Ceremony for the spirit
Matsuo Basho 1644-1694
The extent of the death toll attributed to Covid 19 is not yet clear and is being determined by various, differing methods of registering and collecting the data. But on this day as I write, it is calculated that there have been between 50,000 and 65,000 Covid related deaths in the UK alone. Global deaths to date, are thought to be in excess of 1,300,000
But what do the shockingly anonymous numbers and data visualisation charts communicated to us via the media, actually mean? How do we begin to fully understand their impact, to move towards sense-making and acceptance. How will we gauge what changes or adaptions will be needed to our individual and communal ways of life?
How can the emptiness of numbers assist us to do that?
Since the outset of the pandemic I have experienced the clinical rationality of statistics to be relentlessly reductive: a limiting, narrowed measure of human experience. The constant data collection and modeling disregards the reality of emotions: of fear, grief and loss; anger, helplessness. Seen only in stark isolation, the obsessive counting forms a block, a cul-de-sac, rather than a bridge to understanding.
So to aid my own progress in this, I felt the need for an expressive act – a ceremony to acknowledge grief for lives lost. So many loved ones suddenly gone. I wanted to try to assimilate, to make sense of what has happened in order to begin to assess its significance.
‘Co(i)mmunity’. May 2020
Through my work as a teacher and researcher, I have become increasingly aware of art and craft practice as methods not just of making artworks or objects, for sale or reproduction, but as contemplative, embodied practices in their own right. I see their potential as viable methods of communing with the ‘more-than-human world’. David Abram* coined this phrase in his book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ to contend with the false dichotomy he sees between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, and to describe the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural world.
Anthropological studies of indigenous peoples have used the term ‘animism’ to encompass beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in other animals, in plants, rocks, landscape features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, shadows – and trees. By taking up this focus, I’ve been able to learn of the growing understanding throughout the world that ecological renewal and sustainability depend upon spiritual awareness and an attitude of respect and responsibility towards the Earth.
During a visit to Japan, I saw ancient temples and their beautiful garden settings. These introduced me to aspects of Japanese belief systems and relationships with nature. I learnt of the art of impermanence, ‘wabi sabi’, a concept from Japanese aesthetics, which sees beauty in imperfection and simplicity and accepts the transient nature of all things. Other sources of inspiration have been the works of UK artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long.
Over the last 6 years or so, I’ve been exploring methods that can stimulate and channel authentic sensory experiences, to rediscover a symbiotic relationship with animate nature. For myself, as well as for others.
In late October and early November 2020, I worked alone (in addition to the Winckley Square collaborative activity, see earlier post), to make a series of ‘ephemeral memorials’ in the open spaces of Preston’s city centre parks. In each of these simple interventions (see examples below), I measured and marked out a two metre diameter circle in the centre of the densest area of leaf fall, under a particularly beautiful tree. Then I removed the fallen leaves that made up the random pattern of overlapping layers, from within the circle. The two meter diameter was my reference to the ‘safe’ space afforded to a person, by Covid science.
I sat a while each time, tuning in to the autumnal atmosphere, making connections to my surroundings. I felt the river flowing through, the lyrical shifts of light and shadow, listened to the voices of birds, saw their flight across clouds, and the dark soil of molehills. I sensed the metaphorical connections to pathways winding away into the distance, heard the wind rustling through the branches of trees. And I saw people passing by, living their lives.
Over following days I returned to the sites during walks, to see how the shapes had covered over, or blurred. On some days the circles even re-appeared slightly, because the wind had moved some of the top layer of most recently fallen leaves. Intriguingly, the circles were often more visible from a distance: the subtle disruption to the texture of leaf fall, more detectable from afar.
I found it comforting and insightful to witness this lessening of the presence of absence. I felt I’d made a connection to the Earth’s living system, through my simple ceremony. This seemed a more meaningful way to pay my respects in response to loss, than having to contend with the bewildering reductionism of statistics. Although it might appear a contradiction to link remembrance with the ephemeral, I found the paradox echoed the fleeting qualities of memory, and the role played by the passage of time in the interplay between remembering and forgetting. Of acceptance and healing.
And in my mind, the circles will always be there, in the parks, marked by each beautiful tree.
I believe that the incessant intrusion of science, politics, quantitative data and the media into every aspect of contemporary life, is inevitably unsatisfying and serves to highlight the extent of our disconnection from the natural world and how much this puts at risk. Covid is showing us that for all our technology, we humans understand so little and remain as vulnerable as ever.
But there are ways to find balance, recover, to accept change and continue to grow. There is still so much to learn from the Earth’s know-how, and many ways to do so.
*See more about David Abram and others, at the Alliance for Wild Ethics here
I also used the memorial making process to remember and celebrate the lives of my parents, Jack and Irene, who survived many difficult times and experiences, with resilience and optimism.