Riverdave’s Journal
This essay appeared in the Sept/Oct 2000 issue of the N.C. Museum of Art’s Preview Magazine

In conjunction with the Ansel Adams exhibition, Preview asked one of North Carolina’s best-known naturalists to comment on a favorite work in the Museum’s collections.  Dave Owen is a native of Durham and resident field naturalist at West Point on the Eno Park.  He is also a student of shamanism and a leader of ecotourism expeditions to Costa Rica.

In the most primitive forms of spirituality throughout the world, humans have sought divine power for life’s most important tasks through the veneration of powerful manifestations of the natural world.  In the tropical forests of Mesoamerica, the jaguar is the one undisputed animal whose size, speed, hunting prowess, and sleek beauty have earned it the reputation as nature’s most powerful icon.  We are not talking about a cuddly pussycat here, but a two hundred and fifty pound sinewy, nocturnal predator.

Few of us who live in the relative safety of the modern world can comprehend what it must be like to live in a remote forest village, exposed to such a natural predator.  In my home along New Hope Creek in south Durham, I lie awake these summer nights marveling at the pulsating choruses of katydids.  Occasionally I hear the snort of a deer on the edge of my yard but I never have to deal with huge spotted cats crouching in the shadows just outside my door.

For the skilled and inspired  artist, to replicate such a powerful form can be a means to gain control over one’s own fears and to actually acquire the animal’s power. The jaguar incense burner at the North Carolina Museum of Art reflects this attempt in a moving and vivid manner.  Just visualize the scene ... the dust-covered floor of a thatched-roof hut on the edge of a tropical forest in Central America over one thousand years ago.  A shaman dances in front of an alter, where this burner is aglow with smoking incense made from the resins of fragrant tropical trees.

Seated on the floor around the alter are a dozen village elders, transfixed before the glowing, smoking, jaguar burner as they journey into the lower worlds of mind and spirit after ingesting a vision inducing plant medicine.  The air is permeated with the pungent, burning resin of the gumbo-limbo tree, wafting up and curling around the ceiling of the hut.  The shaman has magically metamorphosed into a jaguar. He leads his band of dreaming hunters, leaping with abandon through remote corners of their montane forest, revealing to these villagers where they might find game on their next hunting expedition that commences at dawn.

As the effects of the vision plant wear off, the blurry eyes of the elders refocus on the effigies of the screaming jaguars that are so predominantly poised below and above the incense burner.   The shaman ceases his hypnotic chant, leaving only the sound of his shaking rattle and the warm glow of the burner to bring the night journeyers back safely to Mother Earth.  The incense burner has done its job as the wafter of their prayers.  The hunt will be a success.  The sacred trinity of Nature, Art, and Spirit has once again proven inseparable.

Photo by N.C. Museum of Art: Ceramic Jaguar Effigy With Incense Burner;  28.9 X 19.1 cm;  A.D. 300-1000, Costa Rica, Guanacaste-Nicoya Region