She embraces you, seduces you
then curses you. Yet every time,
you run when she says, Come.
—Lakespirit, Sean Arthur Joyce
So what does it mean that suddenly the world is sending up so many serpent symbols? Is there a message here? In late July I was contacted by my old friend Dawn Bird of Partners in Motion, producers of the TV show Nordic Lodge, due to my extensive knowledge of world mythology and First Nations cultural legends. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in working on an episode of the show exploring the local Cree legend of the giant lake serpent that is said to inhabit Deep Bay in Reindeer Lake, northern Saskatchewan. (The lodge is located on the southern tip of Reindeer Lake.) She gave me just an hour to decide but I probably didn’t even need that much time to say yes. We then invited Daniel Stewart, from Charlottetown PEI, to join our team as our ROV (remotely operated vehicle) technician so we could try to get underwater images from the deepest parts of the bay. So off we went the first week of August to see if we could catch a glimpse of the ‘Deep Bay Monster.’ (Why are they always ‘monsters’? Maybe it’s gentle as a lapdog.) Because the episode won’t air ’til October, I’ll be careful not to let out any ‘spoilers’ here.
The stars of Nordic Lodge are Darren Kimmel, his wife Jennifer Huculak-Kimmel and Darren’s parents Harvey and Marty Kimmel. For someone who spent much of his working life on a prairie farm, Darren’s intimate knowledge of Reindeer Lake was impressive. Even with the modern technology of sonar fish finders, there’s still no substitute for the savvy that comes from lived experience on the water. Together they combine to make an unbeatable combination, improving the odds of success. Although frankly, Darren told me, the weather on Deep Bay the first day we went out was so rough, under normal circumstances there’s no way he’d have gone out in it. Equally impressively, Jennifer had to conquer her fear of the big water in order to act as our ‘cable monkey.’ This involved assisting Daniel in the launching and recovery of the ROV unit, paying out up to 750 feet of cable and then reeling it back in again. Thankfully, day two of the expedition saw the skies clear and winds calm, perfect for launching an underwater camera in search of the ‘Deep Bay Monster.’ The forces of serendipity combined to bless our efforts and the only thing lacking was more time to do a thorough investigation. Though we did make an exciting and completely unexpected discovery at the bottom of Deep Bay—but you’ll have to wait ’til October to find out what it is!
Speaking of serendipity, one night at 2 a.m. as Daniel and I stood at the Nordic Lodge docks watching aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, it undulated like a serpent—white with a pale hint of green—across the black tornpaper horizon. An omen? Or just coincidence? Canada’s History magazine this month reported on the Giant Squid sighting of October 1873 in Newfoundland by the Reverend Moses Harvey. These creatures—while not mythical—are extremely rare. Then in 2012, after a 150-year absence, “a crew of scientists working off the coast of Japan was able to capture the first-ever video footage of the creature alive in its natural habitat.” Is the good Reverend Moses back to part the waters of mystery for us? Water so deep and dark it’s as dark as our deepest souls. What shape passes there? Look—what shadow is that, moving across the waves?
This creature has many names, although a limited range of forms in its shape-shifting toolkit. Sometimes a massive sea serpent—with or without horns—but always scaly, though not always menacing. Sometimes a relic dinosaur with four feet, maybe a plesiosaur. The Anishinabe call it Mishi-Pishu, the Lakota Sioux Unktehi. The Okanagan call it Ogopogo, the Scots Nessie. (Trust a Scot to make a monster a pet.) As I learned in my interviews at Reindeer Lake, the Woodland Cree of northern Saskatchewan call it Mishinigoshu, Big Fish or Creature from the Big Water. And always, the creature moves just below the surface, a dark hint—the human shadow’s grand wink at us. Our deepest fears, coiling serpentine through the subconscious. Somehow we have a primal urge to embody these disembodied fears in the shape of something we can see in the world around us.
In Britain and China dragon culture is millennia old. Michael A. Hodges, author of Here Be Dragons, writes that British dragon mythology may be partly derived from distant memories of Viking attacks on villages. Viking longships often had dragons as figureheads on their bows. In one, a five-headed dragon breathing fire destroyed the village of Christchurch, Dorset in the late 1100s. Twelfth-century English villages typically had houses made of thatch, so fire was a constant danger. What begins exciting enough—a terrifying raid by wild Norsemen—soon becomes far more legendary—a fire-breathing dragon!
