Against the Odds
Thanks to all of you who have written, called, posted and otherwise commented on the Survivor Lightning Drum following its debut a week ago. You have touched my heart, and based on your expressions, this lovely drum and its hard-earned right to exist touched your hearts because of its strong spirit against the odds. Several asked that I post the story I read in the audio file on the site, so here it is, edited and shortened a bit. (A drum family photo album is at the bottom.)
Reflections On The Survivor Drum
What? What is this mysterious thing called life? That we often despise but fight mightily to hold on to? That we disregard so easily but embrace so passionately? That we generally identify as existing only in flesh, devoid of spirit or soulful connection? Oh, we know, we know the answer.
This Lightning Drum is a quintessential symbol of shamanism and of defiance against the odds. Of hope when there is none. Of beauty where it counts.
It is well known, though not necessarily universal, that people called to shamanism walk a tortured path. Fires of adversity forge healers. Suffering spurs awakening. A shaman is known to be a “wounded healer.”
It is sometimes true of shamanic drums, too.
This drum typifies it all, beginning with its apparent death from a powerful lightning bolt, but ending with its birth as a sacred healer. The transformation was not easy – they seldom are—as it once believed itself to be one thing, but found its true identity after a fiery initiation.
By the time I discovered the ragged remains of the hickory tree blasted by lightning, it had suffered years of assault from ice storms, insects, worms and birds that had cracked, scratched and eaten away some of its pitching bark and pithy wood. There were no branches or smaller limbs on the ground, a sure sign they had already crumbled back into the earth on that wind and weather scarred West Virginia mountaintop that was a part of my family’s farm.
My friend Eddie, a veteran logger and tree trimmer for over 30 years, and I could easily tell what had happened as we saw it sagging in a small clearing in the forest. I knew he had questions about why I had asked him along to look at a ruined tree, and then particularly why I had asked him to hold back while I went ahead to be alone with it. After a few minutes I waved him forward and he dutifully yanked his chainsaw to life and downed the skeletal hickory with one swift buzzing cut and a series of quick slices to make a few dozen cookies. That’s what wood turners call cross sections cut from trees, often used to make bowls and other beautiful implements.
Not this tree, though. The wood wasn’t strong enough to withstand a lathe. In fact, for most purposes, it appeared useless. Dead.
Later, at the bottom of the mountain, Eddie helped me empty the small load of cookies into the barn before we sat in the old milk house for a cup of coffee. “Why cut that old dead tree, then block it?” he asked.
“I hope to help some of them turn into drums,” I answered, adding, “if they want to.”
He leaned toward me a little. “Is that why you talked to the tree before we cut it?” The tone of his voice suggested no incredulity, for he had no doubt talked with trees too in the past.
“Yes, I was asking the tree’s permission to cut it down, and when it agreed, I said a prayer for it and offered some tobacco to honor it.”
“Nice,” he said. “Nice the old tree will survive in this way.”
Months later and after they had dried, it was time for the cookies to undergo triage. I’ve written a lot about this sacred process over the years, but it’s a period during which each precious being embraces the vexing questions of existence. For me, it’s a humbling, often sad, often exhilarating exercise as they teach me about the Great Wheel while I remove rotted wood, dirt and debris from their wounded bodies.
With this collective family of a few dozen, only about six chose to serve as healing helpers, while the others preferred to be taken back to the site of their original mother tree where they could return into the Earth. Their choices inspire, either way, because they, like all of life, can continue on a while longer in their present form, or freely give their essence to the eventual rise of newness on the turning of the Great Wheel.
I’ve experienced this beautiful practice many times over the years with several trees and their offspring. But there is always a moment when I experience such great joy with the ones who remain. It’s the same as hearing of someone who narrowly escaped death and who fought against the odds, whether knowingly or through the intrinsic power of life itself. Survivors.
Though it’s been several years and my memories are no longer crystal clear, I recall making four or five drums from the bunch. But one, the sixth, somehow resisted. Its shell was too weak to become a drum, but it had such a strong spirit. It would not give up.
Later, and almost as an oversight I packed it with some other things when I moved to Kentucky. It lingered in the old box for two years, but even when I discovered it one idle day and started fiddling with it, it resisted. This occurred again and again over five or six more years. I repeatedly tried my best to help it, but I failed. A new crack would form, or the frame would fracture. And finally, when failing at one last try over a year ago, I again sat it aside for a later time when I could give it a respectable burial.
Then it happened.
Six weeks ago I was walking alongside a shelf in the shop and the drum called to me. “Ready.” Just like that.
And this time, it was ready. So we started together to mend its broken heart in a new way. Both of us simply gave up resisting anymore. We entered into a blissful union with Spirit. The scarred drum and the wounded healer were joined at last. And in no time the drum was singing.
You will note a curious feature in the photographs of the bottom of the drum. While the outside bark has long fallen away, there is an interesting dark brown inner circle of hard bark-like growth circumscribing the entire drum center. It is as tough as nails. And that’s the key to understanding this drum, shamanism and perhaps even life itself. There is an inner core in each of us, just like
in the drum. It is tougher than steel. It is the beautiful stubbornness that each of us carries, the desire to endure. To live, despite the odds. To stand fast, to hold to life and in service to life.
This little drum holds to that like a champion. It is a survivor.
Survivor Drum's Family Photo Album & Brief History
Below are some photos mostly from the early 2000s of the Survivor Drum's brothers and sisters that came from the hickory tree mentioned in the story, along with a bit more of their history.
From left to right, TOP ROW: 1.) The forest on the mountaintop of our family's West Virginia farm where the hickory grew. 2.) "The Amazon Drum." 3.) One of the drums in triage. 4.) I am sitting in my cramped shop at the time, which is an extension off of the barn that we called the milk house, mentioned in the story. I'm wearing a rubber glove in preparation for applying some of the sacred oils that will help preserve the wood of what will become "The Sun King Drum."
MIDDLE ROW: 1.) "The Sun King Drum" once it and its drum stand were finished. 2.) "The Pipe Drum," which featured eight handmade pipes around the side and onto which I hitched the lacing. 3.) I am playing one of the drums on the mountain where the tree grew. 4.) A Thunder Valley Drums motto nameplate inside one of the drums which protects emerald chips buried in the frame.
BOTTOM ROW: 1.) "The Beaver Drum," one of sturdiest of the hickory drums. 2.) "The Turtle Drum" along with a rattle and Lightning Stick. 3.) Closeup of "The Survivor Drum."