stimulating profound conversations about living and dying well
Understanding ancestral land loss as key to living in right relation to the here-and-now
This essay was originally presented as part of a four day permaculture intensive at White Crow Farm on unceded Sinixt territory in August 2015. All gratitude and praises to this beautiful Land; the Sinixt people who are currently defending their ancestral land and culture for future generations; the gentle souls at White Crow Farm; Syd Woodward, who invited me to share these words; and my Elders from St'at'imc Nation and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, whose gentleness, generosity, and determination to protect Mother Earth for the next seven generations continues to motivate and inspire those who breathe with the trees.
The disruption of Earth’s complex ecosystems by human activity is often experienced as heartbreaking – particularly by those who are in direct contact with the Land on a regular basis. Beginning with an understanding of the Land as a conscious entity from which human culture grows, and of grief as a symptom of love for that which nourishes our lives, this talk explores the cultivation of grief as a survival strategy that informs the nature of right relation to the Land, ourselves, and each other.
Spirit of the Land
The terrain of grief is rough going, and for many of us who have not been raised in a culture that celebrates all aspects of the life cycle, it is largely uncharted territory. It is necessary, then, to define some terms that I make regular use of, because we are here to understand each other.
Land: “All Our Relations” (a phrase often used by people indigenous to Turtle Island aka North America), including human and other animals, plants, insects, fungi, the mineral world, water, and air. In short, the entire material world.
Spirit: The internal logic of how things are – the emotionally neutral consciousness that is foundational to the cycle of life and death. It is immanent (indwelling) in all aspects of the material world, and maintains sameness or consistency on both a macro- and micro-cosmic scale. The order that governs the harmonious relationships between all aspects of the Land.
Resiliency: How All Our Relations shift in harmony with each other in response to change; the ability to adapt to both internal and peripheral/externally imposed change.
A Relational Approach
Humans are social creatures – we live in community to meet our physical and emotional needs. The simple and unconscious act of opening your eyes in the morning is a relational gesture – a willingness to do the things necessary for your survival, which include eating and drinking from the Land, moving across it, and manipulating it, often in the company of others.
When speaking of the Land, it’s crucial to keep in mind that human opinions and approaches are always relational, and if you’ve ever been up against a cold night, a rough river, or another animal that would like to make you its next meal, you’ll know that the conversation is a two-way street. This conversation occurs in a language that we were born with and must now apply ourselves in remembering, which, for those of us who were not fortunate to be raised by people who knew how to listen to the Land in a place where it was Land was permitted to speak, must be an intentional endeavour. This re-education and return to the foundational relationships that sustain human life is absolutely necessary if we are to bring children into a world better than the one we were born to, because we are completely ruled by the Spirit of the Land – we are part of it as much as it is part of us – and dependent upon it, regardless of our understanding, for our survival.
Nothing depends upon us humans for its survival, and yet, we are the most dependent species on Earth because we eat and meet other basic needs from all levels of the food chain. We need the Land, but nothing needs us. The Land will adapt to whatever changes are forced upon it; some species may die off, and others will flourish as a new equilibrium is established. It is therefore not the Land that needs saving, but ourselves.
In 2011, Louie Schwartzberg, famous for his time lapse nature photography, gave a Ted Talk entitled “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude.” in which he said, “Beauty and seduction is [sic] nature’s tools for survival, because we protect what we fall in love with.” When I think of beauty, survival, and love, I think of home – the nourishing foundation of life, and a sense of belonging, or being claimed by a place. Schwartzberg notes that a common response to his work, and to this sense of being claimed, is the utterance of “Oh my God.” He goes on to explain that the “Oh” indicates that one's attention has been harnessed in a moment of awe that transcends language; “my” reflects the recognition of personal relationship to the experience at hand; and “God” refers to the journey of humanity back to its source, and the desire to live in a universe that celebrates and constantly brings forth life. We are all from and of the Land; because our relationship to the natural world-as-home is life-sustaining, it is also the bed that our grief sleeps in.
