Monday, May 23, 2022

REMEMBRANCES - a new project for Birmingham 2022


Remembrances in development 
Georgia Rose Thompson, Avatâra Ayuso & Amy Hollinshead

It was more than two years ago that Avatâra Ayuso started to think about the need for the Birmingham 2022 Festival to acknowledge Indigenous peoples in its programming and its approach to performance.  Avatâra had been part of ORIGINS 2019, with her piece NO WOMAN'S LAND, in which she collaborated with Inuk Elder Naulaq LeDrew, so she has a strong awareness of the political complexities that the Commonwealth holds for Indigenous people, and the importance of welcome in their cultures.  As an artist based in the Midlands, she was acutely conscious that the conventional sub-Olympics torch-lighting would not be adequate to encapsulate the shifting relationships between the City that had supplied the arms that sustained an Empire and the Indigenous athletes and artists who would be visiting this year.  When #BlackLivesMatter highlighted the historical roots of current inequalities and racial tensions, the need seemed more urgent still. And so we approached the Birmingham 2022 Festival for a commission.  

There is a significant Canadian investment in the Festival's commissioning programme, and so it was to First Nations Canadian partners that we turned. As often happens, this pragmatic choice became creatively and politically potent.  b.solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE had also been part of ORIGINS 2019, creating the wonderful WESTWAY SOLSTICE with the North Kensington community, and presenting THE NDN WAY at the Playground Theatre, so he seemed an obvious choice. What we hadn't realised was just how acute and immediate the challenge of welcoming First Nations Canadian artists would become with the discovery of the mass graves at the Residential Schools in Kamloops and elsewhere across Canada. These atrocities of colonial policy drove home the question we have placed at the heart of REMEMBRANCES:

"Who are we now to welcome you?"

b.solomon//ELECTRIC MOOSE & participants in WESTWAY SOLSTICE

We have been working on the understanding that we occupy different physical and cultural spaces: that the performance itself will represent our dialogue, and so, in a very real sense, our processes need to be distinct. Avatâra and I have been exploring British identities and responses to our colonial past, working with a very diverse group of dancers, and taking cues from a First Nations Canadian poet, Matthew James Weigel. b.solomon has been creating his work in his own country: what he knows of our work is that it will attempt to offer a nuanced and considered space of welcome, with an awareness of past wrongs. We do not know how he will respond. He may accept or reject that offer - certainly he will shift its meaning in some way.  

REMEMBRANCES will be performed in the open air in the centre of Birmingham on June 25th and 26th.  We'll also film it for streaming. We don't know exactly what's going to happen: but the dance will be extraordinary, and it will be a performance like no other. 

Friday, April 01, 2022

The Strange Case of Kew


Banksias at Kew Gardens

When we started the BOTANY BAY project towards the end of last year, one of the most obvious partners to engage with seemed to be Kew Gardens. We'd had some initial discussions with them before we applied to the Heritage Fund and, while these didn't lead to official "partner" status, there was a clear sense that they liked what we were doing, and that they would be open to help with expertise, filming opportunities and the like. Earlier this year, we contacted them again - and everything seemed different. It's now very clear that Kew will not be part of the project.  

This was a particular surprise to us, given that Kew had been quite vocal in its response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in 2020, and that our conversations with them had given the impression they were keen to set up exchanges with Indigenous ethnobotanists and environmentalists, whose insights could help them think differently about their botanical and historical collections. Their Director of Science, Professor Alexandre Antonelli, had clearly acknowledged Kew's "legacy that is deeply rooted in colonialism"; and their Manifesto for Change, published in March 2021, had stated that "We will move quickly to ‘de-colonise’ our collections, re-examining them to acknowledge and address any exploitative or racist legacies, and develop new narratives around them". None of this should really be surprising, given that Kew's first de facto Director was Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook, collecting plants from Australasia and the Pacific, and establishing what would become global networks of economic botany, underpinning the workings of Empire. The most striking example, which we've been discussing with young visitors to the Garden Museum in the last couple of months, is the breadfruit. Banks discovered that this Tahitian plant was cheap, nutritious and easy to grow: as a result of which he despatched William Bligh to arrange its transportation to the Caribbean, where it served to feed enslaved people. In its Manifesto, Kew was simply acknowledging the basis of its wealth and status. As the Director Richard Deverell wrote there: "We shouldn’t forget that plants were central to the running of the British Empire."

