Note: As I officially launch my blog, I am beginning with a 3 part series, musings from my ancestral pilgrimage in last summer. As we navigate these tumultuous times with an unknown future, I am learning more and more about the importance of studying the past: both our collective past, and the specific lineage(s) which we each carry. I feel blessed and privileged to be able to trace some of my ancestral history, and to have had the opportunity to walk in their footsteps and the landscapes they call home. Here is some of what came forth from these times.
There are three ways to travel in unknown terrain:
-Learn the language before you go. Become fluent.
-Find a trustworthy guide to interpret and lead you.
-Flail your way through with a series of missteps and dead ends.
The first is hard to sustain without the inspiration of the journey.
The second risks dependence and places considerable power in the hands of another.
The third is frustrating and at times demoralizing.
The spiritual path today requires all three. What can anchor them all, and provide ease through the hardship, is community.
-July 11, 2017
This past summer, I travelled over the moors of the British Isles, along the steppes and rivers of Ukraine, and through the forests of Pennsylvania, exploring my family lineage. I carried these questions:
What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?
What happened to disconnect them from the lands where they had lived for millennia?
What forces caused them to leave Europe, and travel far across the ocean to what would become known as the United States, where eventually they became white Americans?
Over time I began to see these questions less as riddles in need of an answer, but rather as koans for quiet contemplation.
The British Isles
What were the earth-based traditions of my ancestors?
Animate, living nature
Circles and spirals,
weaving and interconnecting
Full-figured female forms
Song, story, dance
Wells and clear waters
Interactions with nature
Leaping over fire
Crawling through rock
Washing with water
Tracking the wild world.
Tending to the Bones
“Indigenous survival as peoples is due to centuries of resistance and storytelling passed through the generations…this survival is dynamic, not passive.” –Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
Her intact bone bundle was found wrapped in a bear skin, tenderly preserved in an ancient grave high up on the moors. The discovery of this burial cistvaen (pronounced kist-vayn, a pre-Celtic word for a stone burial box) was a boon for archaeologists in 2011, providing keen insights into the lives of the region thousands of year ago. Other long-buried treasures were nestled inside also: a necklace made of clay, tin, and amber; a bracelet made of animal fibers and tin studs; hand-turned ear studs made of spindlewood; and remnants of meadowsweet flowers.
Found on White Horse Hill in Dartmoor, in the midst of an ancient ritual landscape, these remains come from a woman who walked the landscape 4,000 years ago. They call her White Horse Hill Woman. I heard this story during a fire ceremony at Merripit Farm, part of a magical evening offered by musicians and land stewards Carolyn Hillyer and Nigel Shaw. This particular concert centered around songs from their album from twenty years ago, Songs of the Ancestors.
My ticket said “Fire Ritual 6pm.” At the appointed time, I dutifully followed the narrow pathway toward the Round House, joining my shoes with the others surrounding the dark entrance. As I stepped inside, I made my way to the bench around the periphery, my eyes adjusting to the dim light of a small fire at the center. I soon gave up my seat to an older person and found myself instead on a soft, thick woolskin pelt on the floor, close to the fire.
We sat in silence, waiting for others to join. Next to me sat a woman who was clearly the ceremonial leader, a drum the size of a small coffee table sitting in front of her. When the space was full, this commanding yet gentle woman, Carolyn Hillyer, broke the silence by offering us a song, beating in time with her drum like a low, patient heartbeat.
She soon shared the story of White Horse Hill Woman. She told us that when the bones were removed from the earth by archaeologists, her community gathered the bones of wild horses from the high moors and built their own small cistvaen on their land, in solidarity with White Horse Hill woman.
She then passed around a bowl of earth, inviting us each to take a pinch to make our own offerings to the land, or to the cistvaen dedicated to White Horse Hill woman twenty or so yards away from the Round House entrance.
“Blessed this hearth, Blessed this ground, Blessed this prayer that we pass around” we sang as the bowl moved from person to person, across the circle. Then Carolyn taught us a song that she had recently composed from proto-Celtic words, saying “these are words that would have been understandable to our early ancestors here on the moors.”
