I am in a car, a European estate from the 1960’s in a grass-covered car park. The car won’t start - it doesn’t “click”. “Oh, it’s still in gear.” I say out loud. When I shift out of gear it starts. Then I realise there are no brakes and I am skedaddling around the car park, out of control..
It’s at that point I notice there is a full moon in the sky about ten times the size of an ordinary moon. I manage to stop the car to look at it. As I stare at the sky a huge black woman comes out from the bushes. She stands before me: “What about your obligations?” she demands “The dog and the cockroach."This was a dream I once had many years ago, when I was working on a project called The Earth Dreaming Bank. We asked questions in the dialogue practice that followed the dream, as we always did each morning: why was she not red? Why was the moon so large? What did it mean that I had to get into neutral to start the car? And why on awakening, did I feel so light, after months of feeling drained and disturbed?
The ancestor dream was a reminder: it was personal but it was also collective. A vocative dream that told us: you are in charge of the gears but you are not driving the car. Fossil fuel is driving the car, millions and millions of ancestral trees; millions and millions of lives lived on earth. The energy that is coming through time, that runs through your body, through your intelligence, is from the millions and millions of beings who have lived through time: the ones who went before. Your obligations are to them. You need to remember what you are doing here.
In the late summer the fierce heat of the desert brings huge towering clouds from the south. Animals and plants endure the heat and wait for the rain to replenish them. The clouds advance like great beasts, throwing down curtains of water. At night rainbow lightning dances across the skies and dry washes roar suddenly in the darkness. This second spring is where the regenerative power of this desert land lies. These are the months when the Pima and Tohono O’Odham and Hopi people plant their seeds and sing to them and to the clouds. These rains bring forth the pumpkins, the beans and squash that feed their people. Sometimes the seeds of a new time lie deep buried within us, in the secret places, in the sacred places, where the ancestors planted them, and we are just waiting for a certain kind of song and right condition for them to break open.
The dreaming practice gave us keys about living in time - big time, deep time - a present in which all past and all future is contained. The desert house was our crucible, in the rainy season, in a big land, in the year 2001. What is our obligation? I found working with this dream that my obligation was to the ancestral earth. It was not to hold the unbearable heaviness of human history, but to remember how it had been originally, to live in these mud and straw places, in these round houses, with the storms all around, with this intensity, with these growing plants. To live in the rhythm of time, to love the place though I never owned it.
It’s a common assumption that only indigenous people have access to the ancestors. That somehow, our link to them has gone - indeed if civilised people had them at all. We scrabble self-importantly looking up our family trees, trying to find a link to the powerful of the land through our violent history, a castle, battlefields, our properties. But none of this helps us belong to the earth, or find meaning in a world held to ransom by a ticking clock.
What brings meaning are “the ones who have gone before” the primordial beings that form the bones and breath of the earth, its rocks and rivers and sky.
Our bones, your bones, our sky, your mind, our trees, your fingers, our water, your blood.
What the dream reminded us was there is a primal place inside us that remembers a time where feeling was instructive to our beings. It’s a sense you sometimes get by rivers, with the desert rains advancing, or walking down the lane in moonlight. That big moon was a doorway. When you go through the ancestor moon you remember everything. It is the doorway of memory. You are no longer fixed in clock time. You get to a sense of belonging that doesn’t square with civilisation, or calendars.
Nobody likes to go through this memory moon, because it demands your feeling and losing control, all of which terrifies the rational mind. You have to face the personal and collective forgetting that is kept in the moon’s gravity. Because you realise we have put the best of ourselves out with the trash, and what we have now is the life of a dog and a cockroach. A subservient and a scavenger existence in a technological cityworld.
Playing for Time - London 2012
In a dark room a voice is telling me about the caves at Lascaux and about the menhirs, markers of prehistoric time, that stand on a windy cliff in Corsica. This is an exhibition based on the work of John Berger and these recordings are from a performance conducted underground in Strand Station in 1999. It’s called The Vertical Line.
Outside in the corridor I sit down at a typewriter he used to use, which was also my first typewriter. I type: “it is a long time since I used a Lettera 22” and a young man walks past with a bunch of dried stalks in his backpack.
“Isn’t that wormwood?” I ask him. “Yes,” he laughs. “It’s from the Imperial War Musuem. They don’t used pesticides in their grounds and you can find all kinds of plants there."
Afterwards I stand at dusk outside Somerset House, a building which once housed all our records, our births and our deaths, and heard the dark river flowing past under Waterloo Bridge. For a moment it was all I was aware of. A sense of vast and complex time opened: wormwood time, tree time, river time, flint time, in which all the rushing traffic and scurrying 24/7 city world , seemed to disappear.