Listen to the ancient Lakota tale: “Unktehi was a great water monster, a snake with scales and legs, who filled the Missouri River from end to end. She could place her body and puff it up in such a way that it made the Missouri overflow. Thus she created a great flood that spread over the whole country, killing most of the people. There were also smaller water monsters that did the same thing. The waves even threatened the mountains. The Thunderbirds fought them for many years, during which the earth trembled and the waters burst forth in mighty torrents, and the nights were like days because of the flashes of lightning. Finally the Thunderbirds retreated to the sky and sent out all their bolts at the same instant. The forests were set on fire, the waters boiled and then dried up. Until then the Unktehi had represented the water power, but now that power was taken by the Thunderbirds.”
Now listen to stories being told of climate change the world over this week. Again and again climate scientists’ predictions are being outrun by reality. “In just the past few months, record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India each killed more than 1,000 people,” writes Eric Holthaus in Rolling Stone. “In Washington state’s Olympic National Park, the rainforest caught fire for the first time in living memory. London reached 98 degrees Fahrenheit during the hottest July day ever recorded in the UK. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled 70-fold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. Puerto Rico is under its strictest water rationing in history as a monster El Niño forms in the tropical Pacific Ocean, shifting weather patterns worldwide.” Add to that the scorched landscape of northern Saskatchewan that kept Nordic Bay producer Chris Triffo stranded for 10 days while firefighting crews battled the fiery landscape. The largest evacuation due to wildfires in Saskatchewan history—more than 13,000 people, including the entire town of LaRonge. Maybe this verse, written a decade ago for another ‘summer of fire’ we had in BC, speaks as well for this year’s inferno:
Saw blades howl for mills burned to the ground.
lives curl in fists of ash—
a family’s five-acre dream
black as starless sky.
It’s not hard to see the Earth’s serpentine form writhing in her agonizing throes of change. The planet tossing on her bed in night sweats and fever. “Did I have a dream? Or did the dream have me?” I can hear her asking now, as she grips the sweat-damp sheets of her savannas, the arid skies of northern forests ready to candle into flame, her waters lapping higher and higher like a hungry beast, tasting, testing. This generation, we will all see where we stand on the scale of human resilience. We’ll see just how flexible this Earth is. It has survived many ‘reboots’ before, even if many of its creatures haven’t. But will we?
Once upon a time, serpent energies were benign, even worshiped. As far back as ancient Egypt and India, their forms were everywhere in art, architecture and religion. As Michael A. Hodges explains: “Dragons can be associated with energy known as ‘earth energy.’ …The energy lines, ley lines, which are supposed to pass over or through the earth are sometimes called dragon lines because dragons are supposed to fly in a straight line.” Hodges allows a more prosaic explanation of ley lines as ancient farming calendars in the days before writing and the Farmer’s Almanac. “These lines are the straight line networks stretching for many miles that connect ancient sites of spiritual, ceremonial or cultural interest, such as stone circles and standing stones, burial mounds, henges and pre-reformation churches as well as natural features like sacred hills or lakes. …Some people attach a mystical significance to leys; others accept that there can appear to be a change in the earth’s magnetic field along such lines, and that possibly humans once used them to aid navigation in ancient times as maybe birds, fish and animals still do.” In fact, we know from science that bees and birds navigate using the Earth’s electromagnetic fields, and that higher frequencies—especially microwaves—induced by humans disrupt this navigation.
It makes sense that, lacking the tools to quantify these Earth energies, the ancients used the next best thing—their gut intuition. They followed the seasonal cycles and became intimately familiar with the Earth’s energies, making their crops fuller, richer. Where these energies seemed to intersect, or offer a commanding view of green, pregnant fields, temples were built from the most ancient times. The Greek God of Medicine, Aesculapius (or Asklepius), kept snakes in his healing temples. To this day, the symbol of the medical profession is the single serpent coiled around a staff—the staff of Asklepius.
Proving that it is a fundamental symbol of human thought, it occurs in humanity’s oldest recorded myth tale, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, circa 2100 BC, though probably much older in its oral origins. In the epic, after losing his beloved adoptive brother the Wild Man Enkidu, King Gilgamesh goes on a quest to find the plant that will give him everlasting life. He is directed to find the survivor of the Great Flood, Utnapishtim, and his wife, who have been granted immortality by the gods. After great privation and suffering the king finds Utnapishtim, who tells him the plant is at the bottom of the bay on the Isle of the Blessed where he and his wife live. Gilgamesh weights his feet, swims to the bottom and brings it to the surface, but passes out from oxygen deprivation. While he is unconscious, a snake comes along and eats the plant. The snake is just a hapless creature that does what animals do; the writer of the epic doesn’t waste time blaming the creature. The tale’s moral is clear: humans are not meant to live forever.