Stephen Jenkinson – an unwavering voice of sanity in the field of grief education and founder of the Orphan Wisdom School – suggests that to be grief-stricken is the only sane response to relating with the Land in the time we’ve been born to. The “Oh my God” that is uttered in the presence of natural beauty as well as its desolation carries the same love, the same awe, the same recognition of that in me and me in that. It is a very universal thing, felt in a very personal way.
Grief is a powerful indicator of where attention and energy must flow. It is the canary in the coal mine – a felt sense, a reality from which we can begin enquiring with a compassionate and rational perspective as to the skillful application of this experience. That is very important: we have the choice to allow grief to inform our actions for the sake of our survival, for when we grieve, we grieve with our whole being (mind-body-soul/self) as a response to loss – the loss of the Land, which sustains life and is the substance of human culture.
Grief is distinct, however, from bereavement, which literally means, “to be torn apart.” When we are bereaved we experience psychological and physiological symptoms of shock in response to the trauma of loss. And yet, it is possible to be in deep grief without living in a traumatized state of shock. This is what it means for us to be resilient in our time. To do this, we can begin by asking what the nature of grief is, what exactly it is that has been lost forever, and how it can inform the way we relate to ourselves, each other, and All Our Relations.
Rethinking the relationship between grief and loss
In his forward to Jenkinson’s recent book Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, Dr. Martin Shaw offers the Gaelic word Hireath, for which there is no direct English translation. Hireath is The Old Hurt - the cloak of grief that is the defining characteristic of an Elder. It can also be understood as homesickness or longing for a place to which one cannot return. The grief that Elders carry is not just for themselves and the misfortunes of those around them. It is the willingness to know the truth of what’s come to pass - to see it clearly, and hold it tenderly like the dog-earred, water-stained book of their days. Hireath stems from knowing that every effect has its cause: that no event, action, or individual is separable from the story of our planet’s evolution, and that every heartbreaking thing we encounter in our lives is the result of someone else’s heartbreak that came before ours. To carry Hireath is to understand one's role in the Big Story without needing to take on personal responsibility for the current state of affairs, and yet to address it with appropriate action, which can only stem from the ability to consistently hold in one's awareness the heartbreak which is at the root of the ecological devastation that is currently threatening life all over the globe today. This heartbreak at the root demands and pleads with you to know where you’re from, and it’s also the site at which we can consider how this grief - Hireath - and loss are related.
We are all indigenous to somewhere; we all have ancestors whose identity came from the Land that nourished them. Personally, I am of Ukrainian heritage. My people were colonized in the time of the Roman Empire. The traditions and ways of relating that came directly from the Land and which are my birthright are mostly gone. Irretrievable. There are people living in the Ukraine today who are attempting to resurrect the old ceremonies and songs, but the line of transmission from parent to child, elder to village, has been broken so many times that today, ceremonial gatherings involve trying to piece together rumours of tradition like the fragments of a shattered vessel whose original shape is unknown. The forcible separation of a people from the Land they have been living in uninterrupted dialogue with for many generations is the beginning of cultural decay, because the culture is the Land. Even if the colonial system in place allows for the original inhabitants to remain on the land, their cultural identity changes as it is regulated by the new dominant culture. Essentially, if your ancestors aren't from here – and also if they are – your relatives have at some point in your family's history been made strangers and beggars in their own home.
This sense of alienation from the Land is amplified by immigrating to a place that is indeed strange and unknown. This alienation is a bias that colonized people bring with them, and which informs their relationship to their new home. It is further exacerbated when that new home is on someone else's traditional land. This is the heartbreak of Hireath – this old hurt that is passed from one colonized people to another. This is a good place to start your grief work.
To grieve the Land skillfully – to cultivate Hireath – requires the willingness to be fully present to the realities of time and place from a compassionate and rational perspective.
It is necessary to feel into every nook and corner of what is present and true for you when your heart aches for the Land, because it will inform what you do about it. If you refuse to know the inner dimensions of your grief, it will stay with you but it won't die with you – it will be passed on to future generations.
