Wisdom of the Ancestors

Tadues Oka (left) in 2012

Our last newsletter was entitled “Wisdom of the Ancestors” and that set me to thinking, what really is the ancestral wisdom that can serve us in this time?

Several years ago I was talking to Tadeus Oka, a ritual leader of a community* we work with in the forests of central Flores. I asked him, “The Ancestors that you make offerings for and pray to, where are they?”

In response, he said, “They are in the trees and animals and rocks, and the rivers and mountains.”

“So, when we die, do we go to the trees and animals and rocks and rivers and mountains, too?”

To which Deus replied, “Of course!”

Such beliefs spring from careful observation of nature across countless generations and articulate an understanding that behind a seen world that is red in tooth and claw, the totality of life continues to flow from form to form through an unseen web that also includes rocks, rivers and mountains. To identify and deify this web of life as the Ancestors is less an act of personifying nature than it is a ‘naturefying’ of humanity, placing us as the children of all of Life and the siblings of other species rather than their masters.

There is a small area of the forest above the village that is reserved for these Ancestors. It is not spoken of, not pointed too, certainly not visited by outsiders or photographed. Occasional ceremonies are performed there by ritual elders, but otherwise it is strictly out of bounds. And yet, from the road up towards it through the forest, an open swath has been cut for a Via Dolorosa between wooden markers for the Stations of the Cross that the community walks on Good Friday. In this syncretic relationship between Animism and Catholicism, the new religion appears to be appropriating the sacred site of the old, but the habits of the villagers suggest that the reverse is at least as true: the power of the old story about the place means that the Catholicism has been accommodated to the Animism.

Stories, especially the stories that give meaning to our lives, have power. The spread of the coronavirus pandemic has exposed both the depth of our interconnectedness with one another and the fragility of those connections. Our inability to learn from the experiences of others, as each country goes through variations of the same denial-to-lockdown scenario, suggests the small degree of conscious control we really have over our own individual and collective characters, and the high degree to which our intrinsic natures, inherited from our ancestors and shaped by their experiences, lead us. Countering this, there is also a powerful meme going around, pointing out that empty streets are evidence of the care we take of each other. These underlying bonds of love that we share are also the truth of who we are.

The wisdom of the ancestors, then, is to surrender our stories both of separation from nature and dominion over it. In their place we need to be telling a new/old story — one of connection, collaboration, and care. The world we return to once this is over will likely be very different to the one we left behind, and it is the deep story which we tell ourselves now about what this new world can be that will shape what we make of our collective future.

* Our Plant Mordant Project works with groups of women who pick fallen Symplocos leaves off the forest floor for us to use as a source of alum mordant (fixative) for use with natural dyes.