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I have never forgotten this, and the shiver that went through me when he said it. For I too believed it to be so, but had never said it aloud. Animism, totemism, identification with life forms beyond your own increase your empathy and respect for the world and embed you in a big family of relatives and relationships. The words we use to think about and describe such ideas are often found in anthropology, which took them from indigenous languages. Totem is a word from Ojibwa, an Algonquian language of the Great Lakes in North America.

It seems we have internalised their patterning and shapes. How do we visually distinguish animals from humans? Often by their ears, their ‘creative’ shapes, their imaginative forms – spots, stripes, horns, tails, manes, fur, ruffs. There is a rich variety in animal bodies that is not matched even by the many shades of colours or shapes that humans have. Powhatan’s Mantle demonstrates in an object what I interpret as equivalence, symbiosis between animal and human. Totem: he is my relative. It is not necessarily possible to imitate the example set by indigenous people’s totemic relationships with the world, but there is a level at which knowing about them and witnessing them leads us to thoughts of practical, prosaic and sometimes overwhelming obligation.

Some need solitude, the sense of being unobserved by other humans, to feel 38 Apr il free. In The Road From Coorain Jill Kerr Conway wrote about the country she grew up in, the western plains of New South Wales: ‘Here, pressed into the earth by the weight of that enormous sky, there is real peace. ’ These descriptions suggest a state of simultaneous oblivion and location, a finding and a losing, a connection and a dissolving. Religious experience, liberation of the spirit, splendid forms – how are these things connected to wide open spaces?

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