So what happened to make the management of Kew step back from this important process?  The answer seems to be a report, published at the end of 2021, by the right-wing Think Tank Policy Exchange. This report, entitled Politicising Plants, directly attacked Kew's decolonising agenda. It's important to note that this was not done by generating any counter-argument to the historical narrative I've summarised above, but through a more legalistic approach. Kew, argued the report's authors, exists "to provide scientific knowledge rather than a historical narrative". They base this assertion on the statutory functions outlined in the 1983 National Heritage Act, which does indeed emphasise "the science of plants and related subjects". The Manifesto for Change, they suggest, outlines a plan that is ultra vires, because it moves beyond "science" into a politicised realm. "Politics", they say "has nothing to do with the science of plants and Kew has no business providing a platform for political views. Doing so falls outside Kew’s statutory scientific responsibilities and, as such, using Kew’s funds for these sorts of exercises is illegitimate."

A mere fortnight after the publication of this report, Kew dropped its decolonisation project. This was also the time when they stopped engaging with our work. Policy Exchange was triumphant.

It's astonishing that a conservative Think Tank should seem so powerful that a major national institution should simply submit when it clicks its fingers, but Policy Exchange is more than just a talking shop. As George Monbiot has shown, it is part of a shift in the way our country is run: a shift that is dismantling the constitutional structures of the civil service and the judiciary, replacing them with "advisors" who report to the Prime Minister's office and are answerable to no-one. Monbiot also highlights the way Policy Exchange attacks academic freedom (on the specious grounds that it indoctrinates students with "wokery"), and whips up media fury against environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion. He points out that the funding of Policy Exchange is opaque to say the least, but that its known donors include "the power company Drax, the trade association Energy UK, and the gas companies EON and Cadent, whose fossil-fuel investments are threatened by environmental activism." An anti-colonial agenda in relation to plant sciences is also, of course, an environmentally active stance.

It's a shame that Kew gave in so easily. After all, Policy Exchange's report is nonsense. It assumes that "science" is an objective truth, and so cannot be part of a colonial legacy. This is always the way in which the right constructs the narrative around its own opinions - that they are not opinions, but facts. What we are discovering in the BOTANY BAY project is that this objectifying culture, which regards the natural world as something other to ourselves, something to be explored and exploited, is an expression of an aggressive imperial mindset. Indigenous cultures, which regard plants as non-human persons to whom we relate within a ecosystem, tend to be dismissed as fanciful, but are in fact telling us truths in ways that are just as "scientific": they are simply couched in different language. Trees do talk to each other. Crops do grow better when they can fertilise one another. What Policy Exchange was actually saying was not that the political was legally distinct from science, but that they refused to acknowledge the political nature of science itself, and indeed of all other knowledge systems. Very convenient for their funders' agenda.

Our recent project film Winter looks at the racist structures inherent in botanical classification systems and languages. It isn't actually "objective fact" to classify plants using Latin names as Linnaeus did: it's a reflection of how he viewed and wanted to order the world. True science (the word actually means "knowledge") engages with its own context, recognising the contingent nature of all human attempts to understand and interact with the world. We need dynamism and development, not stasis and decay.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Botany Bay: Manchester Museum visits Schools

 Guest blog by Marine Begault

Back in December, two schools in Manchester received their first visitors as part of the Botany Bay project: the Manchester Museum. 

As the Manchester Museum is currently closed for refurbishment the Learning team, as well as their newly appointed Curator of Indigenous Perspectives (Alexandra P. Alberda),
visited the schools in person. 

Marine Begault is the Project Manager on Botany Bay.  Here she reflects on some of the themes and questions addressed through this first interaction with the museum and the schools.

Pupils explore the different varieties of maize

Alexandra Alberda and the team developed a session especially for this project. The learning team were extremely excited to be part of the session and learn from Alex, as this is an important part of the Museum’s journey towards decolonising their collections and practice. 

Alexandra introduced herself in her native tongue and as Blue Corn, which immediately set the tone to the session. 

The museum brought some pieces from their Botany and Entomology collections. Most children knew what Botany meant (‘investigating plants’ as one child put it) but Entomology was a new word for most.

The children were given a few minutes to circulate around each of the objects brought by the museum. In small groups they were asked to discuss whether they recognised them, if they had seen them before and where, and whether they had any stories or feelings associated with them.

