Tag Archives: ancestors

Time and the living landscape

It always perplexes me when I see Pagans expressing the idea that we should aspire to live in the moment with no reference to the past or the future. Or even when it’s offered as a temporary goal for meditation. To be Pagan is to connect with nature, and when you do that, every moment – surely? – is held in the context of the wheel of the year. It makes even less sense when considered in terms of the landscape.

History is always present in a landscape, whether it is immediately visible or not. The underlying geology is part of the history of the planet itself. The soil is made up from the remains of those who have lived here before, layered beneath your feet, often holding bones, objects and memories amongst the broken down organic matter.

If you honour the ancestors, it makes no sense to focus only on the present. It does however make a great deal of sense to be alert to the ways in which the ancestors of a place are always with us in that place. Their actions, their living and dying are part of what makes a place how it now is. We might not see every influence, but it’s good to look for them and to honour the way in which their lives shape the present moment.

What we do in the present moment has consequences for the future. Being too focused on the present can allow us to ignore the future – and given how destructive our species is, this is irresponsible at best. What we do to our landscape today informs what will survive there in years to come. We have a responsibility to consider the future whenever we interact with the land.

Landscape isn’t just pretty bits of nature, either. You live and work in a landscape, even if there is a lot of tarmac involved. Perceiving the landscape in our urban environments often requires bringing a sense of history with us.

It is always good to be present to what is around us. It’s also important to remember that a landscape is not something that exists only in the present moment. The existence of a landscape is due to its history, to layers of rock and soil built up over time, to human actions, and non-human actions. The landscape holds the past, making it present to us. The land is time made solid. If we ignore that aspect of the land itself in the desire to be ‘purely in the moment’ we miss important aspects of existence.


Druidry and speaking for the land

Reading Julie Brett’s most recent book I was prompted to think about who speaks for the land in a British Druid context. We often call to spirits of place, and I’ve long felt uneasy about going into a place and welcoming the spirits WHO ALREADY LIVE THERE. Julie led me to realise there’s a human aspect to this, too.

There are of course far more Druid groups in the UK than I have stood in ritual space with. My experience is partial, but I’ve never heard anything to make me think it’s untypical. Druids go to places of historical significance, and places that are local and wild, or geographically convenient – it varies.

I’ve never stood in circle with a Druid group that identified who had the most involved relationship with the land and who therefore should speak on behalf of the land. I’ve been in Druid spaces where people from away have spoken with authority about the deities in the landscape as though there were no local Druids honouring them. I’ve stood in ritual where the Druid who literally owned the land we were on was treated to a lecture by someone who did not live there about all the spirits they could see present in the space.

I had one occasion of speaking in ritual in an urban green space. It was a space I frequented – not quite in walking distance for me, but part of my wider landscape and a place I had a fair amount of relationship with. I talked about what a haven the space was for the urban people living near it. My comments were met with derision – you could hear traffic! The Druid in question had never been to the place before and lived many miles away. I was upset, and at the time I didn’t know how to articulate what was wrong in that situation. Also, it was a beautiful green place on the edge of a city and no, it wasn’t pristine nature, but that didn’t make it any less precious in my eyes.

I’ve felt it at a local level too – there are fields and hills here that I know deeply, and other parts of the landscape – in walking distance for me – that are much more deeply known by other people. I’ve had a longstanding urge to acknowledge this and am only just finding the language to talk about it.

Imagine if Druid rituals included consideration of who, in the ritual, actually had the most involved relationship with the land. Imagine what would change if we felt it was inappropriate to go into an unfamiliar space and start talking about it with authority. Imagine if being a senior, Very Important Druid did not entitle you to speak for, or to a landscape unfamiliar to you. Sadly there’s a lot of ego in all of this. It takes a certain amount of humility to acknowledge that the people who live on the land, or have spent a lot of time with a place might be better placed to talk about it and speak for the land.

