages the individual to view encountering birds, animals, and other natural things as a magical event, filled with meaning and significance. One of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to meet and to learn about a totem is simply through nature herself.
Because of its proximity to the Pacific Flyway, a major north-south migratory route running from Alaska to Patagonia, Venice offers easy access to discovering bird totems. One such bird is the snowy egret, seen frequently at the Venice Canals, the Bellona Wetlands (a key stop on the Pacific Flyway), and the shore line itself. With its elegant, white plumage, thin black bill, long black legs shorn with bright, yellow feet, this member of the heron family is quite approachable. Once, I watched a Latino man cleaning the canals with a long, rake. Standing right beside him was a single egret, hoping perhaps for a handout. Watching an egret fish is particularly engaging. I love especially how the bird stirs the water with its beautiful, yellow feet. For me, this gesture with its cheery feet symbolizes the importance of approaching work with an element of enthusiasm.
As part of the heron family, egret shares an ancient symbolism. Greek mythology saw this bird as a messenger from Aphrodite or Athena. In both Eastern and Egyptian symbolism, the heron is associated with the sun itself. In her wonderful deck called “the Medicine Cards”, Jamie Sams talks about the message of the heron. She says it is about bringing balance between the mind and the emotions. On the website “Wildspeak”, egret is called “The Holy Spear,” due to the striking precision of its hunt.
To build a relationship with any totem, it is important not only to understand the totem, but the world in which the totem lives. Being a wading bird, the egret is common in marshlands and wetlands. Anyone claiming the egret or heron as a personal totem would learn much about these graceful birds by spending time at the extraordinary Bellona Wetlands. According to Ted Andrews, popular author of magical and pagan books, because wetlands are a place for breaking down old growth in order for new growth to occur, egret’s appearance alerts one to change.
Like any meaningful relationship, a relationship with a totem should include helping the creature in whatever way is possible. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918 did just that for not only the snowy egret, but for many other birds facing extinction due to the millinery trade.
According to Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources website, 200 million birds were killed annually at that time for the feather trade. Heron and egret feathers were particularly popular. Due to this Act, snowy egrets have rebounded, giving them the conservation status today of “Least Concern.” It is still critical to protect the bird’s habitat. One way to help our local Venice birds is to become involved with stopping the over- development here and in neighboring cities. Hyper-gentrification of neighborhoods not only dismisses many human lives, but lives of other inhabitants like squirrels, trees, birds, and insects.
The snowy egret is but one of the many inspiring bird totems of Venice that can teach us and guide us in our lives. So, next time you spy this graceful being, take time to pause and reflect with the bird. Notice what the bird is doing and how this may reflect something happening in your life at that moment. Who knows – perhaps the egret will bless you with a message that may even change your life.