The Butterfly Station (a glass case of 10 different butterflies) led to some interesting conversations around why we don’t see that many butterflies (some saw them on holiday or in some cases in their garden), which led to an understanding that we live in cities and that butterflies need flowers. I was really interested in hearing some conversations around ‘are they real?’ or ‘are they dead?’, which made me think about the ways younger children might struggle with the idea of something being dead and real at the same time. Being dead but visible and conserved. Dead but existing in the world. There were also some conversations around the ethics of killing the butterflies (it turns out they were trapped in a jar and put to sleep with a gas in Victorian times as a way to study them).

The Blue corn and dried chilli station was interesting in that most children thought that the blue corn was rotten ‘normal corn’ and few recognised the chillies, or again thought they were rotten or old.  

The plant station included dried Yaupon leaves and an Echinacea plant in a class case as well as botanical drawings of medicinal plants. Again a conversation around the plants being ‘real’ or not came about, but also the children enjoyed trying to read the labels of these items: ‘black tea’ being used to describe the Yaupon. A conversation around drinking tea, when they drink tea, what tea they are allowed to drink etc. ensued. When I asked one student the type of tea he normally drinks he answered ‘normal English tea.’ When I asked him about what he meant by that, he wasn’t really sure what I was asking. Unpicking responses like these is exactly why I find this project so fascinating.

The children were brought back into a circle, and Alex told everyone about the significance of the circle in her culture. She began the story by introducing her relative, corn, who like herself is the eldest sister. She told story of the Three Sisters, and how they revealed themselves to the villagers to thank them for their kindness and generosity on a cold winter evening. The children really responded to this story. Some asked if it was real, if Alex was real, if she was magical. It brought about a certain level of mysticism. I think there is something really interesting in bringing this magic, this mysticism into the classroom (and valuing it) as a different way of knowing. I am interested to explore its role in how we learn, particularly in the context of this project and the intention to create a space where children can connect with ‘the more than human’ and build a relationship that is based on reciprocity. 

The session concluded with a game, which explored relationship and kinship as well as some of the harmful effects of colonialism. The group were separated into humans, butterflies and medicinal plants. Alex explained that as plants and animals came long before humans, Indigenous people had learned to survive by listening and observing. Rather than forage for hours on end for medicinal plants hidden in the shrub, they followed butterflies in the meadows to the correct plant. 

The humans were told that a fever has broken out in their village and that they needed to find a particular flower to help them heal their families. They came to the butterflies for help. Human’s one gift, Alex reminded them, is gratitude; and in order for this relationship to be reciprocal the human had to say please and thank you to the butterfly.      

Each layer of the game brought another disease, which the butterflies needed to help the humans with, and each layer brought further obstacles. For example, farmland got rid of a number of wild flower meadows and therefore butterflies, while private property made it impossible for the villagers to follow their butterflies to pick the plants. Each obstacle broke down the relationships further. 

I really enjoyed hearing about the different properties of these plants. A lot of children did not know that medicine is in fact (mostly) plant based. I definitely found that hearing about all of their properties and the ways in which they help us made me admire, respect and love them more. The feeling of being in awe of nature and all its gifts might be a good starting point for shifting this relationship of domination and destruction. 

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Looking Back on 2021

Participants on the stage of the Cartoucherie in July

In my post looking back on 2020, I speculated that our work (and perhaps the whole form of theatre) would not simply go back to the way it had been prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but would continue that year's exploration of new forms more suited to our rapidly changing world. What I had not expected then was that 2021 would pass without us being able to present any actual 'theatre' at all - or that I would find myself at the end of this year putting the very word 'theatre' into inverted commas. The form itself seems questionable, unstable. Some companies have, of course, been able to perform in 2021, but they have done so under constant threat of closure, and they have usually been able to do so because they were building-based. For us, there remains very little point trying to plan a production in a conventional performance space, while access to those spaces remains so unpredictable. And so we continue the process of enquiry begun last year, examining how our work can and should evolve in the capricious context of our troubled times. This isn't just about the pandemic, either. Covid has brought into sharper focus two major issues which were already informing our art, and which are now emerging as its core themes. One of these is the existential threat posed to the planet by climate change. The other is the ongoing prevalence of colonial structures, both politically and culturally, which stand in the way of equity, justice and democracy. For the foreseeable future, our work will centre on these three themes:

  • Covid
  • Climate Change
  • Colonialism
On one level, these are all the same theme. They are all to do with the choking dominance of capitalist structures across the world, and they are all to do with loss of breath. Covid-19 attacks the breath; Climate change contaminates the air we breathe; Colonialism cuts off the breath of life from those whose humanity it denies. As George Floyd was choking to death, he managed to say "I can't breathe".