Whose land is this? Is a really important question. Who are the ancestors of place? Who has a relationship with the ancestors of place? What assumptions do we make when we enter ritual spaces, and could those assumptions stand a re-think?


Art with my ancestors

One of the things I do is to colour comics pages for the Hopeless Maine graphic novel series I do with Tom. Above is a work in progress – we start each chapter with a two page spread. Until now I’ve been doing them with pencils, but am now exploring a mix of pencils and oil pastels.

Pastels are better for colour intensity and covering large areas of paper – especially for land, sea and sky. Pencils are better for details. I can mix the two and get away with it. The oil pastels I’m using belonged to my grandmother. As I was working on this piece I realised that my sea and rocks look very much like her sea and rocks.

For the first twenty years of my life, I regularly spent time watching my grandmother creating art. She mostly did landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes. She was obsessed with tall ships, which I’m not. However, it clearly isn’t a coincidence that I feel most comfortable using oil pastels, and most confident when I’m doing images of land, sea and sky. My grandmother avoided architecture and technology, she tended to avoid people and still life as well. Of necessity, I’ve had to learn how to colour people – I like fabric but honestly faces still scare me. I’ve learned a lot from Dr Abbey about how to handle skin tones and that’s really helped.

We all learn from our families, we all have things passed down to us from our ancestors. Sometimes it’s obvious – but not always. It’s only this week that I’ve thought about the impact it had on me watching my grandmother make art, and just how much I learned from that experience.


Druidry and Prehistory

Having been poking about learning what I can about prehistory, I think this is a really good topic to put on your ‘Druid syllabus’. Not just for what we can learn directly about our ancestors.

There is more of human history in prehistory. Modern humans are perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 years old. These were not the first humans. We only have a few thousand years with written records. This distorts our sense of time, I think. 

Looking at prehistory has a lot to teach us about what it means to be human. What is culture? What is civilization? What is art? What physical evidence do we take as signs of different kinds of activity? Just asking these questions tells us a lot about ourselves, and about humanity.

One find can change the entire story. This is inherently exciting. It teaches us not to be dogmatic, to remain open and flexible and ready to change our minds in face of new information. These are good life skills to have.

Modern culture is materialistic and has a high impact. Seeing how little remains from early humans makes for a powerful contrast. Can we imagine complex societies that aren’t so materially oriented? We’ve tended to assume ancient humans were inferior because of their technology, what if we instead learned to see their strengths and capabilities?  Colonialist thinking likens non-material modern societies to ‘primitive’ ancient humans, but we are wrong about that in so many ways. Studying the past can help us learn about this without having to interfere in the lives of living people.

When we imagine the Stone Age as being a bunch of people barely wrapped in animals skins, mostly saying ‘ugg’ and full of superstition and irrational beliefs about how the world works, we do our ancestors a great disservice. Modern humans of the Stone Age had the same brain capacity we do. The evidence is that our ancestors were all far more complex, sophisticated and capable than we’ve habitually depicted them. We might have a better, healthier perspective on our own state if we did not imagine ourselves to be superior. 

Contemporary humans are not the pinnacle of achievement in a progress narrative. We’re the irrational ones. We are the ones whose behaviour is driven by ignorance and irrational belief.


Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.


Thinking about Civilization

I’m currently reading ‘Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age’ by Richard Rudgely, and it’s got me thinking a lot about how we define civilization and how problematic it is. Like me, the author isn’t a fan of the narrative of human progress, and that’s certainly a story that has coloured how we think about the past.

As a child, I had one of those illustrated history books, in which the tens of thousands of years of human prehistory were summed up by a single image of some people wearing skins and using stone tools. That the Stone Age was barbarous, superstitious, and lacking in all the qualities of proper civilization is something that we used to take for granted as an idea, and many people probably still do.

