A striking artwork resembling a double totem pole and representing the theme of humanity living in balance with nature soon will be erected at Southern Oregon University’s Thalden Pavilion Sustainability Center.
The two 24-foot slabs of cedar, sculpted by local artist Russell Beebe and called a “teaching pole,” show the ancient ideal of sustainability — treating the environment and other species with respect and not overconsuming resources.
The theme was requested by Barry and Kathryn Thalden of Ashland, who endowed the entire pavilion and dedicated it "to outrageous innovation in sustainability and the arts.” The pavilion is adjacent to The Farm on Walker Street.
The monument traces the “sacred path” of Native Americans from thousands of years ago, up to the present Euro-American ideals of progress, urbanization and intense use of resources.
At the top, it depicts the female and male as moon and sun, then a long “teaching feather,” whose central stem represents a life in balance with nature, which “we are encouraged to walk all our lives,” says Beebe.
He sculpted marten, deer, fish, frog and bear, all standing for various tribal clans, with the fish representing medicine, the bear as defense, deer as sustainability and so on.
Each person is born into a clan, says Beebe — who is part Native American, from the Ojibwe tribe — and each life’s work helps make society function and be intact as a sustainable whole.
Next on the carving is the circle of life, containing the four elements of earth, water, wind and fire and adorned with hawthorne, representing medicine.
“In the circle of life are the laws of nature,” he says. "If you stay in that circle, everything will be OK. Outside that circle are the laws of man. If you only follow those, you are in trouble.”
At the bottom of the column stand a modern, civilized couple, facing a fork in the road — one path leading to wholeness and a thriving life, the other showing factories, pesticides and pollution. Beebe is not subtle about where he believes humanity stands today.
“Long ago, the light-skinned people faced which path they would have to take. One has a future and the other is a dead end,” he says. “In this moment in history, we’re at a crossroads. It’s a global situation."
The selection and arrangement of symbols were a collaborative effort between Beebe and fellow Ojibwe Dan Wahpepah, who is also the general contractor on the project (added from previous version).
Beebe previously sculpted the “We Are Here” totem pole, which stands on North Main Street at the entry to downtown Ashland. It also displays Native American themes and its title is a reminder that while they were largely removed from the area in the 1850s, Native Americans remain.
The two giant slabs will stand erect, supported by a central steel column.
In his native Wisconsin, Beebe, 75, learned wood sculpture making fishing lures to catch muskie fish, then sculpted the models for sports cars in the Silicon Valley area. He came to the valley 40 years ago.
Chipping away at the long, gigantic beams of wood at his country home west of Phoenix, Beebe says, “This is my craft and I’m honored to be able to tell this story. It’s such an important message to get out there. It’s not a mystery. Every indigenous person in the world knows it. I hope people get it.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com.