Thinking through these key themes has enabled us to create a very different version of the ORIGINS Festival for 2021-22. It was clear from the beginning that we would not be able to programme our usual two weeks of visiting performances in the summer, and so instead we looked to a full year of programming which would bring Indigenous cultures into a direct dialogue with our own society in Britain. We began with online events, building on what we'd achieved in THE LOCKDOWN DIALOGUES of 2020. The Opening Event was online, and included a performance of Yvette Nolan's KATHARSIS - a play written in response to the pandemic and the closure of the theatres, performed in the deserted auditorium of Winnipeg's Prairie Theatre Exchange by Tracey Nepinak. 

During the spring, we worked with our friends at Beyond the Spectacle to present ORIGINS WRITERS: a series of online literary events, using dialogues with leading Indigenous writers like Joy Harjo (the US Poet Laureate), Natalie Diaz and climate change expert Kyle Whyte to locate ourselves in relation to our themes and to the importance of Indigenous voices to all three. Many of the talks are still available as recordings. This online presence grew with film screenings, including ETCHED IN BONE and UNDERMINED with the Menzies Institute, VAI with Aya Films, and a fantastic evening of short films relating to Animism. We also presented our first online exhibition, featuring Indigenous Taiwanese Women's Art, and partnered with Woolly Mammoth in Washington DC to show an online version of Madeline Sayet's WHERE WE BELONG, which had been such a success at the Globe in ORIGINS 2019. Never shy of controversy, we set up a debate around the film LEPAGE AU SOLEIL, confronting questions around representation and engagement between European and Indigenous cultures.

All this online activity provided the cultural and political context, the vital Indigenous presence, that enabled us to undertake live work in new forms. So far, the most significant of these has been TOTEM LATAMAT: carved from a cedar tree in Mexico by Totonac artist Jun Tiburcio, shipped across the Atlantic and journeying through the UK to Glasgow for Cop26, the Totem became a focus for ceremonies and performances they responded to its ecological message wherever it went. Some of these were quite formal: like the Indigenous Fire Ceremony in Glasgow or the Return to Earth in Dumfries. Others were more spontaneous, arising from local communities, like Chiswick School in London or the Milton Keynes Interfaith group.  Early in the New Year, we'll be releasing a film that documents this extraordinary journey - so I won't say more here, except to emphasise that this was every bit as much a performance project as it was a visual art commission. 2022 will see more work like this, engaging directly with communities through Indigenous cultural forms that catalyse their own responses to our key themes, and to the need for change. As our Patron Peter Sellars said in his LOCKDOWN DIALOGUE, we need to think more specifically about the local, partly because the pandemic requires it, and partly because that is where regeneration, both cultural and ecological, can and will occur. One such project that is already underway is BOTANY BAY: a 14-month programme working with schools and heritage partners to explore the Indigenous heritage of horticulture and food production, creating new gardens which will offer healthy and sustainable models of reciprocal exchange between our communities and their environments.

We were already beginning to undertake work of this kind before the pandemic, of course, and its enhanced significance does not mean that we are abandoning theatre. Not a bit of it. As with TOTEM LATAMAT, performance will actually be central to BOTANY BAY, and to the other forthcoming ORIGINS work. I am very hopeful that the Festival will climax with a visiting theatre production, and that the different strands around ceremony, ecology and rebalancing after colonialism will come together in a new piece we're developing with the support of Birmingham's Commonwealth Games Festival 2022. What it does mean is that we are questioning the form more profoundly, developing how it can work in relation to shifting ecologies and histories, balancing our community and international remits. It's therefore really helpful that, through Border Crossings (Ireland) we are undertaking two European strategic partnerships that allow us to exchange good practice with extraordinary partners overseas.  One of these looks at the Third Space as a model for community engagement: the other, CRE-ACTORS, is an exploration of intercultural devising processes.  

