I. Falling Towards the Ancestors (Sacred Space)
“When the leaves fall, the bones are laid bare. Old scars are revealed.” – Émile Wayne
Hauntings of autumn are carried on the wind, ebbing and flowing like tides of nostalgia. The trees begin to whisper with a flaming tinge, speaking out to the bright blue Texas sky with kisses of red, yellow, and orange. Crisp mountain northers are creeping down the plains, bringing the ghosts of bison herds rumbling South ahead of the October rains.
The wild wheat is waving full and lush from apparitions past, making the fields blush when the blue grass peaks through. Juniper trees dot the landscape, bright green with bittersweet gin sopped berries dripping onto the ground where the morels bubble up in their rich damp underbellies.
Fall is coming, a time of preparation, a time of ghosts, a time of spiced kindling in the deep dark places of the soul, where sparks set flame to memories both beautiful and tragic, where we light candles to guide our ancestors back for a season. The mulled ciders sit rich on the stove, the blankets prepared and ready for the chilly nights, we revel for a while with a spiced wine….or two.
It is time to prepare our hearth and home. Time to reap what we have sown in the heady days of summer. Time to once more talk to the ancestors, spirits, and ghosts that rise up from a sighing heat soaked earth. Time to learn from our mistakes and store them away as little reminders for tomorrow. When Fall comes we must fall into ourselves, into each other, into the land, into the in-between spaces of incubation and transformation. Our journey inward begins, to hold out for the dark times ahead.
Fall is a time when it is best to contemplate the ancestors, and uncover the deep wisdom they have for us. The harvest is being reaped and death is all around us, feeding us, lighting the way into the darkness. But what exactly makes an ancestor, an ancestor? Some folks would think they have to be from a direct bloodline, but this isn’t as true as one might think. Ancestors abound in our world as people, places and things. I am excited to show you perhaps a new way in which to understand them from a more sensually derived phenomenology, from a more integrated sense of being with the more than human world we call Earth.
II. The Totemism of Evolution (Fire)
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars”- Walt Whitman
It is true what they say, you know? That we are made up of star stuff. Science knows it. Spirituality knows it. Walt Whitman knew it. The stars are the origin of our existence. They are the ancestral giants of our great beginnings. Though the beginning to anything is always questionable, the mythic relevance of the stars has always held sway over us. They were once in the heavens, and in a real way, they still are. They still capture a sense of wonder and awe in us. How could they not? When we look up into the deep dark twinkling expanse of the milky way, we are looking into the past itself, into the origin of our existence. Into the realm of ancestors.
The same fire that came from the big bang, that transformed into the stars, is the exact same fire which created our own local star and the planets that live around it. From our sun came the energy necessary to warm the Earth and provide energy for all life upon this planet. Our existence is possible because stars died and fertilized the great vastness of Space. What we are is the continuation of this cycle. We are born from space and energy given to us by our ancestors, the stars.
This star fire runs through everything. From the plants to the insects, from the fish to the birds, all the way up the trophic pyramid. All beings, animate or inanimate, ensoul this original fire; for even the basic elements themselves were born of this star fire. The beings which contained it, gave it to us to carry forward. We are in every sense of the word, the journey-work of the stars. This can be most notably seen within the totemic premise of evolution itself.
Within the framework of evolution, we are not just adapting to new conditions as beings on our own merit, but carrying with us the building blocks and sensual experiences of our ancestors. Evolution is the work of ancestors!
Inside your being is the long and glorious history, not only of your immediate blood line, but of all the shared ancestry you have had in common with the more than human world itself! You share the ancestors of a chimp, you share the ancestors of a tiger, you share the ancestors of a bat. On and on and on there is a beautiful lineage of our connection to the more than human world.
What is even more beautiful and breathtaking is that when you come to trust in the sensual phenomenological experience that is your sense of being, the same sensual fleshy interactions you experience with the world around you is built up from the ancestors as well. Meaning that your feelings of fear, joy, amazement and even awe have roots in the depths of the evolutionary chain. Your feeling of love is founded upon similar emotion from non humans as well. It is absurd to think it otherwise. Your phenomenology is deeply connected to the queer nature of your ancestry.
How do you know, that when you look out upon the field and see an orange shape stalking in the high grass, that what you see is a predator? It is because the ancestors before you evolved to create eyes that can discern shapes like this and passed those eyes on to your current evolutionary form. It is because your ancestors eyes had worked to keep them alive, that your eyes work as well. It is because your ancestors suspicions and intuitions had worked, that yours work as well. It is because their love was real, that you are able to feel love yourself. Sure none of these things will be exactly the same, each new formulation of descendants is unique, and so to are the properties passed on. Change is how you know the story isn’t over yet.