Early on during my time in Britain, weeks before I found myself in the Round House at Lower Merripit Farm, I visited West Kennet Barrow near Avebury. West Kennet Barrow is a stone age burial site that once held the remains of a handful of people placed there over several hundred years. The remains, which came from men, women, adults, elders, and infants, had been long since removed, spirited away to the halls of scientific inquiry.
Natalie, my friend and guide for much of my time in England, played interference with other visitors as I entered the barrow. “My friend is here on ancestral pilgrimage from the United States,” she said to a young couple as they came up behind us. “Do you mind giving her a few minutes alone inside?” As I slipped behind the stone that marked the entrance, and into the cool, dark cave, I felt grateful she had known to create a personal moment for me. A small altar with offerings of candles, ribbons, and other treasures had been built along the far wall; swallows had made their home in the ledges once housing human remains. It felt good to be in that space, without other humans, feeling into this portal to the underworld, a space that had housed the ancient ancestors of my ancestors.
Yet being in this space, I also felt its profound, vacuum-like emptiness. My stone age ancestors had vast knowledge systems that made them capable of moving gigantic stones from the Preseli Hills of Wales to a distance five hundred miles away, where they erected them with precision to catch a certain light at a certain angle on certain days of the year. They knew how to live and thrive without any of the modern conveniences on which I am fully dependent. They knew how to use the ancient crypt in which I found myself to honor their ancestors, and did so for unknown generations. How many of us today can fully comprehend what wisdom they carried, to be able to do all these seemingly magical feats?
Everywhere I went throughout Europe, visiting these ancient holy sites that now attract throngs of tourists, I saw signs that spoke of ancient knowledge with judgments framed as scientific fact: “Stone age peoples believed in superstitions like…”
In the barrow, I felt the grief of a people who no longer have claim to the bones of their ancestors. I felt the emptiness of a people who don’t understand that this is part of the loss that we keep desperately trying to fill with more and more stuff. I felt gratitude for the indigenous peoples whose lands I live on, who keep fighting for their right to the remains of their ancestors, the right to choose when and how and if the tools of Western science will be applied to them.
Hearing Carolyn tell the story of White Horse Hill Woman, I saw clearly and undeniably that there are people surviving in the lands of Britain, so long ago colonized, still quietly tending to the Bones of their Ancestors.
Many native peoples of the Americas ask to be spoken of in present tense, for others to remember that They Are Still Here. With Carolyn, I saw confirmation that though the museums and interpretive centers consistently speak of the earth-based traditions of the British Isles in past tense, there are living traditions that remain. There is an unbroken line--however thin and frayed it may be--of indigeneity that remains in lands long occupied. There is a resistance that has existed for thousands of years.
More recently, I attended a performing arts show on Maui, Hawai’i called ‘Ululena, a beautiful telling of the history of Hawaii from the birth of the Islands to modern times through dance. Throughout the performance, a lone figure kept appearing: a man dressed in traditional clothing, carrying the bones of the ancestors in a bundle on his back. Again, I was struck by the power of staying in physical connection with ancestral remains.
Western culture has become radically desensitized to the subtleties of spiritual power. Like the delicate flavors of freshly harvested vegetables compared with a salty bag of potato chips, our palate has become used to associating power with wealth, technology, politics. Yet while many of us may not be attuned to it, the physical remains of our dead carry spiritual power. They give us access to insights, to the wisdom of the generations. Our fear of death makes us turn away, sanitizing the power we feel intuitively by turning it into scientific curiosity. And with this, we lose opportunities to stay connected to our Beloved Dead, to access our ancestors and loved ones on the other side.
Since I’ve returned, I haven’t known what to do with this experiential lesson I received. My grandmother’s ashes sit at my mom’s house, in the box that we selected after her death. There is a calling I feel to be closer to them, to bring them into my ceremonial practices, but it all feels clumsy and foreign. I have not yet made my way into a comfort and ease with the dead and dying, or with death itself. Bringing human remains into ceremony feels so taboo, so against everything that I was taught, that I am afraid. And yet, this is part of the ways of my ancestors, part of the wisdom that my lineage has lost.