And once the Christians got hold of it, the poor serpent didn’t stand a chance. The Book of Genesis incriminates the snake by making it the agent of our proto-parents’ undoing. We’ve been living in Christianity’s shadow version of serpents as monsters ever since. Is our fixation with the Genesis serpent at the root of our Earth-disregarding behaviour? In one respect the Genesis myth is correct, metaphorically speaking: humanity chose to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, as any curious creature must do. The Garden of Eden tale posits it as a choice between two natures: the innocent in paradise (naïve) under God; or the worldly wise, having already tasted the fruit of knowledge. And with that comes the inevitable compromises of knowledge. Not so much black and white as infinite shades of grey—the capacity to make subtle distinctions. Yet what was once a noble pursuit of knowledge seems in the 21st century to have become subservient to lust for power. A technocracy has been born. Technology can do marvelous things for us. And, as the mythic tales tell us, it can be our undoing if we’re not careful.
Yet if we listen to the spirit of Unktehi in the waters, in the ground beneath our feet, tumbling across the skies above as the Chinese see their great dragons of good fortune, we are empowered. The treasure protected by the fire-breathing dragon, writes Hodges, is not gold but knowledge. The treasure is this amazing, many-storied, life-breathing planet we share with so many other creatures, known and unknown. As I left my tiny mountain village of New Denver, nested in the glacier-fed Valhallas, the god’s-eye view from the airplane struck me with awe: The moon rising over the mountains of BC painted the peaks ethereal salmon—backbones of ancient Mishi-pishu at rest, spines undulating toward the horizon. The moon’s glow strobing across the lakes and ponds of Saskatchewan—scales of titanium light flashing to life then winking out again in the dark. Coalfire orange on indigo, spread above ragged treetops at Reindeer Lake, boats silhouetted, still. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, how beautiful this Earth is. How gorgeous.’ Surely that is the surpassing value, beyond treasure.
Chief Seattle’s words bear repeating here as the superior way to close this essay: “We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man, all belong to the same family. The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each ghostly reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father.”
POSTSCRIPT: I would be remiss if I failed to thank everyone on the Nordic Lodge production crew: Steve, Zimmer, John, Colin and of course Justin for keeping us all fed. Producer/director Chris Triffo was a gas to work with—so much fun! And to Dawn Bird, my dear friend of 20 years, originally from Nelson but now based in Regina, who got me the job! Special thanks to Darren and Jennifer and their family for their hospitality. Working with Daniel Stewart on camera was great—for two people who just met, our rapport was amazing. Like old friends from a past life. Let’s hope it stays that way.
 Arthur Joyce, ‘Lakespirit,’ The Charlatans of Paradise, New Orphic Publishers, Nelson BC, 2005, p. 26.
 J.R. McConvey, ‘The Devilfish of Newfoundland,’ Canada’s History, August–September 2015, p. 47.
 J.R. McConvey, ‘The Devilfish of Newfoundland,’ Canada’s History, August–September 2015, p. 51.
 Michael A. Hodges, Here Be Dragons, Natula Publications, 2008, Christchurch, Dorset, UK, pp. 42, 47.
 Eric Holthaus, ‘Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here,’ Rolling Stone, August 5, 2015. http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-point-of-no-return-climate-change-nightmares-are-already-here-20150805#ixzz3iUXlRa73
 Arthur Joyce, ‘Summer of Fire,’ The Charlatans of Paradise, New Orphic Publishers, Nelson BC, 2005, p. 10.
 Rush, ‘Nocturne,’ from the album Vapor Trails, 2002.
 Michael A. Hodges, Here Be Dragons, Natula Publications, 2008, Christchurch, Dorset, UK, p. 17.
 See British Museum website re: the flood tablet, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx
 Gilgamesh: Ancient History Encyclopedia online: http://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/. There are a number of excellent translations of the tale which vary in details: Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh and Others, translated by Stephanie Dalley, Oxford World’s Classics, 1989; Gilgamesh, translated from the Sin-Leqi-Unninni version, by John Gardner and John Maier, Vintage/Random House, New York, 1985; and the classic translation by NK Sandars, Penguin Classics edition, 1960.
 Michael A. Hodges, Here Be Dragons, Natula Publications, 2008, Christchurch, Dorset, UK, p. 8.
 Quoted in The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1988, p. xix.