The Totem

Laura with totem 1997

The Totem


I can’t say what took hold of us that Saturday.  We made a strange decision.

The day before, we’d walked around our land and passed through open pasture, woodland, scrub, a dry creek bed, and an area that looked tired.  By that I mean overgrazed, with lots of rocks and very little grass.  And in the middle of it, stood a huge dead tree trunk, its branches weathered away to two stubs.

Our land had other oak trunks strewn about—a hundred plus years in the growing, bigger round than a man’s shoulders—rotting on their sides.  Their sad history:  in the 1940’s, cotton was king and the folks in these parts unwisely thought they could clear out the trees and bushes and sow cotton everywhere over this thorny, stony backside.

So they ringed the trees.  Ringing or girdling a tree means to remove a ring of bark in a horizontal line all around the trunk, which kills the tree slowly.

The landowners didn’t necessarily cut the trees down but left them to wear away, through seasons of heat and cold, and to be knocked down in storms.  Unfortunately, they succeeded in killing many of these magnificent beings, but this one, though ringed in two places and dead, still held stubbornly upright.

Like a grey ghost, it stood, accusing us.

“Let’s cut this old oak,” my husband said.

“You think so?” I said.  “Will that be disrespectful?”

“Not if we put it upright over at the house, and make it our totem.  Then it won’t be out here forgotten and wasted.”

“Let’s think about it,” I said.

The next morning we agreed  to fell the tree even though we really had a lot of work to do.  We needed to build and repair fences and corrals, tend the garden, and more.

Perhaps we felt an urgency to connect ourselves to that land since our people hadn’t come from that place.  Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a totem as an object (such as an animal or plant) serving as the emblem of a family or clan and often as a reminder of its ancestry.

Bringing in the Totem

So after breakfast we loaded a chainsaw and axe in the pick up truck and off we went—our hearts light with a chore that wasn’t necessary.

We parked out of the trunk’s reach.

I stood way back, observing the tall imposing oak while Jay fired up the chainsaw.  He began sawing low down and worked at the trunk a while.  He stopped.

I came forward and looked at where his fingers were touching the trunk. There was no evidence he’d done anything.   “Even after fifty years of death, it’s like iron,” he said.

He got out the big axe and chopped and chopped.

“Whew, I’m going to feel this in my shoulder sockets tomorrow.  All the way to my feet.”

“It’s impressive, watching you.”  I smiled.  “Brenner!” I said.

He grinned, encouraged.  That was a secret word between us.  It meant something like, Wow, look at that hunk!

We hunted around on the ground for flat rocks and Jay wedged them into the crevices he’d hacked out on two opposite sides of the trunk.  He pounded the stones in with the butt of the axe head.  Then we did the same thing twice more, so there were now four equidistant wedges on the trunk’s circumference at a height of two feet.

Jay picked up the chainsaw again and sawed downward at an angle above one of the rock wedges to try to cut out a triangular chunk.  Bit by bit, he made progress!  He repeated this procedure above the other three wedges.  I sat on a rock and waited and waited.

We were realizing this was a bigger project than we thought.

That knowledge increased the pleasure and the challenge.  An hour and a half had passed since we’d arrived.  The sun beat down, the temperature was rising, the breeze dead, and Jay’s shirt was dark with sweat.  We drove to the house for water and the chainsaw sharpener, sharpened the chain and went back.  We would not give up.

After another hour of chopping and sawing,  the trunk stood strong even though there were only a few inches square still uncut.

We stood back in awe, staring at the tiny core that was holding up that bulk.  Oak!  All this from an acorn that had sprouted about 1790.

“Be careful,” said Jay.  “It should fall that way.  You stand over opposite.”

He sawed and sawed and finally there was a sharp crack.  He leaped back.

The trunk held its ground, as though for a last view of the land it had presided over for so long, and then with a loud rasping breath, began to tilt, slowly, then faster, and then crashed over onto the tough ground.

Where it had been cut, both stump and trunk glowed the most gorgeous golden color.  I ran over and caressed it.  Jay followed.  Then he glanced from the tree trunk to the truck and back.

We were sweaty and hungry, and now we had to get that huge bulk back to the house.

There was the tricky issue of moving almost a ton of oak.

“We’ll drag it with a chain,” Jay said simply.

We fetched a heavy chain and managed to slip it around the trunk at the upper end, kept off the ground by the stubs of the branches.

