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science and magic share our universe

As an avid fan of science I've been reading a book on theoretical physics lately. It's not exactly the kind of cuddle up in front of the fire material you might expect of someone whose home is nestled in the mountains but it fascinates me.

As an avid fan of science I’ve been reading a book on theoretical physics lately. It’s not exactly the kind of cuddle up in front of the fire material you might expect of someone whose home is nestled in the mountains but it fascinates me.

There is a plethora of ideas that ask me to reconsider the things I think I know. I like that. It keeps me fresh in my thinking and it keeps me curious.

I never fared well in science class in school. In purely scientific terms, I believe it was the inherent flaw in method that discouraged me. My curiosity as a kid was rampant. I wanted to know about everything. The whole frog dissection, baking soda rocket and exploding lava volcano things were fun but largely uninventive. My reading in those years was about Ptolemy, Copernicus and Einstein’s early work on special relativity. So science class was drudgery.

See, I always gleaned that there was more to things than we could see. Some part of me understood implicitly that the universe was a living, growing thing and I wanted to understand it more. Back then I was a long way from sitting with traditional teachers and learning the awe inspiring metaphysics of my people but I carried a yearning for it like a hidden gene. There was something out there. Something big wanted my attention and I desperately wanted to confront it.

When I did get the chance to learn about our native beliefs I was ready. Because I had unraveled some of the scientific mystery of things, the wonders the elders spoke of sat well with me. I never had a problem with considering the presence of unknown worlds or beings. I never struggled with the concept of Great Spirit, of everything being alive or all things existing as energy. It was a natural fit.

Thinking about it now, it reminds me of how a few years ago we made hand drums. A Cree woman came to Vancouver where we were living then and offered drum making workshops and we signed up. Neither of us had made a drum before and the idea excited us. Cultural connections have always been important to me and I made it a point to discover and learn whenever I could.

The workshop took place at a local college. I remember that day because of the laughter and the joy everyone took in the pursuit of new knowledge. I also remember the look of pride on the faces of people, just like us, who had never made a drum or engaged in a cultural experience. There was a deliberate science to the making of a drum and I appreciated that immensely.

We came away with good feelings and a pair of great-sounding drums. For awhile we hung them on the wall of our home and played them often. Then, when a friend helped us move to our new home in the mountains, I gave him mine as a gift because that’s the way things are supposed to go in a tribal way. You offer the things you create, the things you struggle for, as gifts in order to honour the gift itself. My friend had never had a drum and the fact that I would give him mine brought us closer and strengthened our friendship.

Well, that was a few years ago now and we still have the other drum. It hangs in a place of honour on the wall of our new home and we have used it in ceremonies and at gatherings regularly. It’s been blessed and smudged and prayed with. It’s a valuable tool in our spiritual path.

But every now and then, mostly when things are quiet and we sit in the peace of our mountain home, or even when the room is full of friends and energy, that drum will make a sound. Sometimes it’s a pluck on the thongs that keep it tight. Other times there’s a soft sound like a tap on the face of it. Sometimes it even shifts in place on the wall.

Each time that happens we smile. For us it feels as though an unseen visitor has showed us that we are not alone, that we are being watched over and protected. It’s a very special feeling and those quiet unassuming events are filled with honour and respect.

Some people might say we make too much of a simple thing. But to us, the drum sounds are indicators of the presence of the spiritual, of ancestors watching over us, of an invisible but viable part of our universe reaching out to announce its presence. I could believe otherwise, call it unscientific and improbable but it doesn’t feel right. We believe that magic and mystery exist all around us. It just feels better that way.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at