History, as we understand it begins with writing, so any culture that doesn’t have writing is assumed not to have history and to be rather primitive. This ignores the ancient nature of stories in oral traditions – that Australian Aboriginal stories record ancient events and creatures is thus easily overlooked. To be a civilization, we moderns think there have to be cities. This means our nomadic ancient ancestors were not civilized, and nor are any modern people who live as hunter gatherers or are otherwise nomadic – this is a view that breeds racism, undervaluing, and intolerance. We only think cities are important because we have cities.

We look to the past for things that validate our stories about the present. Where we see things that fit in a narrative of progress to the present, we tend to focus our attention. There are other stories we might want to explore – that hunter gatherer societies had more leisure time than we do. That so-called primitive people have to develop a very rational, observation based understanding of reality to survive, hunt and gather. That we see civilization in terms of material culture, and that people who live lightly leave little evidence of themselves.

To survive as a nomadic people at the end of the Ice Age, must have meant cooperation. It’s not ‘survival of the fittest’ that will have got our ancestors through those incredibly cold and challenging times when they were first coming back into the UK. It will have been care for the young, and for pregnant women. It must have meant sharing skills and resources, knowledge and experience. It must have meant people working together. And when you can only own what you carry, or what another person is happy to carry for you, the place of material goods in your life is going to be very different.

If we can re-imagine the past, and consider different ways in which civilizations can exist, we might do a much better job of organising ourselves for the future.


The silent ancestors

Ancestors of not doing your dirty laundry in public.

Ancestors of lying about where the bruises came from.

It isn’t nice to talk about that. It isn’t polite. It isn’t appropriate. Don’t mention it.

The ancestors who said ‘what will the neighbours think’ and felt it was more important to put on a good show for strangers, than to deal with problems.

Ancestors of keeping up appearances, too proud to ask for help.

It is better to fail and suffer privately than to let anyone know you are struggling. You make sure your hungry child looks clean and tidy, and is polite.

The ancestors who said keeping up appearances meant not speaking about what was done to you. The parents and grandparents of other people’s silence.

Don’t bring shame on us. Don’t embarrass us.

The ancestors for whom the abuse of a female body was a source of shame, not of anger. And you wouldn’t draw attention for fear of hurting the girl’s chances of marriage, and you’d never talk or deal with what had happened that hurt the girl.

Ancestors of not rocking the boat and not making a fuss.

Ancestors of this is not for the likes of us, know your place and be quiet.

We do it my way, because I said so. It was good enough for my family. It’s good enough for you.

Ancestors of do not draw attention to yourself and do not ask for more than you are given.

We don’t talk about nasty body things, or sex, or disease, or pregnancy. We are the ancestors of having no words for these things that are good, or kind, or helpful.

 

Ancestral stories aren’t always made of large, easy to spot drama. Often the most dangerous things are the things we were not allowed to talk about. We pass on stories about the stories we are not allowed to tell. Sometimes the encouragement to silence is subtle. Sometimes it is brutal, loud, and either way it is destructive. Breaking the silence is never easy, but is often vital.


Druidry and Animals

Modern Druidry includes quite a bit of animal lore. There’s what various people have gleaned from mediaeval Celtic sources, from folklore, folk song and other sources no doubt more and less historically accurate. Like most Pagan paths, our creature lore tends to focus on larger, higher status animals. The Druid Animal Oracle is a fine case in point here – it’s a lovely pack and I treasure my copy of it, but there’s more missing from it than is included.

So, what about all those other creatures? The ones we don’t have myths for. The ones that don’t crop up in Pagan conversations about animal spirits and Celts and whatnot? We’ve lost a lot of larger mammals from the British landscape, and these must have been significant to our ancestors. We’ve lost the stories that go with them, too. And size isn’t everything – some of our tiniest neighbours, like the earthworm, are intrinsic to life as we know it.

In the coming weeks I’m going to explore some of these creatures as best I can. I’m going to be focusing on the ones that don’t have roles in epic tales, that aren’t traditionally used as metaphors for human behaviour. I’ll be drawing mostly on personal experience and things that I have feelings about, so it’ll be a random list with no obvious logic from the outside. I’m totally open to suggestions for what to include – depending on me knowing anything at all about the being in question!


