The long remembering

 “We need to haunt the house of history and listen anew to the ancestors’ wisdom.”

Maya Angelou

Last week I was walking on Dartmoor when I stumbled upon The Mariners Way.

The Mariners Way is said to be the track which sailors walked from Bideford in the north to Dartmouth in the south. As I made my way down it I couldn’t help thinking of the many travellers of all kind who would have trodden this stony path over the centuries. Each with their own thoughts, in reminiscence or anticipation, walking in company or alone, in good health or ailing, by day or by night. Each leaving their imprint on the soil, their sounds on the air, exhaling their warm breath into the ether. Each in turn feeling the cool night air on their skin or the sun gently breaking through a dense cover of leaves.

As the path descended further into the valley I, like my fellow past travellers, was greeted by the sounds of the river Dart.

The river rushes and gurgles here. A loud voice that has resounded through this valley for millennia, long before humans walked here and made this track. These are the echoes of an ancient and unknowable river, forging its eternal path, shaping, and becoming part of, our long remembering.

It is midwinter – the darkest days of the year and the perfect time for remembering. The peoples of Northern Europe celebrated this time with rituals and customs that affirmed their place in the order of life, that reassured them that the light would return, that promised renewal after the dark, cold stillness of winter. They called their festival Yule.

Yuletide is said to be the time of wholeness. At Midwinter the seasons complete their cycle, the light dies, the earth comes to rest. Within the dark the light is reborn. Our ancestors marked the beginning of this process with the solstice bonfire. After the bonfire the men of the village chopped down a tree in the forest and in a torch-lit procession this Yule log was ceremoniously dragged into the fireplace of the community’s Great Hall, where it was lit with a brand from the previous year’s log, which had been carefully preserved. Over the twelve days of yuletide the tree was slowly fed into the fire, amidst ceremonies intended to foster the return of the light. The re-creation of the world was completed on New Year’s Eve with a ritual bonfire.

This custom was practiced across Northern Europe, with regional and temporal variations. The type of tree used, the food and drink consumed depended on what was native to the land where you lived, and every place imbued the ritual with their own particular local beliefs.

“In England, it was considered unlucky for the Yule log to be bought, and had to be acquired using other means, as long as no money changed hands. Often it was given as a gift by landowners, and sometimes decorated with evergreens. In Cornwall a figure of a man was sometimes chalked on the surface of the log, mock or block. In Provence, where it was called the tréfoire, carols were sung invoking blessings upon the women that they might bear children and upon the crops, herds and flocks that they might also increase.

The ashes from the Yule log were often used to make protective, healing or fertilising charms, or scattered over the fields. In Brittany, the ashes were thrown into wells to purify the water, and in Italy as charms against hailstones.

In some parts of the Scottish Highlands, a variation of the Yule log was observed, here a figure of an old woman, the Cailleach Nollaich, was carved from a withered tree stump. At dusk, the figure was brought into the house and laid upon the burning peat of the house fire. The family would gather round the hearth and watch the figure consumed into ashes, the rest of the evening was spent in games and merriment. The figure represented not fertility and life, but the evils of winter and death. The figure had to be totally consumed if misfortune and death were to be averted in the coming year.”

Like today, this was a time of song, dance and feasting. A gathering together to perform acts that anchor the collective psyche into its physical surroundings. Unlike today, these acts were rooted in place: a repetition upon repetition of practices, stories and incantations the origins of which could not be consciously located in time, but which resonated nonetheless with our human existence on the land. Part of the long remembering.

Now our memories reside on hard drives, our ritual ornaments are imported from China and our incantations are the piped music greeting us at the shopping mall. Instead of following nature’s rhythms, we dance to the tune of the retail calendar and mark time with the ‘traditions’ of Black Friday and Panic Saturday. Even if we are indifferent to or repulsed by hyper-consumerism, this is now the colour of the season. Even if we wish for something more meaningful, for most of us there are no strong men dragging the tallest tree from the forest, there is no long and slow feeding of the communal fire.

And yet we continue to search. Some of us along ancient footpaths, others in brightly lit retail parks. The frenzied shoppers risking life and limb for the latest flat screen tv are likely to be driven by the same impulses as the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer: not so much by the desire for novelty and status that consumer psychologists speak of, but by the need for renewal and belonging fundamental to our emotional and mental survival.

Renewal and belonging, however, are slow practices. They cannot operate in the haste and instant gratification of consumer society. They require us to know where we are in time and place beyond this year’s fashion or this decade’s Christmas hit. They require a recalling of the past that places us in right relation to all of life with its cycles of birth, death and re-birth.

Our ability to consider the future stands in direct correlation with the length of our remembering. When our visceral memories – the ones that take our breath away and make our bone marrow shudder – stretch only as far as the latest pop song, we live lives that are both limited and fragile. In contrast, when we allow our story to stretch further back than our own life, or the life of our mother, or our mother’s mother, we also become more able to consider the lives of our children, our children’s children and their children again.

This is the season of long remembering, when the world speaks to us in those places where time has succeeded in slipping through the cracks. If we listen we can hear its echo in the dark, cold stillness of midwinter.

Spruces at Treeline, Black and White

photo: Whit Andrews

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