Written in wood

OLYMPIA, Wash. — For 70 years, the ears of a fox, the fin of an orca, the wise counsel of an eagle and a whole troupe of other animal teachers have graced the Capitol campus in Olympia, looking down from a native story pole purchased with pennies donated by area schoolchildren.

But the 71-foot masterpiece by the late carver William Shelton, a Snohomish Indian chief, was cut down in November out of concern that rot in the wood could cause the pole to topple in a winter storm.

Today the pole reposes in temporary storage in an otherwise unused greenhouse on the Capitol grounds. The pole was dismembered into seven chunks, the figures lying like patients on tables, awaiting succor. What will happen next to this artwork, carved in recognition of the friendship between native peoples of Washington state and the newcomers, is not known: The next chapter for this story pole has yet to be written.

Marygrace Jennings, cultural-resources manager at the state Department of General Administration, who reluctantly hired contractors to take the pole down, is working now to find a new life for this old pole.

"This is not what I would have wished," she said of the decision to bring down the pole last fall. On the day it happened, she put out coffee, tea and commemorative cards showing the pole in its glory. The Washington State Archives assembled storyboards telling the history of the pole for the public to enjoy.

Even Mother Nature turned out for the event, with a rare blue-sky November day.

Yet, as contractors' chain saws bit into the wood, no school buses brought children to bid the pole goodbye; no tribal delegations came to give it a blessing. Despite putting out a news release and letters to tribes and state officials a week before the takedown, only about 50 people — mostly state workers on their lunch break — passed by the pole as it was removed chunk by chunk.

"I thought there would be crowds," Jennings said. "I was so disappointed so few people came. I went and got my son out of school to watch, to see the passing of something so special. Something so huge, so permanent, you don't expect it to come down in eight hours."

Today, there's a blank, sodded-over spot on the grass in the northeast lawn of the west campus, where the pole used to stand, keeping company with the grand old trees on the Capitol lawn.

Twenty-one carved figures graced the pole, running, swimming, standing, coiling, diving, resting, watching.

There's a fox, with alert, pointy ears, long sharp teeth and trademark bushy tail. A green coiled snake; a plump rabbit; a stag, antlers reaching in a great sweeping rack and tongue sticking out. A standing bear; an orca with a seal clenched in its jaws.

Most figures are still intact, but some were severed when the pole, carved on two sides, was cut into pieces.

Each figure teaches a lesson: that children will be fearful unless they experience courage by accomplishing things on their own (from rabbit and elk). That creatures never should be harmed just because they are deformed or weak (from snake). Or that children should not brag (deer and loon).

Some figures have fallen apart: Orca's fin lies on a table. A blue jay's beak does, too. Chunks of material that calved off the pole sit alongside the bigger pieces, tiny constellations of broken cedar. Swaths of lichen robe some of the painted figures, and a mushroom sprouts from one animal's head. Everywhere in the greenhouse, especially when it floods with sun, is the scent of cedar.

Jennings says she is open to proposals to rescue the pole from any quarter, as long as the expertise is real, the care is appropriate and public access will be provided to the pole when it's restored.

The Burke Museum of History and Culture has expressed interest. "It's an important pole," said Robin Wright, curator of Native American art at the Burke. "If they want to get rid of it, we would take it."

Julie Stein, director of the museum, said she went to Olympia to see the pole — peering at it in the greenhouse — and felt after doing so that she would like to see the pole restored to its intact condition, rather than dispersed in pieces to various collections.

Art historian Katie Bunn-Marcuse at the Burke said the museum needs to determine the pole's condition and needs.

"The Burke is interested in the preservation of this pole; it will take time and money and expertise, which we will have to gather, but we would be interested in being the caretaker for the pole in the long run."

Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, a tribal member, said the tribes affirm the pole belongs to the people of the state of Washington, and support the pole going to the Burke or another location where it will be restored, put back on public view and properly cared for.

He, too, would prefer to see the pole restored to its original intact condition: After all, it tells a story.

"If we can maintain the integrity of the pole somehow, that would be the best," McCoy said. "Taking one of the pieces out would be like taking a chapter out."

Jennings said she deliberately chose the greenhouse to store the pieces, which weigh from 1,400 to 3,200 pounds each, over another possibility: a parking garage.

"This is light and bright; it's a dignified space," she said of the greenhouse. "And people can still see it," she said of the pole. " 'Out of sight, out of mind' is a real danger with something like this. Visibility is important; we want people to see it, and continue to ask questions, and seek help and expertise to do whatever we can.

"It can't stay here forever."

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