It was CRE-ACTORS that found us, in July, working for a week in Paris on the stage of the Théâtre du Soleil, at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes. As our colleague from the Teatro dell'Argine in Bologna, Micaela Casalboni wrote: "Being on the sacred stage and spaces of Théâtre du Soleil was the dream of many years in my life as an actress and as a theatre maker interested in arts for change – individual, cultural, social change. Admiring the painted walls, the paper lanterns, the costumes, the scenes, the behind-the-scenes, the spaces for theatre and the spaces for the group (the kitchen, the courtyard, the space for the kids…) was not only exciting but moving. Especially after the toughest years that we may remember in our life of individuals and theatre makers, years of closed theatres, years of distances, years with no bodies sharing the same physical space." This celebratory, creative week really did seem to offer a way forward - and we were all incredibly excited to return to Paris in December so as to see the Soleil's new devised piece: L'ILE D'OR. And then Covid swept through the company, causing the shows to be cancelled, and through our different countries, with new travel restrictions. As the year ended, there was still no stability to be found, least of all for theatre.

This year dominated by disease has seen many sad losses to the world of performance - not all from Covid, of course. Helen McCrory, Antony Sher and David Gulpilil are three that particularly hit me: all truly great actors whose presence on stage or screen was an object lesson in what we do and why we do it. Our own circle was not exempt, so let me end this year with tributes to three great friends, each of whom contributed profoundly to the story of Border Crossings:
  • Seun Shote passed away last March, aged only 47. He was an extraordinary actor and a very warm human being, whose performance as Ato in THE DILEMMA OF A GHOST combined great humour with a compassionate understanding of what it means to be caught between worlds. 

  • David Kerr, who died in the autumn, was from the same part of Coventry where I spent my childhood, but lived most of his adult life in sub-Saharan Africa, where he taught at the Universities of Malawi and Botswana. He and his wife Adela were my hosts on a wonderful trip to Gabaronne, where I led a workshop with local performers. We became very close very quickly: he was full of wise and modest counsel.

  • Alaknanda Samarth died on 6th December. For almost a quarter of a century, she had been one of my most  important interlocutors in the exploration of theatre and the intercultural. It was Alak who introduced me to Rustom Bharucha, and Rustom has written a very fine obituary for her. Although we were constantly looking for something we might work on together, it only finally happened in 2020, as a response to lockdown. Alak's recording of Artaud's THEATRE AND THE PLAGUE as a Border Crossings podcast now serves as a sort of memorial, I suppose - emphatically her, emphatically of its moment, brutal in its demands and searing in its spirituality. A few nights ago, I was privileged to share it with a group of her friends and colleagues from India as a tribute. We gathered - as so often these days - on Zoom. We listened to her voice speaking this unique text for 45 minutes. And then we sat in silence - because sometimes that is all you can do. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Totem in Dumfries

Guest blog by Gordon MacLellan

TOTEM LATAMAT laid to rest at The Crichton, Dumfries

As TOTEM LATAMAT ends its journey in Dumfries, after travelling from Mexico to Cop26, we publish one final guest blog about this extraordinary journey.  Gordon MacLellan is an environmental educator, artist and storyteller.  He led schools' workshops at The Crichton with TOTEM LATAMAT, and devised the ceremony at which the Totem was returned to the Earth.

Totem Latamat came the The Crichton to share a story, to offer an invitation and a challenge.

The Totem’s story started in a wood on the eastern coast of Mexico with a prayer and a ceremony to a cedar tree. The story continued through a village carving its words as images, memories, hopes and fears into the wood and sailing the tall carved Totem, across the wide seas to the UK. Over the autumn, the Totem has travelled the UK, reaching Glasgow in time to stand in The Hidden Gardens throughout COP26. Then, Totem Latamat arrived at The Crichton in Dumfries.

This isn’t the place to go into all the details of the Totem – you can explore the wonder of its travels on facebook or through its own page on the Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival website.

The Totem carries figures: a rattlesnake, a skull, a person with her arms upraised, a cluster of hummingbirds. An eagle supports the whole edifice....Every figure, from plaited rope seedlings to that climbing snake, hold their own stories, their own messages to share. Here, I want to pick up the Totem’s invitation to become Hummingbirds – to become the messengers who speak, who share, who inspire; and the challenge to become Eagles. To be an Eagle is to act with strength and honour and to see the wider picture, to see the world as a whole, not as lots of individual people or towns or countries but as a wider connected world, where everything is connected to everything else, however distant.

