Tuesday 21 November 2017

Life and death on the Sussex Downs

Last month I travelled to Brighton to discuss the new Dark Mountain website and afterwards went with fellow ed Nick Hunt to meet some of our Brighton subscribers for a drink in The Foundry pub.  It was a lively evening that brought its own return invitations: Nigel Berman, founder of the School of the Wild, asked me to run an Earth Dialogue event at the beginning of  next year and Clare Whistler to create a burial installation (above in action!) for an art show she is co-curating at ONCA gallery both of these acting as collaborative markers in the compass of the turning year.

As I tackle the material for The Book (my winter task!) one thing has become clear: to answer the question DM's Issue 13 sets 'What an Earth are we doing here? we need to locate ourselves in time and space. We need to remember who we really are, where we really are.

And sometimes, as this darkling decade advances, it seems only art and encounter can point the way.

SAMHAIN: Ancestors 

Proper Burial

Temescal, Chihuahua High Desert, Arizona
Luna de los Muertos, November 2000

This is a memory of a ritual I took part in years ago. It took place on my friend Mimi's land on the borderlands between Arizona and Mexico. Her partner, the curandero Fransico Ozuna, built a temescal in the back of the garden, so we could hold a vigil through the night of the Moon of the Dead (the full moon that occurs around the Day of the Dead). One of its intents was to bury the ashes of a dead friend.

A temescal is an underground sweat lodge and Fransisco spent days creating the small chamber, shovelling red earth and constructing a roof and steps. That afternoon we had gathered different kinds of branches (palos muertos)  from the nearby creek bed: hackberry, black walnut and agave stalks, as well as mesquite wood from the desert. Huge bunches of wild marigold he found on the way to the ranch were placed on top of the earth mounds flor de muerto, traditionally offered on the Day of the Dead and which grows abundantly in Mexico after the late monsoon rains.

As modern people we don't observe the dead: we shunt them aside with awkward funerals, and this ancestral doorway of the year that was once celebrated in our own islands, has become a commercial children's party. But indigenous people (Fransisco was part-Apache, part-Yacqui ) know the dead are part of the Earth. Once mourned properly they can assist the living, rather than hinder them as forgotten shades.

Shovel (for earth and stones)
Wood for fire (mesquite and other dead branches)
River stones (these are flat and smooth) 
Branch of juniper (for brushing off sparks and ash from the stones juniper is used world-wide as a banisher of negative energies)
Ash (to delineate the fire circle)
Osha root (for endurance). Other ceremonial herbs include sage, sweetgrass and copal
Creosote tea

Inside the small space is exciting.  The desert night is cold but under the earth where we've taken the heated stones. naked under moon and starlight, the heat embraces you. The tea is bitter in your mouth, the osha root is sweet. We  are silent and then sing and howl and chant until our bones shake. Afterwards we throw buckets of cold rainwater over each other and dance round the fire. Fransisco chants all night.

The ritual is there to burn out the dross you hold and cede it to the fire as fuel and then as ash to the ground. Ghosts can cling to you, the dead that have not been mourned. Some of these phantoms are yours and some are not. Some are parts of you and your lineage that need to die in order for the new to flourish. Proper burial means burying something at the correct depth, so that it can feed the living and not haunt the earth.  That is a work. 

Only the elements of the Earth can transform these invisible bonds in this way; only your self that is connected to this Earth can undergo that process and walk that path. Most would rather do the ritual without the suffering and endurance that it demands which is worse than doing nothing. Because you feel you have done something meaningful, when you have not.

Seventeen years later in England we still grow those marigolds that burn like bright orange suns until the frosts come. Their name in Nauhatl is cempoalxochitl, and their vibrant colour represents the sun, which guides the dead on their way to the Underworld. The strong scent of the flowers attracts the spirits when they return to visit their families on this day, helping them to find their way. 

The roots in this circle are from the angelica plant which is a substitute for osha or bear root, traditionally used in Native American sweat lodges to purify the air as well the body. A bear medicine from the mountains, the root assists dreaming and connection with the ancestors. 

I remember this ceremony as if it were yesterday.

Clare Whistler's installation is part of the exhibition Extinct Icons and Ritual Burials that runs alongside the Rememberance of Lost Species Day at ONCA gallery, Brighton, 22nd Nov-10th Dec. 

Image: The Witch of St Kilda by Mother Eagle.

Imbolc: Emergence

Earth Dialogue

How can we connect and communicate with the non-human world, how can we feel at home in the wild places, on Earth? 

Earth Dialogues are essentially communications between the natural world and your own physical intelligence.

Part discussion, part encounter, part perception exercise, an Earth Dialogue is an opportunity to engage, individually and as a group, with a wild place - the Downs, at a certain time of year, the time of emergence, sometimes known as Imbolc
as well as the challenging times we are living in. It enables you to shift your attention away from a busy mindset and sense of isolation, and instead behold the planet as a key participant.

An Earth Dialogue is a way of experiencing the Earth not as ‘landscape’ or ‘the environment’ but as a meeting place of many elements, in which human beings form one particular strand. Its core act is learning how to swiftly tune into and physically connect with a place and all its inhabitants
plants, creatures, wind, stones.  It involves sharing your experience afterwards, using the tools of listening, speaking, holding space, keeping time and remembering; and finally, turning those insights into images or words and creating a collaborative 'dreaming map' of the day.

The day will start inside by the fire with introductions and instructions for making contact with the land, followed by an hour of solo time outside. You will then return to the fireside to discuss your encounters and together we'll create a shared map. Working as a group allows us to makes more sense of the land we live in together and strengthens our connections, as well as our presence, within it.

The Earth Dialogue is one of a set of practices developed over a decade that explore the territory of dreams, myths, places and plants. It has been shared with people in many locations: up a mountain in California, around a loch on Rannoch Moor, in the Calder Valley in England, in the depths of a winter forest in Sweden.

Once learned it can be practised anywhere with anyone. All you need is time.

Part of this session will be outside, so bring warm clothes and something to sit on in case of wet ground. And a winter picnic lunch to share afterwards!

The School of the Wild runs outdoor classes in the woods and wild spaces of Brighton and Sussex, 'to pull you out of the city and reconnect with the land'.  Earth Dialogue will be taking place at Saddlescombe Farm on Sunday 4th February 2018, 10am to 2pm. All details can be found on School of the Wild website.

Images: snowdrop woods, Dunwich cliffs, Suffolk,; by feral apple tree, Thorpeness dunes, Suffolk (see last chapter in Roger Deakin's Wild Wood). Photos: Mark Watson