Let us shift our totemic focus from the deep past embedded within the layers of our present interbeing, towards the multitudes of your current self. Inside of you is an entire ecosystem teeming with life. Microbes, cells and mitochondria, all life forms in their own right, many with their own evolutionary distinction that have found a way to coexist within you. These beings live and die through an expanse of generations, all inside your being.
You are a place of ancestors. Within your very interbeing exist ancient timelines of the embedded past, and as you descend from the depths of this long history, you too are an ancestor to them. Your cells are dying and renewing on a regular basis as any healthy ecology would do, changing throughout the seasons.
What exactly have you honored in that part of you? What have you done to give praise to that long history within you? Do you think perhaps you could go to your cousins of the more than human world and honor your common ancestors together? What would that be like to do ritual with a dog? To share in honoring the deep hungers of your reptilian mind with the serpent? I bet it would be brilliant my love. Bloody brilliant.
III. The Mythic Ecology of Ancestry (Water)
“There was a time, the myths tell us, when the link between animals, humans and the land was fluid, magical. The perception of community would extend out, both into the landscape and through the stories seeping up from the burial grounds of your ancestors.” – Dr. Martin Shaw
When a bird migrates, builds a nest, takes on a mate, they are performing a function of ecology that has been cycling for thousands of years. They fill in the ecological function of that niche, they are the embodiment of the desire of that niche, in communication with it, a series of utterings from the mouth of an ecological agency.
We see this bird as somehow different from the ancestors before it who have enacted the same story. From a manifested point of view it is most assuredly a different amalgamation of constituents. However, it still re-enacts the ancient stories brought about by their ancestors. The habitual and behavioral cycles of their mythic ecology still exist. They may be a new body, but they are founded upon the millions of bodies of an ancient recurring cycle. A story as old as time.
Mythic cycles of ecology continue as a function of the overarching paradigm of any typical ecology. An ecology is the culmination of many constituents undergoing a series of patterns that help secure and regulate their lives. Every relationship is unique, but not original. And it seems that many of the manifestations of ecological niches are recurring stories carried forth into the spiral of time, taking on the forms of real tangible behavior that manifest through the societies and ecologies of humans and nonhumans alike. They become the ancestors. They work towards becoming ancestors and thus fulfill the stories that make up the world. They keep those stories flowing in their ancestral direction.
We live in a world of stories, where no one thing can be truly understood outside of the context which creates it. Our interaction with the world is itself cocreating reality. Our acts, no matter their size, rearrange any parameter that may have existed before our inquiries, making our inquiries a game of cat and mouse. You must understand that truth is not a thing, it’s an act. You do not know truth, but rather you are truthing; or even perhaps, you are truth engaging in knowing, and knowing is merely the dance of co-creating. None of this is obtainable in a pre-packaged format. It is instead a courtship of meaning. A love affair with narrative. Which is simultaneously beautiful yet tragic.
So when you look out upon the world, what you see as essentials, identities, or facts, are actually just the stories formed by the tracking of ancestors. Memories that imprint to the very fabric of our reality, like strange symbols of a dreaming mind. You are very much the same, an environment filled with the tracks of ancestors, filled to the brim of stories that continue on and on, like an ever flowing river. Never quite the same, but never wholly different either.
IV. Ancestors as the Foundation of Place and Time (Earth)
“The crucible of making human beings is death – every culture worth a damn knows that.” – Stephen Jenkinson
As a young man I would hike along the Paluxy River in a small Texas town called Glen Rose. It was such an odd place filled to the brim with “ghosts” from the past. The river is famous for being filled with dinosaur tracks, and in a lot of ways this ancient history became a central focal point to the towns haunting culture. Effigies of giant lizard leviathans dotted the townscape.
Here was an example of how the journey of ancient ancestors became so prevalent and central to the culture and economy of a town. On top of that, there were still old settler buildings in place, filled to the brim with a whole other type of bloody and bizarre history. A kind of colonialist infringement upon an otherwise deeply sacred place. For example, before the white men came, it was filled with sacred springs that were said to heal people, but as always they were exploited. Magic doesn’t like to be bought and sold, and so the springs dried up.
As I walked along the river and hiked along the limestone bedrock overhangs I realized another interesting feature to the land. These limestone overhangs and occasional caves that I would explore were all made from coral and sea life! Here was an honest to goodness example of ancestors forming the rocks and rivers that I now lived upon. Not only were these “ghosts” still whispering out from the ancient stones, but they were also the source of the very minerals that were said to have enchanted the healing springs in the area. The source of the magic that existed within this land, came from the ancestors themselves!