Here, we will celebrate one day of the Totem’s journey: marking the responses of the children of Holywood Primary School in Dumfries. They spent the day with us on Friday at The Crichton, enjoying the grounds (best visitor shop ever, we were told. And it’s free! Triumphant pockets stuffed with pine cones, conkers and acorns), meeting the Totem: drawing it, touching it, talking about it…...…..what is the message? If they were telling this story what animals would children choose to best embody – not the action that is needed (reduce, reuse, recycle, etc) but the qualities we need to find and foster in ourselves to make those actions viable, embedded, enduring….

  • Rabbit brings thinking quickly, acting fast, solving problems (well, you try keep in them out of your vegetables!)
  • Wolves remind us that we are strongest when we work together
  • Lions, likewise, need the family, need the support of their friends
  • Godzilla tells us that sometimes we need to be fierce
  • Mice remind us that we can always find a way into a situation
  • Deer help us be strong and know when to watch, when to run
  • Hedgehogs will bring cleverness, bravery and being ready to be loud
  • And the Octopus will help us be intelligent, solve problems, be strong, and as an octopus you can help protect the world

I would like to thank:
  • the artists and storytellers of Holywood Primary School, Dumfries
  • the Open University for being there, supporting, encouraging, joining in
  • The Crichton team for their hospitality, warmth and imagination
  • the Border Crossings ORIGINS team for drawing all this together
  • Jun Tiburcio, the artists, and the people of Cuhumatlan in Vera Cruz, Mexico who gave us the travelling wonder that is the Totem Latamat.

Monday, November 08, 2021

Totem in Glasgow, at COP26

 Guest blog by Ailsa Clark

Totem Latamat at the Minga Indigena Fire Ceremony.  The Hidden Gardens, Glasgow.

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about their response.  Ailsa Clark is the founder of Inspiralba, which delivers social enterprise development and support across Argyll and Bute.  

What an incredible and humbling experience to be with Totem Latamat and these kind souls who travelled from their Indigenous homelands to connect their spirits with ours, sending a collective prayer for a better future for humanity, ecology, our planet and beyond.

As if through the serendipity of a higher wisdom, Totem Latamat was in the very place that Indigenous leaders from all corners of the world had chosen to create a collective prayer for Pachamama and Pachapapa. And so it came to be that I, a wee lassie from Argyll, now in my more mature years, was there to join my own indigenous roots with all of their collective might in the most powerful and profound ceremony of this time in Glasgow. Our connections across continents run deep across our soils and rock and through our sea beds, touching every living thing, like the mycelium of the forest with the wisdom of the plants.

I journey from my home in ‘Campbell’ town - renamed/stolen (Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain) as a ‘royal’ seal of approval to the Campbells for their support in a colonialism learned then exported. James VI and I, who made various endeavours during his reign to improve the condition of the Highlands, erected Campbeltown as a Royal burgh, and encouraged the settling of people from the lowland districts. I think we call that cultural genocide. I pass my family home at Furnace en route to the Indigenous ceremony. Seeing the fumes from the quarry above the fish farm hatchery on the shore reminds me of how very far we are from climate care, with humanity and ecology overshadowed by corporate greed.

Then Inveraray: always a stark wee reminder of land ownership and feudalism, which still deeply affects the psyche across Argyll and the islands. Land stolen, gifted, bought and sold. More recently a return to community ownership has been supported across Scotland, with inspired places like Gigha and Ulva: but this remains very much a drop in the ocean with the vast majority of the land still owned by wealthy external interests.

I travel the last leg of the journey with my younger colleague: a dynamic force of nature with strong Argyll roots who has come back to work in her own community, and her friend who through kindness agreed to drive and offered us space to stay.  Arriving at The Hidden Gardens the calm of the space and sense of community is instantly apparent. I meet a friend who is there to film the events of the day. Sadly the mainstream media will likely dumb down the messages, but if just one glimmer of light gets through, that may spark an interest. We also meet a phenomenal group of women when we get to the Totem. They, like us, are in awe at the energy and beauty of Totem Latamat. 

We leave messages of hope on ribbons as we circumnavigate the garden space, then enjoy the colour and vibrancy of a vast textile creation brought by the Indigenous leaders. As we continue round we visit the medicinal garden, then come to a space waiting on the fire ceremony.