The Earth Dreaming Bank was a practice that began in Australia, with a story about a goanna, and it ended in England in 2003. For five years now, I have lived horizontally in time, in this narrow land, and placed my attention on the Transition movement. I’ve focussed on forging a community practice, working in groups, finding ways to be resilient in the face of an uncertain future, in which resources are scarce and an unstable climate challenges us to change our ways dramatically, or face some kind of apocalypse.
Last autumn I began working with fellow Transitioner, Lucy Neal, on her book about collaborative and transitional arts practice. As we sat in her kitchen, discussing the people who would help shape it, Lucy handed me a ceremonial bowl an Aboriginal woman had given her and something clicked. Remember your obligations. This is where the book begins, I said. The bowl contained chunks of chalk from the downs, some empty honeycomb, and stones from the river bed of the Thames.
To seek the origin, the ancestor, is to know how to proceed. To go forwards is first to go backwards, which is to know why the ancestors have to be in charge of the car. We want always to go forwards and leave everything behind. But to make changes you have to negotiate with them first. All native people know this, just as they know that all life begins in the dark. But we came into our brave new world, without any such knowledge, or obligation. We devoured millions of ancient trees, buffalo, lakeland birds, arctic creatures, seas of cod, we hounded scores of native peoples, skedaddled over the prairie grasslands and still we have not stopped.
In the desert you can know how people once lived for thousands of years, with their vast intelligence, their vibrant imaginations, respecting the primal forces that break open the seeds. They waited for the rain, they looked to the moon, because without water they could not live. They knew how to listen for water underneath the ground in a place that was once the sea. They learned the songs of the water and sung them to their seeds, to the clouds that each year banked up around the sky islands. Around their fires they told the stories of the watery ones who came before, who lay down and made the mountains, the rivers, the bones of ourselves, who knew where the water was hidden and who had been here when the moon was ten times the size it is now.
They knew the black ancestor drives the car.
Driving the car
I am not a driver, but I am always dreaming of cars. Sometimes I am waiting in a car park, or going very fast down a highway. Often I am blind and have no real control. I have to trust I can see without my eyes. In the dream, nothing is working except the gears. Things only get on track when I listen to the ancestors, then I know what I am doing here and now.
The ancestors make it all right. They begin everything again, The ancestors don’t live in modern geography, with passports. They are not in this time. They have always been here and will always be. Once they were here when the moon was near and the world was a watery place. We were close once, but then we broke away and became restless, sun-worshippers, in a logos ruled world. We liked to have our adolescent hands on the steering wheel and go where we wanted, come what may. We could get it right, if we just stopped, for a moment and waited. If we held a door open they would come, as they have for thousands of years, in our dreams, in the flickering firelight, in the sound of the rain arriving from the south. We’ll know what to do when we get out of gear. It’s a large debt but it can be repaid.
This year, as I began working for Playing for Time and the Dark Mountain Project, I remembered the time of waiting a decade ago. I recognised that no matter how smart we were about climate change and peak oil and management systems, only the arts of ourselves, the music and the poetry, connects with the part of our being that knows how to speak with the planet. Only the mythos can break us from our servitude to industrialised time, get into the tempo of our beating heart and find a future that is worth living in.
Inside each artist is the dancing and storytelling ancestor, the one who sits by the fire and tells us how it once was and must always be. The ancestors are everywhere singing for everyone, in every land, so long as we have the courage to face the moon and remember. They are reminding us of the seed we carry for the future, waiting for the right conditions to break open and flower. A seed for all our relations. They are singing a song that comes through the timelines, through our bones, they are singing the land anew. In the flinty pathways we walk along the coastline, in the gorse-covered sandbanks that were once rivers. In the wind in the leaves, in the starlings gathering above the marshland. The lines on our faces. The hands that type these words.
For life one is obliged, as I know now, to give back. I am obliged to remember, to write the dream down that I once had in the desert of Arizona. Once there were dances and songs that showed us our obligations to the ancestors, to the animals, to the trees, to the mountains, to the sea. We saw them in the elders’ faces, in their painted limbs, the connection that came down to us though time.
We haven’t paid for a long time and the debt is long, stretching back through history. Our dreams tell us this. What we have forgotten, what we have thrown away, what we have become. A pack of English hounds thirsting for the wild red fox, a thousand cockroaches ravening in a New York larder.
No one has said thank you for a very long time.
Rewilding the Self - Earth Dreaming Bank - a discussion and workshop about the relationship between ancestral dreaming and art will take place at this year's Uncivilisation Festival
Cars in Arizona (CDC); image from The Vertical Line by John Berger and Simon Burley;