Triumphant, feeling like great hunters, we jumped into the truck to pull our prize home.  The trunk didn’t budge.  To get the vehicle moving, Jay had to rev the engine and stay in first gear; we could hear the motor grumbling, reluctant.  Then we were off.  I crouched in the truck bed and watched the drama as the oak skidded over rocks and thorny bushes and etched a memory on the gravelly road.

Jay stopped the truck after the bridge just where the road curved towards the house.  “We’ll put it here where people can see the totem as soon as they drive through the trees and have a first view on the open circle of pasture and the house.”

He leaped down and scanned the ground.  “Next job,” he said, “is to dig a big hole.”

I nodded.

He was slumped, exhausted.

“That’s for tomorrow,” I said.

Digging the Hole

The next day we gathered shovels, a post hole digger and the iron digging rod and headed to the site.

Jay concocted the plan:  We would dig a hole at the base end of the trunk where it now lay.  The hole would have a slope on the side nearest the base to help the trunk slide in.  When the hole was finished, we’d put a rope around the top end of the trunk and tie it to the truck tow bar in order to pull the top of the oak up and have it slide into the hole down the slope.

I helped remove surface rocks but couldn’t force the shovel to do more than scrape some dust.  So Jay, much stronger, dug into that hard turf, digging up the tough grass and gumbo soil, which is as hard as concrete when dry, and it was a very dry season.

Then he dug down reaching the next layer, the hardpan, where no roots could enter.  This was pre-sandstone.  He kept digging.

“The hole needs to be deeper.” Jay, sweat rolling down his face, breathing heavily, stood in it up to his knees.

I kept providing water and snacks.  Finally, the hole was right:  three feet deep with one slanted wall.

Raising the Totem

Jay staggered out of the hole, took the rope and looped it tightly several times around the top end of the trunk, then tied the other end to the truck tow bar.  He turned to me.  “Stay back at first.  I’ve got to pull it upright but then you have to act quickly—throw in some big rocks to hold it up in place.  On all sides!  And work fast!

He got in the truck and fired it up.  He pushed the gas pedal.  The rope was taut.  The truck stood still.  He worked the clutch and carefully gave it full gas . . . and the oak moved a little.  Gradually, the top of the trunk raised up, sending down a shower of dust and rocks, and then the base slid down the slanted wall and into the hole!

I leaped into action.  Aiming first for the slanted wall side, I heaved in two huge rocks and lots of smaller rocks.  The oak was supported.  Then Jay got out of the truck to help and both of us threw in more matter.  Alternately, Jay shovelled in the sandy, rocky mass he’d pulled out of the hole and then we stomped it down, jumping up and down, to pack it.  Then we threw in more rocks, more earth, and jumped round the beast in a strange dance.

The oak stuck up out of the ground eight feet.  We tested it, pushing from various angles.  It didn’t budge.  Done sturdy!

We stood back and admired it.

“It needs decoration,” I said.

Our eyes met.

I ran back to the house, brought a ram’s skull with horns, and we tied that around the upper crown with wire.  We took photos of each other posing with our new friend and neighbor.

This project took two days of hard labor that, in spite of costing us the clutch in the truck, were well worth it.

To honor that oak.

To connect our family with a totem that had existed for several centuries in that land.  That represented the past, the present, and the future.  That gave us hope.

Joachim with totem 1997

Click here to read the first story in the Texas Ranching Adventure series.




6 thoughts on “The Totem

    • Hi Diane, I’m very glad to hear you liked “The Totem. ” Yes, that time seems like so long ago. Look at the sweat pants I had on! Those were still popular then, though I think I had had them since high school track. I actually had them on because I was a new mother at the time and couldn’t wear my regular jeans. I didn’t include the five-month old baby in the blog because it would have been complicated to add in. Yet during most of that wild felling activity, I was standing around holding her. She was a remarkable child, interested in whatever was going on. Best, Laura


  1. Thank you, Ginger! Hope all is well with you and yours. Thanks for reading “The Totem”! (Hmm, is it British or American to put the end punctuation mark outside the quotation mark? Can’t remember.) Best wishes, Laura


  2. Hello Eva,

    Yes, teamwork is very important in life. Without it, we cannot accomplish much. With teamwork, we can do amazing things. Like move a ton of oak! Thanks for reading! Best, Laura


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