As a boy on vacation in the interior of British Columbia, I decided one summer to christen Turtle Island.
Turtle Island wasn’t truly an island. It was a “dead head,” a log submerged and floating on Lake Kalamalka not far from the cottage my family rented two weeks every year. Turtle Island was home to a couple of turtles who used it as a place to sun themselves. My idea, if a 7 year old boy can be said to have ideas, was to row out to the dead head, break a bottle over it, and say, “I declare this Turtle Island.”
There were several things wrong with my plan. First of all, it crossed two forms of ritual: christening a ship and claiming land. I was christening land. Rituals are particular about the details and I had got them wrong. Second, it wasn’t clear who my audience was. For some reason, I wanted to stage my ritual very early in the morning while everyone slept. Normally, a ritual has observers who validate the proceedings by bearing witness to them. My ritual would be seen by no one. Third, it wasn’t clear who the beneficiaries would be: Blue Water Lodge? My family and me? Turtles everywhere? Normally, rituals speak for someone. Mine appeared to carry on a conversation with itself.
My mother, acting as an uninvited ritual officer, suggested one small modification: that in deference to the turtles, it might be better to fill the bottle with lake water and drop it in the vicinity of the Island. This was disappointing because much of the point of the exercise was to give a small boy an excuse to break something. But I agreed to accommodate the turtle point of view. More difficulty! Now the ritual wasn’t even going to proceed according to my dubious plan.
But things went forward. Very early one morning, I rowed out into the perfect stillness of Lake Kalamalka. I heard two silvery “plops” as islanders took refuge. I coasted up to the deadhead, filled the bottle with water, tapped it on the “island” twice, and let go. As the dark green Seagram’s bottle descended to the lake floor, I intoned, in a piping voice, “I declare this Turtle Island.”
I was generally pleased with the event. I hadn’t got to break anything but I felt I had participated in something if not grand, at least worthy. But I cannot claim “ritual efficacy” for my little ceremony. My sisters and mother, with some prompting, are prepared to say they remember, “that, um, island” and, under duress of badgering (“you could at least try”), even the name “Turtle Island.”
But that was it. Nothing changed, really. The island remained a dead head. “Turtle Island” failed to make it into the registry of local place names. I think it’s safe to assume the turtles were unimpressed. (That summer I gave them significant looks as I rowed past. They would return that reptilian blink that is, I think, unreadable.) My ritual left no trace in memory. It had no “transformative” effect.
Reference and source:
McCracken, Grant. 2008. Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. here.