Ancestral adventure: Letting go

We have moved from the flat, flint and clay lands of East Anglia to the hilly stone lands of the Peak District. It is lovely to see the difference in the buildings as they respond to what’s abundant in the land. Today we are in Castleton, there are no ancestors to hunt down and visit here (as far as I know) and it is something of a relief. No expectation, no stories, just me and the land.

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Ancestral adventure: Longing

We are at Wells-next-the-sea and I am all at sea. We left London two days ago, headed to Thaxted – birthplace of my father’s mother’s great grandfather, Thomas Suckling. Already things were improved, people greeted us on the street, chatted to us at the local cafe, it was suddenly easier to pierce our little tourist bubble.

The next day (yesterday) I read from a book my best friend gifted me – The Old Ways, Robert MacFarlane – about the oldest walking path in Britain, the Icknield Way. It turned out that the way passed right by the town we were staying in so I immediately wanted to walk it. We all piled into the car and headed out.

Before we left I began to notice a frantic air in myself. I was getting frustrated with Mum and Dad for dawdling when there’s so much to do. In the car I slowed myself down enough to wonder what was underneath it and sadness arrived. We had been listening to Sharon Blackie’s Hedge School podcast the day before, listening to her and Pat McCabe talk about listening to the Earth and cocreating stories together. I became aware of a longing in myself to slow down enough to speak with the Earth, to catch the stories that are in the landscape.

It took some asking and wandering and guessing to find the Icknield Way but I got there eventually. Along the way I had to face an angry pair of Canada Geese, furiously defending their six goslings. Bird protocol got me past them along with a woman with a little dog who was stuck on the path – Jon Young would be proud.

The Icknield Way is barely visible, a slight compression of grass, a trace of a path at the edge of a field, indistinguishable from a sheep trail. Fortunately their are discreet signs that show where to go. Before I began I gave a piece of chocolate as an offering to the Earth and set an intention to connect. I set out greeted by rabbits – much larger than the ones back home. As I walked I could feel the layers of people through history who have used this path, the air was thick with them.

A light rain dusted the landscape. I was not bothered by it but after half an hour the grasses had brushed the water into my socks and shoes and I was soaked to the knee. Each footstep squelched.

I saw what looked like mint and crushed a leaf between thumb and finger only to discover it was stinging nettle – ouch. Fortunately there was yarrow near by which soothed my pains but not my ego.

I felt out of place. The path was thick with history but it felt like someone else’s. I enjoyed the walk, enjoyed slowing down and seeing birds and even a deer but it is clear that I do not know this land well enough to guarantee my comfort here. I can recognise a handful of plants but most of them are a mystery to me. Sometimes you only realise you have expectations when you feel the disappointment. This is the land of my ancestors but so far I do not feel at home.

Mum and Dad picked me up at Icklingham, I wrung the water out of my socks and we headed on to Grimes Graves. The 5000 year old flint mine, descending 12 metres into the ground, dug with deer horn picks is impressive. The archaeological information gives a picture of people engaged in gratitude and reciprocity, offerings carefully placed, fires lit, evidence of ritual practice. Again I could feel the history of the place, sense the people that lived here and how they lived. I am grateful for their example and the opportunity to experience it and again I felt no stirring of connection.

It was not until I stopped to write that I could get a handle on what was going on for me. Grief had dogged my steps all day but I wasn’t able to pin it to any particular experience or idea. Instead I blocked it with silence, pettiness and irritation. Finally, in writing, I pealed back the layers of myself and found this growing sense of alienation.

This land is full of stories, saturated with them. The land is eager to share its stories, to have them told, to be witnessed and seen and listened to. Somehow although I can perceive this and I can act as a witness, I can also perceive that I am not the one to tell these stories. They are not my stories and I do not belong here and my time here is much too fleeting to alter that.

Ancestral pilgrimage: Beginning

I am a fifth generation Australian settler and I am in the UK, in the lands of my ancestors, on a quest of healing.

It is a quest in the sense that the outcome is unknown to me. I do not know what, if anything, I will discover while I am here.

It is about healing because my whole life has been about healing. Specifically healing within myself the false divide between me and the Earth.

As a settler Australian, connection with the Earth entails reconciliation. When my ancestors came to Australia they dispossessed many ancient peoples, the longest continuing cultures on Earth. Those cultures continue to thrive, though the process of colonisation continues to this day. I can not come into relationship with the land of my birth without acknowledging this reality.

As I open myself to my larger self – the whole Earth community – the legacy of colonisation presents itself to me. My longing for rituals that respond to and honour the Earth has led me to appropriate the cultural practices of first nations people. I have become aware, on my travels, that much as I love the country of my birth (the lands of the Wurundjeri people) there is a hesitancy, a legacy of guilt that weighs on my subconscious and prevents me from fully surrendering to it.

Then of course there is the question of how my people came to see themselves as ‘separate’ in the first place. It is clear to me that the violence of colonisation was perpetrated against my ancestors many times over before they came to serve the project of colonising ‘Australia.’ I do not say this to claim victim hood for my people but to give myself the chance to rigorously search out the roots of this malpractice in hope that it will give me insight into how to live differently.

In order for me to be born 32 different people left their ancestral homes across England, Scotland and Ireland between 1832 and 1860. Only one was a convict, the rest were economic migrants, squeezed off the land by over population and the enclosure of the commons, refugees fleeing famine, boat people.

Here I am, in the homeland of my ancestors. Seeking to be present to a land that does not carry a burden of guilt, seeking knowledge and understanding of the life ways of my people prior to colonisation and seeking to experience, to feel into, the land my ancestors came from.

My quest is made possible by my travelling companions, my Mum and Dad.

I have the honour of being daughter to a rigorous and knowledgeable family historian who considers my interest in her life’s work a tremendous gift. I can not believe it has taken me this long to realise the vital importance of her work and the privilege of my access to it (just before when I was writing about the time span of my ancestor’s migration all I had to do was turn to my right and ask Mum). She does not only collect names and dates but stories too as we shall see as we go on.

Jill Bear taking a selfie in front of the Trafalgar Square lions, Kiri Bear stands under a lion in the background.

Dad thinks he is just ‘tagging along’ on this expedition but without his lifelong dedication to the financial stability of my family, this trip would be out of my reach. He is also good at getting enthusiastic about things, providing philosophical musings and making suggestions like “Let’s go to the local pub and ask if they know anything about Bears.” that are anathema to my highly introverted mother (I mean no offence by this description, she gave her approval for it).

Kiri Bear opens the tardis of family history, Noel Bear joins in the fun.

I am aware that few of my people (by which I mean settler colonials the world over) have the opportunity to make a pilgrimage such as this. I am extremely grateful for the confluence of conditions that make it possible for me to be here and so I dedicate this journey to the healing of my people, to the healing of all peoples, to the healing of the Earth.