Gathering Around the Fire: Reclaiming Ancestral Gestures
“These age-old gestures that have shaped us as humans—ritual, ceremony, sharing dreams and stories, gathering around the fire, talking with beings other than humans—these are not written in stone and belonging to the stone ages. They are born from a knowing that the world is alive and are brought to life through the natural reciprocity that comes with this knowing.”
It’s easy to slip into a sense of awe and magic when huddled around a bonfire under the twinkle of stars. We have an ancestral impulse as humans to gather around the fire under the great firmament ringing clear, wrapped in the night’s dark cloak, harvesting the honey of our existence as we peer into the flames. Those very flames that bring us warmth, that ward off lurking dangers, and that allow us to share our stories amid muted tones and dancing shadows.
Around these fires, we can imagine our ancestors gathering to share the stories of their day, their myriad encounters with animals, wind, and moon, and how the dream-threads from their night found their way into the day-world.
For well over a decade, I have been reading accounts of how our ancestors worldwide lived in deeply connected ways with their environments. As I contemplate these in the comfortable and sheltered warmth of my living room, inspiration and grief hold hands. Inspiration because these stories stir a dormant yearning in the recluse caverns of my heart: my pulse speeds with excitement at this greater story of humanity of which I am a part, at this expanded sense of self and deep remembering of what it means to be alive in this web of connection and creation! And then the grief…
Looking out of my window at the structures of roads, fences, buildings, vehicles, and busy schedules that shape my day, I then feel a deep belly moan as I wonder how I might even start to experience a dream culture in our highly individualized lives; how I’ll find the time for fire gatherings and communal food preparation in between school drop-offs and pick-ups, work schedules, grocery errands, and bedtime; or even, how I might find the courage to create sacred space with family and friends when talk of soul and spirit come off as awkward, if not somewhat embarrassing.
These are the times we live in and I am in no way advocating going back to our hunting and gathering days. Nor do I want to romanticize previous eras, knowing that each epoch has its own joys and strife. Our human arc has brought us here for a reason. Yet for the first time in human history, we are on the verge of a human-made worldwide ecological catastrophe: this calls for excavation into our past in order to shed light on the current situation. In digging deep, we discover things lost along the way.
As I continue to hold this tension between inspiration and grief, new possibilities begin to emerge.
As I travel these ancient landscapes in my imagination, while listening deeply to today’s changing landscapes, I glean ancestral seeds to plant in today’s soil.
So what are these seeds carried forth from days long ago, to be planted in today’s soil?
In the wake of ecological devastation, social unraveling, and a growing sense of personal alienation, there are things along our path that are discarded and that need to be reclaimed:
- Some things that make us beautifully human
- Some things that help us thrive in the many realms of existence (not just pragmatically survive).
Such things are sensed inwardly. They are carved into our DNA and recognized by our soul, but may feel unfamiliar and inconvenient in the controlled terrain of modern life. These are things such as,
- Expressing our gratitude through offerings
- Becoming aware of the support of our ancestors
- Gathering in circle to share from the heart
- Connecting to the sacred through our daily interactions with the elements: be it with our drinking water running from our taps, the source of heat for our homes, the foods that find their way to our plate.
These ancestral seeds need desperately to be watered by our creativity in order to take root and find fresh expressions in the complexity of today’s context.
We live in a modern world with its own set of challenges and gifts. Yet deep in our bones and in the makeup of our cells, human impulses remain which have been with us for millennia. These have only just recently been forgotten as the frenetic pace of modern life whisked us into a state of disconnection from vital soul foods that have previously been a source of sustenance:
- A daily participation with meaningful ritual
- Enactments of ceremony to reaffirm our place in the family of things
- An ongoing soulful conversation with our dreams, the dreams of our community and the dreaming of the earth
- A dynamic relationship with the animate elements that shape our world (be it stone, bird, sunset, breeze, fire, and honey…).
All these things may seem so far away as we rush in the morning to get lunches made, boots on, raincoats zipped tight, and little footsteps out the door and off to school… Then as we head to work, to the grocery stores, to the mechanical rumble of our cars on concrete and back to the electrical buzz of our inbox.
Here lies our crisis and also, our opportunity.
It can start with a simple gesture of remembering—like filling our child’s pocket with a fragrant sprig of rosemary from the garden with a wee blessing and a kiss. As we story the world with interconnectedness, both for our children and ourselves, we speak to the soul that animates our surroundings and the world responds.
“This rosemary has hopped into your pocket to keep you company for the day. It will love feeling the warmth of your little hand wrapped around it and will kiss you with its savoury fragrance.”
Suddenly, the rosemary is not dead … it is alive and spirited and going for a ride in your little one’s pocket! Intermingling its qualities with your child’s awareness, their own awareness expanding to become part of a living world with gifts to offer and mysteries to unravel.
This is the crux of it: these age-old gestures that have shaped us as humans—ritual, ceremony, sharing dreams and stories, gathering around the fire, talking with beings other than humans—these are not written in stone and belonging to the stone ages. They are born from a knowing that the world is alive and are brought to life through the natural reciprocity that comes with this knowing.
Feeding this knowing is the first step on this path of remembering, as it changes our way of seeing and our way of inhabiting this world. Placing a sprig of living rosemary for safe-keeping in our children’s pockets is akin to planting a seed in a ground that quickens from the warmth of our awareness. As we remember our way from mere scenery back to ensouled landscapes, the seeds we plant take root.
It is a journey, this re-storying the world for yourself and others as if everything around you were alive and graced with its own sense of agency. Gradually the “as if” turns into a deep-seated knowing, as your heart is touched and changed by this living world’s response.
This is a gradual journey that requires patience, a lot of compassion, a broadened understanding, and a great openness to the depth of emotion that comes up. It is a journey of unlearning the cultural conditioning that treats the living world as if it were matter to be exploited, that perceives landscapes as scenic backgrounds for our activities, or that claims forests as a therapeutic spaces to use for our own healing.
Sharing our healing with the natural world is necessary, but it is a two-way conversation. The journey we embark upon when we reclaim our ancestral gestures for ritual conversation with the wider world and our human capacity for reciprocal exchange with beings other-than-human, is one of expanding our sense of self and our human story into the greatest conversation we can imagine.
It’s a journey of deep imagination, of full presence to our bodies, our senses and our feelings, it is a journey to the center of our heart, and it is a journey of opening up deeply to all form of others.
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