Sometimes bereavement – being torn apart – will seem senselessly intense. Your rational mind may have you believe that you're overreacting. At times like that, keep in mind that the degree to which you are dependent upon the lost thing is directly related to the intensity of your bereavement, and the extent to which the process of cultivating Hireath will have a transformational effect upon your life. This transformation is unavoidable; it can be approached skillfully through the clear lens of Hireath or experienced unskillfully as an unnecessary prolongation of bereavement – the feeling-not-feeling of your pain, the breaking-not-breaking of your heart.
Harnessing grief may look, in the early, deeply-feeling stages, like anything other than mastery. It can look like falling apart. This breaking of the heart is necessary for it to open, to make space for gratitude toward that which has been lost forever. It takes a initial willingness to set aside time to give energy to this process – to feed it, so that the Land will continue to feed us. Invite inner stillness and attentiveness for an unmediated experience of loss – to feel your losses on a personal and global scale, remembering that global losses are personal. And then give yourself permission to lose your mind. Get angry. Become hopeless. Feel what your family must have felt when they became homeless. Can you know what it's like to forget the stories that taught your ancestors who they are and where they're from and what greater purpose their death is for? To grieve laboriously and lavishly is a skill we are not born with, and so must be taught. There are ceremonies, songs, dances, ways of doing this that many of us whose ancestors are not from here have lost. And yet, the body knows what to do – to weep – to shake, to release whatever thoughts or emotions that are blocking you from a direct experience of the truth in front of you. Often, this process doesn’t feel “safe,” because grief, if you remember, is a survival response: a recognition that if things keep going the way they are, we’re not going to make it. So this is very important - to encounter grief for the Land as if you were in mourning for a member of your family, or for yourself and everything that was done to you that was cruel and undeserving.
We are dependent upon each other as much as the Land; in grief, we need to be witnessed because grief is relational and so are we. So, seek out others who are willing to know grief. Those who have the self-mastery to feel big things without being consumed by them. Those who have taken Hireath upon themselves. Find the others. They are your partners in sanity. They will become your friends, and probably your family. They will be the ones who remind you to be grateful at the end of a long hard day when gratitude looks more like work than prayer. When we spread our cloaks of grief wide together, we create a shelter for each other beneath which we remember that the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.
Relating is complex, and it will challenge everything you think you know about the validity of your personal experience. When you choose to allow grief to inform your life and relationships, you will encounter others whose grief seems deeper and more legitimate than yours, especially when you begin to ally yourself with the people indigenous to the land you make your life upon. Resist comparing war wounds. Rather, acknowledge the depth of that other person's grief, understand that there's nothing you can do to change it, and endeavour to find points of commonality where you both share a sense that life can be different if we all find a way to hold each other's heartbreak in safe and welcoming hands.
Taking action in a world where there is so much to grieve is overwhelming. If you don’t find it overwhelming, I suggest you apply yourself to experiencing bereavement with more focus, more stillness, more openness. There is much to grieve - our collective greed, fear, ancestral forgetting, and what’s been done by it.
Before considering what can be done, we must consider what has been done, and what has come of it. Trace the Big Story back to your story by looking at a single day in your life and observing what could shift, and how that shift involves others. Start from where you are, with the understanding that to live a life in harmony with the Land is your birthright – a life that isn’t always easy, but that has the beauty of the Land's truth in it – and take a look around for the people who are also desiring that shift back to wholeness. Being present to receive these ideas right now is part of that seeking.
Consider also that those of us who are settlers or settler-descendents whose only home is this place – we are asking a lot of the people who are indigenous to this part of the world: to take us in as refugees and orphans. If we can approach our decision-making from this perspective, as opposed to going forth in entitlement or shame, then I believe there is a sustainable future on the horizon where we all have a place on the land we were born to and which is the only home that many of us here have ever known.
Grief is the compulsory art of moving forward with full understanding that you can’t go back. It is to cry over spilt milk, which I believe is an appropriate response. To not grieve is to deny yourself the rich, life-sustaining stuff of gratitude. It is from this position that I challenge and plead with you to:
I lift my hands to All Our Relations, and thank you for being here today.
Persephone Passages and Sacred Embodiment Founder Juniper Quin riffs on birth, death, and everything in between. She lives in North Vancouver, BC in the traditional and unceded territory of the Coast Salish nations with her husband, father-in-law, and an ever-expanding family of mostly edible houseplants.