When Senator Nicole Eaton called for Canada to declare a new biopolitical symbol last fall, she suggested replacing the "dentally defective rat" – otherwise known as the beaver, or Castor canadensis – with the perhaps more "stately" polar bear. My students at the University of Saskatchewan took a straw poll. Who wants the beaver as our national animal symbol? Who wants the polar bear? The orange-toothed rodent won. The polar bear? Too much connection with a certain cola. We do not, they declared, require a rebranding campaign.
Yet, I wonder if the time is now ripe to change, or at least add to, our Canadian biopolitical symbols. I hereby launch a petition to add the lobstick tree as a symbol of Canadian identity. What's a lobstick? Whether or not you know it, lobstick symbols are scattered throughout the Canadian cultural and natural landscapes, from golf tournaments in Waskesiu, Sask., to accommodations in Jasper, Alta.
Culturally modified trees were once common in Nordic countries, among them the lobstick tree of the Canadian boreal forest. Indigenous people would shape a tall, conspicuous white spruce or pine tree by lopping off most of its branches. A tuft at the top made the tree easy to spot. Nearby trees would be cut and hauled away, leaving the lobstick in rather lonely splendour.
Lobsticks were both practical and symbolic. Branches that strategically pointed in the right direction could be left on the tree to mark trails, portages and pathways through the forest, berry patches or hunting grounds. Like the signposts in Bugs Bunny cartoons, the limbs would point: "That way to Albuquerque." Lobsticks were also cultural markers, meant to designate meeting places, burial grounds, ceremonial sites and personal totems or to honour a guest or visitor. Lovers would make them to mark trysting places.
Explorer Alexander Mackenzie commented on lobstick trees he saw on his journeys across Northern Canada in the late 1700s. They "denoted the immediate abode of the natives" – or, in other words, marked home territory. Warburton Pike, an Englishman who travelled into the far northern tundra in search of game, also commented on these markers: "Many an appointment has been kept at [lobsticks]," suggesting their role as a convenient meeting point.
In her book Making the Voyageur World, Caroline Podruchny documents the physical creation and the symbolic meaning of the lobstick tree for voyageurs in Canada's North. In that version, all the branches would be removed except the very topmost, leaving a tall tree often called a maypole. Sometimes, the bark would be removed, leaving a smooth surface to cut names, dates or symbols or simply to shoot patterns into. A particularly cheerful version was created for Frances Simpson, the wife of Hudson's Bay Company governor George Simpson, decorated with feathers and streamers.
A lobstick, according to Dr. Podruchny, was created to honour a new leader, particularly if it was his first trip to the North. To repay the voyageurs for the honour of making a maypole/lobstick tree, the leader was expected to offer presents or at least a generous measure of rum. In the voyageur world, the trees were created for their symbolic meaning – and, of course, as an excuse to have a party.
There was a lobstick tree north of Prince Albert, Sask., where I grew up, near what is now the village of Paddockwood. Pictures and stories from the earliest Euro-Canadian settlers describe a huge evergreen sitting in a field of grass, visible for miles in every direction. It offered a scenic picnic spot – until it either died of old age or succumbed to the will and axe of the homesteader who wanted patent to the ground beneath the giant's roots.
What I like about the lobstick is how it's both natural (a tree) and culturally modified (shaped, changed, adapted, marred or scarred) – in many ways, a fitting symbol of Canada itself. It is distinctly northern and boreal, evoking the dreaded wilderness of Margaret Atwood or the home of Joseph Boyden.
As climate change opens Arctic waters and algae blooms off the West Coast, we could consider once again creating a few lobsticks. They would be there, at the very least, to guide visitors. With the numbers now moving through our sovereign area, directions might not go amiss.
That way to Ottawa.
Merle Massie is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan's School of Environment and Sustainability.