Crossing Hecate Strait
by Penelope Stuart Bourk
In the summer of 2011, four “older” women, recent friends, set out
for Haida Gwaii, a wilderness archipelago in the Pacific Northwest of Canada. Comprised of some 150 islands nestled far west of the northern coast of British Columbia, this rain forest archipelago
haven was known to the indigenous Haida inhabitants as “Islands at the Boundary of the World” (Xaadala Gwaee).(1) To reach their destination, which still appears on most maps as Queen Charlotte Islands, the women would have to cross Hecate Strait, a fierce, reef-ridden sea channel, 160 miles long and up to 85 miles wide, separating the isolated archipelago from mainland B.C. Hecate Strait is named
after the ancient Greek deity, Hecate.
Hecate — She who listens for what no one else hears, She who holds the torch for seekers in the dark, She who leads the lost through the crypt of the unfound — Hecate or Hekaté is a goddess of many realms. In her role as Sacred Elder, or Crone Goddess, Hecate is often invoked in modern croning ceremonies by older women seeking to walk in wisdom. In the ancient Greek Homeric Hymn to Demeter, linked both to women’s rites of passage and to the Eleusinian Mysteries, Hecate helps the mourning mother goddess Demeter locate and retrieve her stolen daughter Persephone from Hades, the god of the Underworld. Hecate hears the cry of the daughter, she holds the torch for the mother; she guides, advises, and mediates, later accompanying the daughter once restored. Hecate has retained her place of honor through millennia in women’s wisdom traditions, and she is now evoked, as aging women once again explore the archetype of the wise old woman, as respected elder, as crone. Thus, for our travelers, all daughters, all mothers, all of croning age and capability, “crossing Hecate Strait,” both physically and metaphorically, not to mention spiritually, seemed timely, even “age-appropriate.”
Yet curiously, in myth, regard for Hecate reaches beyond gender. In Hesiod’s Theogony, she is respected by gods of all realms
— Earth, Sea, Sky, and the Underworld. In human affairs too, in the physical realm, Hecate guards boundaries and crossroads, especially intersections where three roads meet (often one less traveled). In the moral and legal realms, she witnesses oaths and agreements, with her dark dogs pursuing transgressors. In the spiritual realm, she attends rites of passage, threshold crossings, transformations, transitions, as in birth, aging, and death. Though not one of the Olympians, Hecate, as the four croning travelers would discover, had powers few could afford to ignore.
I am one of the four travelers. I grew up in Vancouver, B.C., and for decades I harbored the dream that one day I would visit the Queen Charlottes. I smile to recall how, on a snowy day late in 2010, in a hot tub with three naked women I had recently met on Whidbey Island in Washington State’s Puget Sound, the conversation turned to unfulfilled dreams. I shared my dream, held since fifth grade, when I stumbled upon the work of the amazing, curious, famous–unknown Canadian painter and writer, Emily Carr.(2)
Born in 1871, the year British Columbia joined Canada, Emily Carr (d. 1945) defied the cultural stereotypes for urban women in Victorian and Edwardian colonial society. She repeatedly escaped the corseted confines of provincial Victoria, B.C., scandalizing her four conventional sisters, to travel on her own and with indigenous guides to isolated, abandoned native villages of the far-northern B.C. mainland and in the Queen Charlottes. Her writings record the plight of B.C.’s First Nations peoples. Her paintings explore the intense relation of totem and tree, depth and height, flow and light in the Pacific Northwest.
The women in the tub were intrigued. Before the waiting towels had encircled our prawn-pink, water-wizened, steaming, chubby bodies, we had conceived a “trip of a lifetime,” a soul journey. Each at a crossroad, all over 60, all searching minds, hearts, bodies, and spirits for our next steps, we divvied up the tasks in preparation. Ultimately, competing schedules, the astonishing costs for traveling off the beaten path, and limited budgets whittled our month-long fantasy trip to an intense two-week itinerary.
June 1, 2011, driving north from Langley on Whidbey Island, we crossed our first bridge, both geographic and symbolic, over Deception Pass, where we paused for a short ceremony, celebrating our intentions. The next morning at Vancouver airport, we paused by the Black Canoe, a sculpture by Haida artist Bill Reid, portraying “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” the dark bronze canoe containing passengers from Haida myth, Eagle, Raven, Bears, Wolf, Mouse Woman, and a pair of humans, the male named auspiciously as Ancient Reluctant Conscript.(3) Moved by the invitation of the sculpture, we boarded a plane to Sandspit, about 500 miles north, on Moresby Island, the longest of the Queen Charlottes.