Ancestral Pie

Both of my grandmothers made pies. No doubt for women of their generation, this was a much more normal thing to do. Their pie-making was distinct and individual. My paternal grandmother had been in service. She made shallow cheese and onion quiches/flans with a light, crumbly pastry. She may have made other kinds of pie for non-vegetarians, but I never encountered that. My maternal grandmother made deep pies with a heavy, brown flour crust. They were mushroom and onion pies, with cheese on the top, and sometimes tomatoes. I don’t recall her ever making any other kind of pie.

I too am a pie maker. I make the kinds of pies that I’ve been told are ‘proper’ pies – i.e. that have a crust on the top, or a potato top. I make fruit pies. I also make the kind of pies that are egg-based and untopped. I defend my right to call these pies – my grandmother called this a pie and I choose to use my ancestral baking language!

My pies are very different from the pies of my grandmothers. Like my maternal grandmother, I favour the deeper pie and the brown flour. However, I have inherited cold hands from my paternal grandmother and this gives me a pastry texture closer to her baking style. Unlike both of them, I will cheerfully put anything in a pie. I don’t have a standard pie I make, I like to mess about with pie form.

We live in a culture that tells us that to express your identity through the medium of pies, you choose your brand. You choose from a narrow selection of fillings someone else has put together. Of course as with every opportunity we are given to purchase our identity through products, there’s not much range in it and precious little joy.

A pie made at home is inescapably an expression of self. What ingredients do you pull together? What shape of pie? What decorative features (if any)? Do you make a small selection of pies, or do you experiment wildly? Do you make sweet pies, or savoury pies, do you make them moist on the inside or do you favour a firmer, drier middle? The pie that you make for yourself, is a personal thing.

One of my grandmothers was neat and precise, and this came through in the shape of her pastry. One of my grandmothers was much more rough and ready, and her pastry was the same. Neither of them spent ages doing fiddly lattice tops or cutting out leaves, or hearts for decoration. I do, sometimes.

My pie making comes from their pie making, no doubt. It comes from eating their food. I am more influenced by the grandmother who let me be in on the process. I don’t know what kind of pie making traditions either of them had from their mothers, and grandmothers, but I bet there was something. Most of our ancestors are unknowable to us as individuals, but when we pass down this kind of thing, we pass down something of them, too. There is no fixed ancestral pie, but there’s something to tap into, and I suspect that holds true for a lot of other things as well!


The Consolation of History

I have read a fair few books about history and pre-history. There’s not much logic to it, my knowledge is patchy and random. My main interests are in radical history, and the lives of ordinary people. There is consolation to be found in reading history, and I’m feeling that keenly at the moment.

When you read about the lives of ordinary people – in any place or time, things are invariably a bit shit. Sometimes things are devastatingly shit. I read, and I wonder how anyone kept going in face of that. How people kept pushing for rights in face of tyranny. But they did, and when you look at grander sweeps of time, even as individual movements have often failed, there is a bit of a progress narrative and on the whole ordinary people have slowly gained more rights.

When I feel daunted and overwhelmed, I remind myself about my ancestors. All those ancestors of radical thinking who tried, and failed, and tried again. I remind myself that many, many people in history and pre-history have faced the end of their culture, their civilization, their people, their world. When I feel really grim about the state of things, I remind myself that many others have been here before me and I am not facing anything new. This helps me keep a sense of perspective.

The timescales of pre-history are good for perspective, too. We are a tiny, toxic blip in the history of humanoid life. Other humanoid species have fallen away in the past, it may be our turn now. Nothing is forever, including us.

We repeat history, whether we’ve studied it or not. We are not so very new. We are no cleverer or wiser than the people who went before us. As a species we seem able to learn some things very quickly, but the important lessons elude us – how to live well, how to live sustainably, and what purpose to make of our lives.