We wait and enjoy the sense of togetherness as more and more people arrive to share the ceremony. We meet Graham Harvey, a man with a wealth of wisdom on Indigenous culture, and he shares his insight with humility in an unassuming and modest way. Graham has journeyed part of the way with Totem Latamat and introduces us to colleagues from Border Crossings who have been instrumental in bringing this significant symbol of hope and shared connection on its journey from Mexico to our shores.

The ceremony unfolds. The collective wisdom, passion and focus of these Indigenous leaders  can be felt, as they call on the spirits to assist at this momentous moment in shifting the energy from evil and greed to love and care for all things. They invite us all to join the ceremony: our western culture of roping off the ceremonial area must be baffling for our visitors! Some of us are distracted by the desire to capture images, and the shaman asks us to set aside our cameras as the most sacred moment approaches. With greater focus we add all our energy to the ceremony, which builds in volume and connectedness.  The fire is sparked and we are all encouraged to add fuel, with a collective intention for peace and compassion so intense it resonates within and beyond. It's an experience that I am privileged to hold now as part of myself, and to connect with my own cultural roots, thanks to the kindness of these elders.

I have had the great privilege of traveling and working with Indigenous peoples in Australasia, Asia and the Americas; and now, I realise, in my own community also. I have become aware of the shared burden of colonialism.  I have always come home to Argyll, Earra-Ghàidheal, the border area of the Gaels, land and sea connecting Scotland and Ireland. I retrace my ancestral roots with folk in both these lands: migrants, refugees, Indigenous people forced to leave their homes.

Our great great great great great grand parents were cleared from their land. Half-starved and flea-bitten from Ireland they arrived by boat to start a new life on these shores, shunned for being different (like the refugees that come across the channel).  That misery and despair, shame and disconnection permeates a huge amount of the Scottish psyche. There’s us Irish migrants, and those cleared from their rural lands to make space for sheep. I think that experience of trauma, that feeling of shame and self-loathing are carried forward generation to generation, not in a way you would directly recognise, but in the self-destructive ways we live our lives. We have some of the highest addiction rates in Western Europe, and that’s only what’s reported. Life expectancy is very low. It’s a pretty dire picture.  But we as a generation have an opportunity to heal ourselves and to heal our planet, so that we don’t carry forward these wounds to the next generations. In order to do that, we need to talk about our feelings, our fears, and to explore our ancestral roots.

My sense of place and of the need for collective healing has been building over recent weeks, with support from friends at Heal Scotland and with Ariane, my younger colleague. We aim to bring back to our community a shared insight and a connection with our lands and waters, informed by the strength and wisdom of Indigenous elders, accelerated through our experience with Totem Latamat and the fire ceremony. 

I receive a gift from Professor Graham Harvey (the modest and wise) - an ancient piece of yew. As we prepare to leave, we make a promise to reconnect. Later, as we share food to celebrate the birthday of Ariane, I am honoured to hand on this yew pendant - to share the gift.  I realise the importance of us working together, the strength of our young along with the wisdom of elders, the nurturing of our mothers, the feminine wisdom of Pachamama along with the masculine energy of Pachapapa, and collective leadership of our communities as a whole.

Monday, November 01, 2021

Totem in Hexham

 Guest Blog by The Rev’d David Glover 

Totem Latamat outside Hexham Abbey

As TOTEM LATAMAT makes its journey towards Glasgow for Cop26, we are asking people who encounter it along the way to write guest pieces about their response.   David Glover is Chaplain to the Queen, and Rector of Hexham Abbey.

We were delighted to welcome the Totem to Hexham Abbey. It looked stunning and dramatic set against the backdrop of our ancient Abbey Church - the contrast in styles reminding us of both our diversity and interconnectedness as peoples of the earth. 

The Totem attracted a host of curious visitors but also a lot of families who took part in a Treasure Trail around the Totem and the Abbey and engaged with important environmental issues. The Totem also acted as a stimulus for an excellent talk by Prof. Graham Harvey in which he both explained the Totem’s imagery but also stressed the vital insights that Indigenous people offer to the environmental challenge. I was particularly challenged by the idea that most in the developed world behave as ‘Human Supremacists’ towards the earth and that Indigenous peoples do not distinguish between human activity and the natural world but are entirely interdependent. 

Thank you for stimulating and challenging us at this crucial moment in our world’s life.