September 10, 2021
The Healing Totem
- as seen by -Madeleine Thompson
In September 2002, nearly one year after the September 11 attacks, a gift with a profound history arrived at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo. The Healing Totem was sent as an act of peace and hope to the people of New York City from the youth participants of the One Voice Arts and Leadership Program of Monterey County, California. Twenty-three feet tall, the Healing Totem was carved from a 1,100-old yellow cedar that had been used in the 1920s to support a naval pier in Port Chicago, California. In 1944, the pier was destroyed in an accidental explosion that killed 320 people, nearly two-thirds of whom were Black cargo handlers who had not received proper training or safety equipment. WWII’s worst homeland disaster, the tragedy highlighted deep inequities in the US military and led to the desegregation of the US Navy.
The cedar survived the blast and eventually made its way to the One Voice Arts and Leadership Program, which brought local youth from disadvantaged communities together with a master carver from New Zealand to craft the Healing Totem for presentation to a community in need of healing. After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Healing Totem’s destination became clear. It was erected in September 2002, with the support of New York City, near the start of the Mitsubishi Riverwalk at the Bronx Zoo. The photo here shows the carvers, program leaders, WCS and NYC officials, police, firefighters, and supporters who gathered for the Healing Totem’s installation.
Featuring a twisting double-helix pattern representing the continuity of nature and the interconnectedness of all living things, the base of the Healing Totem includes carvings of a grizzly bear, a bottlenose dolphin, a jellyfish, and other wildlife from across the world. Also carved within are the outlines of the hands of Monterey County police and firefighters who wanted to show their solidarity with their New York counterparts.
As we recognize the 20th anniversary tomorrow, we remember the nearly 3,000 people who died on September 11, 2001, including WCS retiree Timothy O’Sullivan, and the countless others whose lives were forever changed that day.