All life as we know it is built within the crucible of the dead. Topsoil is another beautiful example of this. What some folks see as just dirt, others understand as being the composted dead matter of living beings, also inhabited by other living beings that break it down. Soil is alive, and yet it is dead. No better example could be made to show just how central and immediate an impact the dead have on all life upon this planet than to look at soil.
Just as the stars had formed the planets, the living have terraformed those planets and weaved within various bioregions, a unique mythic ecology. But these “places” were not just symbolic as physical manifestations of ancestry, they were also socio-ecological manifestations. By socio-ecological I mean to say that the mythic ecology was interwoven with the social dynamics of the creatures that lived there. Indeed any society is inherently a type of mythic ecology, for it is an extension of the natural world and its sensual desires, it’s teleonomy.
What is certainly peculiar about this is how a sense of place develops between a people and the land. Since I have written about this in my other article, Interanimism, I am going to bring it back here to help explain the complexity of how ancestors become our place and our sense of place.
“Any kind of relationship that was held in common with the more than human world was in a sense a co-constitutional existence by which the actions of the human people and “non human people” were considered as a united story. So the ancestors themselves inhabited those stories and those stories inhabited the places in which they were embedded. In this sense, to the Great Plains inhabitants of North America, the bison were considered ancestors because the relationships between the people and the herd were symbiotic. Their story was synonymous right down to their migration patterns. They inhabited the same places and they shared a common mythos. This can be verified in part by the Lakota language, where the term for the Great Mystery, ‘Wakan Tanka’, shared an etymological relationship with the bison which were called ‘Tatanka’. And Tatanka roughly translates to “he who owns us”, which is incredibly significant when understanding this to refer to ancestral lineage. Hence being the reason the Bison were considered the older brothers of the Lakota…
This meant that the herd or the forest or the mountain were all a part of their ancestry because their identity as a family included these things as part of the familiar network. The more important a place or a type of animal was, the more venerated it was as an ancestor. Someone’s great great great grandmother might actually be the mountain because the tribe all came from that person and began its collective story under the mountain itself. Their ancestry became a totemic experience of relationships to place and its inhabitants…
Because of this, the ancestors were not an aspect of dead beings that somehow haunted us in the present, but rather to be an ancestor was to be alive as a different state of being. And this state of being was a kind of imprinting or embedding into the eco-sociological matrix of their places. So when you died you literally became the land, the flora and fauna etc. Your stories inhabited the land and were still very much a part of what made it what it was.”
Another very interesting correlation to ancestors and place was how people would view various myths of the underworld or otherworld. Within the Irish tradition, Tir na Nog was considered a place within the land. All throughout the land, sacred places and mounds abound, being the actual physical manifestations or gateways to the other world itself. In Norse culture the underworld was not seen as some idealized dimension apart from the land, but it actually was considered a literal world beneath their feet. The ancestors who resided in Hel were said to also be in locations related to their family homesteads. Whether that be near a hill or near a river, this is where the family would go to commune with their ancestors. It is important to note that nearly all indigenous cultures revered the burial grounds of their dead.
I think the concept of other worlds being separate from our own, being in other idealized dimensions far far away was a result of civilization and the idealism that came with it. As people separated from the sensual interwoven mythos with the land, they needed to find new places in which their dead could reside. Where they had once literally resided as the land itself, because their bodies decomposed into the land, civilized humanity had begun to practice other forms of tending their dead, taking them away from the homesteads or special family locations. This made the concept of ancestors, that were still interactive with your reality, slowly fade out of the mythic ecology of a culture. Still needing a place for their dead, they retreated into idealized fantasies of transcendent realities no longer embedded into the land’s sensual dreamscape.
Being in close connection with our ancestors was akin to being in close connection to the land itself. For they were the beings that imbued story into the land. Just as the ancient coral imbued magic into the sacred springs of Glen Rose, TX, our human and more than human ancestors imbued magic into the landscape that we called home with their stories and bodies.
V. The Inspiration of Ancestors (Air)
“Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come. Our breath is a part of life’s breath, the ocean of air that envelops the earth.” – David Suzuki
During my trips amongst the caves and valleys of the Cross Timbers, the bioregion of Texas to which I belong, there would be times when I could hear the earth groan when the drafts of air entered into the hollows of its body. The cool breeze coming up and out the shaded interior, while the warmer airs filled with the scents of the land came in from the outside. It was slow and rhythmic like a sleeping giant in a deep dream. The land was breathing!
It is actually quite a surprising notion every time I dwell on it. The very air that the land breathes, that the trees breathe, and that I breathe, is ancient. Our atmospheric medium of shared breath is more than just a sucking of air, it is a rhythmic cycle of breathing, by which we are connected to the ancient story of our ancestors. The same atoms of oxygen going into my blood were at one point in time breathed by my ancestors, and here in these beautiful hollows of limestone, the ancestors still breathed. Sure it was different, but they were now the lungs of the land, something much deeper than before.