Vancouver B.C. Airport sculpture, Spirit of Haida Gwaii
by Haida sculptor, Bill Reid
The rain forest archipelago, still home to several unique species, is sometimes referred to by naturalists as the Galapagos of the North. Yet historically it has dwelt in a dark shadow. Before colonization, the Haida Nation was a warrior tribe, tough, powerful, and feared by its neighbors. Yet by Emily Carr’s day, it was assumed that Haida culture, like other regional native cultures, was irreversibly in decline, unlikely to survive the invasive Western notion that Nature must be “conquered,” the wilderness tamed
— meaning savaged — and native peoples defamed, dispossessed, their culture obliterated, the environment as they knew it rendered unrecognizable.
Like many First Nations people in the Age of Discovery, the Haida barely survived assaults of all sorts. Decimation of their population by smallpox, measles, and pneumonia left as few as 5 percent surviving in some villages and on some islands. The consequences for survivors were profound. Sociologically: isolation, dislocation, family breakdown, poverty, and neglect, abetted by missionary-incited, government-sanctioned cultural eradication, including the disruption of ceremonies and forbidding the people the use of their language. In the natural world, continuing eco-tragedies: rampant destruction of the ancient primary growth rainforests — entire islands clear-cut; ravenous hunting and trading practices as conflicting needs and greeds of traders, both sides, European and Native, pressed unique wildlife to extinction, threatened Haida cultural survival, and resulted in lasting enmities. Ignorant introduction of prolific non-native species with no natural predators:
For example, a few deer brought for “white” hunting now number a famished 100,000 to 200,000,(4) nibbling to death the young reforesting cedar, the prima materia for traditional Haida building, ritual implements, and art. Controversial trust-busting intrigues: theft, destruction, and “removal for the purposes of preservation for others” of thousands (and centuries) of Haida artifacts, now dispersed around the world, limiting Haida access to their own heritage. Such travesties compounded the losses for this oral culture, effectively denying the telling of its stories, and deprecating its way of making sense of this amazing island world.
Haida Watchmen. A traditional icon
atop many totem poles: Watchers of the
Three Realms — Sky, Earth, Sea
Despite many pressures to the contrary, as we learned on our journey, the Haida have begun to push back, working to restore and reimagine their culture. Haida artists reinvigorate their art. An immersion school on Graham Island teaches the Haida language to island children. Treaties have been updated to protect the islands and surrounding waters and to honor the life they support and contain. The Haida Watchmen program pairs Haida young adults with their elders as guides for visitors to ancient sites in the now-protected southern section, Gwaii Haanas (“Land of Wonder and Beauty”) — though a recent earthquake has drained the natural hot spring pools on the astonishing Hot Spring Island, Gandll K’in Gwaayaay. The new museum, at the Haida Heritage Center in Skidegate on Graham Island, provides a home for recovered Haida artifacts, as well as a ritual space for ceremony and workshops for artists. International natural scientists, resource management specialists, and the Canadian government cooperate to monitor wildlife and environmental quality, helping to restore a balance that includes both Nature and the Haida.
Wouldn’t it delight Emily to know that in 2010, after two centuries of devastation and mismanagement, and 65 years after her death, the archipelago was officially renamed Haida.
Gwaii, “Islands of the People” — This return was negotiated as part of the historic reconciliation agreement between the province of British Columbia, Canada, and the Haida Nation, who inhabited the region for thousands of years before its “discovery.” Still, few witnessing the reconfiguring Haida world can escape the obvious correlates, the struggles, past and present, good and bad, in their own lives and cultures, in relations with one another, with the Earth, and in the World.
As for us, new to Haida cosmology and its inner tensions, symbolized by the moieties of the Eagle and Raven clans, our journey in this powerful place was not without its comic side.(5) For four days of the journey, we traveled with a small group through the southern islands of Gwaii Haanas, with a competent guide from Moresby Explorers in a super-powered Zodiac. Armored against the wind and rough seas, in stiff, heavy, oversized, dark-green rubber overalls, with matching hooded, ankle-length rubberized coats, our feet clad in knee-high rubber boots, we tumbled like beached whales on and off the beaches, in and out of the high-walled, slippery Zodiac moored in ankle-deep water a few feet from shore
(move your cursor over the image above). We had to laugh! And the waiting Haida watchmen could well have cracked a smile as we trundled like slick, stuffed peregrine penguins up and down the pristine beaches, only removing our wetware above the high-tide line. After a few dynamic falls, bruises, and strains, or crumbling under the weight of impressive cameras, or lumbering forward, winking, one contact lens lost in the sands of time, we coveted the limited supply of fold-up walking poles. We hobbled cautiously, with a certain resemblance to the tipping totems and aging stumps, along the gentle shell-rimmed trails, steeped in the soft silence of the deepening rainforest mosses quilting the ancient, sacred, now-protected villages, such as Skedans, Ninstints (now a World Heritage Site), Hotspring Island, Tanu.
As visitors, pilgrims of sorts, we celebrated the rejuvenation of the land, the surrounding waters, and the people. However, we also felt, as in our own bodies, the wounded land and lasting scars of the people in this region where entire islands, clear cut, still lie nude against the sky.(6) We felt, as from our own throats, the breaking voices of the Haida watchmen describing how it felt to witness their own village totems being cut into pieces and tugged away without consultation or permission. We felt in our own hearts the spiritual emergencies(7) and deadly paradoxes of conflicting values and worldviews.
This journey, tragic, comic, historic, eternal, had consequences. Even as we four wandered with the group past ideologically inspiring ruins like the Haida “House-No-One-Leaves-Hungry,” our own relationships shriveled, generosity withered, agreements fractured like cedar kindling. As one might expect (but we denied!), simple, honest fatigue in aging bodies also took its toll. Further, for the out of shape or physically challenged among us, increasing pain affected mood and judgment. Personal boundaries, repeatedly transgressed, retracted. Earnest efforts to communicate were ignored, rebuffed. Even the need for decisions concerning the regular activities of daily life, food, shelter, transport, without consensus, exacerbated tensions and magnified distance.
Later, some of us would ponder how we four friendly pilgrims, a visual artist, a nature guide, a college administrator, and a mythologist, by the third day of our trip of a lifetime, had suddenly morphed into Shadow-Side-Fractured-Moon-Woman, Don’t-Touch-My-Stuff-or-I-Kick-Your-Face-in-Woman, Mouse-Mother’s-Nightmare-Scribe-with-Heavy-Feather-Woman, and Smile-Like-Mute-Naďve-Child-No-Matter-What-You-Witness-Woman.
By the troubled fourth morning, one of us asked, part joking, part serious, “You mean it could get worse?” By the ninth unsettling day, on return from the Zodiac tour, another froze up, suddenly resolving, “I’m outta here.” She packed up and flew home several days early, leaving behind a hole we others couldn’t fill. Yet we three who remained for the final days of the trip, through sleepless midnight talkathons, tearful listenings, elder-bladder-challenging bletherings and fits of laughter, among continuing misadventures too awful, and immersive mysteries so profound, were able to restore the remnant circle, and to conclude with grace and gratitude our trip of a lifetime.
Rose Harbour sunrise at former whaling station on Kunghit Island
I have traveled before to faraway places and ceremonial spaces. Despite its unanticipated fragility, I wouldn’t have missed a minute of this journey. I have also attended several thoughtfully choreographed croning ceremonies over the past few years, including one that honored me as crone. Yet nothing in my experience prepared me for the bone-rattling, heart-rending, soul-shredding, spirit-bending initiation this trip became. Little did I realize until this crossing how arduous, how far beyond the protocol of modern ceremony, is the journey of croning the heart.
We all struggled. We came, we saw, and each in our own way, fell apart, forgetting what else we knew of each other, and of the other realms of Hecate, the oaths, the agreements, the risks. Transformation on tilt, friendships at stake, trust on the line, and the residuals — the relentless tracking skills of Her dark dogs. Almost a year later, despite continuing invitations, our fourth traveler continues to choose isolation. Yet who among us, at some time, on some journey of significance, hasn’t slipped into the chasm between in-here and out-there, or suddenly found ourselves a lone pilgrim hung up on some cusp of despair? When is that pesky game of musical chairs no longer instructive? When do we finally find a place at the table for all? And how do we, each and all, continue to muster the courage to take our places?
So I continue to explore who and how might we become as we age, at this Hecate Strait in our lives, where three roads meet — the intersection of past, present, and the edge of our own futures — what preparation for the hidden, for the unknown in each of us and in the world, for the losses lurking in the crypt of our own unfound? What are our choices?
Do we opt to quit mid game, pick up our marbles (if we still have some!), leave the circle, and abandon the journey? Do we return home as scheduled, but only to retire, sidelined, like many of our mothers and fathers, trapped between crowning and croning, still-birthed through the “sunset years,” untutored in restoration, resilience, and forgiveness, activism, caught in the sticky web of aging in a culture so wrinkle-and-wisdom-averse? Do we melt into the mossy landscape of conventional old age, pouting or putting? Or do we step up? In the tradition of Hecate: enter the growing circle of crones, far beyond our maiden voyage, supporting one another to nurture in a broader sense, as engaged elders, as activist “grandmothers” do, to witness, cultivate, update, and share in ongoing cultural development.(8)
How do we harvest the fruit of the labors of our lives, how foster what wisdom might be of service in a world clearly challenged to change? How meet with eyes wide and arms open the transitions, crossroads, boundaries, agreements, and transformations to come?
In Haida, the journey from Takinai, “Grandchild, inheritor of wisdom,” to Chinai, “Grandparent, revered elder, gift-bearer,” requires, as anthropologist/poet Wilson Duff writes, that we “Give it back, Give it all back, The whole gift.”(9) How do we women of the Northwest move beyond the veil of “Make-Nice-Old-Woman,” “Shadow-Shaken,” or “Thorn-of-Bitter-Root” into whatever is Chinai for ourselves and our culture? How do we offer all of our children, our grandchildren, our Earth, and each other a space for healing and wholeness?