For me, the ancestors communicate in a different way, they don’t talk to me with a mouth from disembodied ghosts, but rather they move my being in profound ways. They dance with me in the ever shifting pressure of the land’s breath. Like a shared spirit of mutual invigoration. One moment I can be moving through the cave enjoying its mysteries and the next I can feel our breath come into unison, and as I feel this deep connection like a link to the ancient land itself, it moves me with a profound awe and inspiration. I am affected by it with a depth I would not have realized had I not been there to experience that interaction.
Inspiration is a good word for how ancestors communicate with us. When we break it down etymologically, in- meaning into, and -spire meaning spirit which is further broken down to mean breath, we are given a very different and enlivened sense of the depths of breath and spirit. It is no wonder that the ancient human cultures would see breath as the medium of spirit, the invigorating pressure which sustains our bodies and the atmospheric cycles of the Earth. The very atmosphere of our Mother Earth was none other than the very breath of the Great Spirit, inspiring and animating us.
This breath is more than just the breath of a body. Think of a story that lacks meaning to our culture, that lacks relevance, it feels like a kind of choked spirit waiting to be unblocked from the corners of your mind. You can almost touch upon its relevance and yet, it fails to inspire you, to be inhaled by you. But when you can find a sense of lineage to the story, a connection which helps you piece together how the meaning of your life now links back to the meaning of your ancestors, it is like the story is no longer choking but immediately receives a breath of fresh air. Like breathing in a deep long gust of wind after holding your breath for a long time. You feel the story just as much as you understand it. It seeps into your chest and your mind, it oxygenates parts of your being with meaning and purpose. The story makes sense! Here we take sense to mean that it is quite literally sensual, felt by your being.
When you gasp for air you feel a huge awakening in your body. Is the same not true for realizing the stories around you? When you are inspired, you are enlivened once more by the breath of the ancestors. Being in awe of the canyon or of your grandfather’s old tool box, is a kind of inspiration. A way of coming to know parts of them that had been important to their life. The dead enchant this world, as they enchanted the springs, and this enchantment comes through to us in our shared sense of place, in our shared breathing, in the sharing of the land’s dreaming intelligence.
The ancestors don’t have bodies like we do now. Rather they have become something different. They are transformed in ways that make them more vast and yet also more dependent upon our intra-action with them. They become more a part of the stories of the land, the culture, the old towns they inhabited and now haunt as memories. They reach out to us with agendas laid out in the mythic cycles of our dreaming ecologies, full of symbols and unfinished business. Communicating comes from being able to listen to their stories, experiencing them somatically, through sensual understanding. It comes from finding the tracks they left behind and following in their footsteps to embody their story, to share in their mythic ecology. The deeper our attention given to them, the deeper their response will be, till you enter into ancient times of giant monsters and exploding stars. How you revere them will be the measure by how they will be revealed.
VI. The Dead Are Here and Now (Entanglement)
“I call to the ancestors who walk with us on each fateful day into each new world.” – Lorna Smithers
The world we live in is one filled with stories. It is built upon the ancestors as the crucible of life. From the star fire that enlivened us to the stories that inspire us and the dead that build up our sense of place and culture, we are living with the ancestors in a mythic and dreaming world. The dead can dance, and they do it every day, right under our noses
Entire aspects of our culture are indeed ancestral, some good, and some in deep trouble. Not all mythic cycles are good for people, some hold a deep darkness to them. A darkness that needs to be healed by tending to them, by rooting them back into the land. While other mythic cycles hold within them families created by the bonds of struggle and revolution. Queer liberation movements for instance, hold a beautiful and powerful ancestry, an ancestry born of myth and sacrifice, an ancestry that welcomes their people to carry on their work regardless of the blood running through their veins. The same can be said for all kinds of revolutionary movements, for such movements are built from the stories of ancestors. Honor them. Find them. Join them in their unfinished works.
Once again, to close this out, I will be using some of my writing from Interanimism because I feel it rounds out the idea I have been trying to court. I hope it serves you well.
“The ancestors are the culminating influences of the past embedded onto the present, all their gravitational waves pushing us forward into the expanse of the universe. The ancestors are not ghosts that pop up like some spooky ethereal being from a television show, rather they are their past actions imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality which produces an emergent agency capable of communicating with the living, forever affecting and inspiring our future.
I call on my ancestors because I must become aware of how deeply we are affected by them, even though they have changed form. In many ways their death hasn’t stopped their meddling in our world, to the point where one must wonder if they ever really died at all. Their wisdom and stories are embedded into the fabric of our reality, and this has vast implications.”
Sources and other great articles on ghosts and ancestors: