How Did My Own Ancestors Build Relationships with The Neighbours? (In Which I’m Just Spitballing…)

So I started reading a book (big surprise). I fact, I’ve been reading a bunch of books, including a few on the archaeological remains of the pre-Christian British Isles. But the book I started yesterday is called How Forests Think (Eduardo Kohn) and it’s both fascinating and a bit of a slog, if only because it’s academic writing and I’m out of practice so even reading relatively accessible academic writing is a bit chewy to get through. But it’s got some really neat ideas so far.
So far granted, being Page Ten.
BUT, from what I can parse through ten pages of introduction, this book is about expanding the (very white) discipline of anthropology – the study of how human being related to each other and the world we exist in – to include how the other lives in that world relate to us. That “relating to” isn’t just about Us telling stories about The Other, but also how They tell stories about Us and each other and, maybe most particularly, about how WE as distinct human and non-human (and animal and non-animal, for that matter) cultures co-create stories about the relationships we have with each other.
 
Which is awesome!
 
And which is also a “weird” way of thinking, if you’re White People. Either a very, very new possibility for our collective/canonical thought or – more likely – a very, very old one that we, ourselves, forgot – and tried to get everyone else to forget, too – but that other people have successfully hung onto despite our shitty best efforts.
 
You guys. I want this to be a Pagan way of thinking.
 
Like, I’m not sure it’s even possibly to “re-indigenize” myself, as a woman of Scottish/Brittish, German, and otherwise variously European ancestry while living as a settler and a colonizer on someone else’s land. And I’m aware that, on some level, I’m still thinking of myself as “the boss of them” when it comes to the other mammals who share my (“my”) yard, and that my relationships with them remain fairly extractive in nature. But. I do want to develop this kind thinking in myself. As a pagan, as someone who cultivates and harvests and eats non-human people, I want to cultivate (further) the understanding that they are people. People who may think about me and my existence, and/or who may relate with me if I open up and allow for that to happen.
 
Anyway.
Back to this book. The idea, the author says, is to explore ways to view ourselves (qua humans) as distinct AND part of a larger conversation or part of a larger whole/community of relationships and kinships that include non-human and non-animal people rather than thinking of ourselves (qua humans) as the only kind of life that has a worldview or relates to other lives.
Which… duh. Anyone who’s so much as met somebody else’s pet knows that animals other than us relate to, and form relationships with, members of their own and other species.
And I like that.
 
One of the reasons I like digging into paleoanthropology and pre-medieval archaeology of Scotland and Northern England is because it might, maybe-maybe, give me an idea of how my own ancestors might, hypothetically, have related to a world that they knew related to them, too.
 
To be honest, I want to find evidence that we were getting it right, once upon a time. Long before feudalism and the idea that a single person could own a vast swath of land and dictate how everyone else who lived there could access or interact with it. Before Christianization. Before Rome. What we were like in the Iron Age? What were we like earlier than that?
But the information I’ve got – through library books and BBC documentaries – feels so… scattered.
Like, I know about the deer masks and the possibility that they were involved in some kind of shape-shifting… thing. And I know about the heaps of shells and the burials with seal flippers. I know about how all the rivers and wells were sacred. How gods were location-specific. How you got to, or became part of, the world of non-corporeal-intelligences by dying (the river goddesses who became so by drowning in their respective rivers, the “passage graves” that were also faerie mounds).
 
That stuff tells me that seals were relevant. That deer were relevant. That specific places were marked out as Special. It tells me that my ancestors, like every human being pretty much ever, most likely created rituals around uncertain events (like hunting or traveling or dying) to attempt to grant us either a little control or a little negotiating power or a little good luck or favour, because those things might help get us the results we hope for rather than any kind of worst case scenario.
It tells me that seals may have been connected to the afterlife. Like the stories of selkies, it suggests that maybe there’s a relationship there that involves shape-shifting/skin-shifting and that maybe also involves mixing families.
 
Basically, I can extrapolate very broadly from the few bits of actual information available, and then tell myself a story – one that may not be at all accurate – that says “My very distant ancestors may have had a story that said we/they were related to seals. This relationship may have made it okay for us to (a) hunt them OR (b) harvest fish and shellfish from the seashore or the ocean itself, specifically because we are also ‘of the ocean’ in a way that other predators, like wolves or lynx, are not”.
Think also of the Welsh (were they ever more broadly Brythonic?) stories about Anwyn – the otherworld that is “very deep” and quite probably an island – and how you get to the land of the dead via the water, you become a goddess of a river by drowning in it. The people under the hill, and the people under the waves, were – at least some of them – our ancestors’ ancestors.
…Maybe.
 
So… did we have a relationship – like a literal, familial-in-some-way relationship – with the seals?
Maybe?
Did we – meaning literally my “we”, the Selgovae who lived by the water just north of Hadrian’s Wall, the people of what was eventually the Kingdom of Strathclyde (what is now northern England and southern Scotland) – have something similar with the red deer? “The Selgovae” is what Ptolemy called us. “The Hunters”. Did we skin-walk to negotiate with the deer folk? Did their sprits speak through us or borrow our bodies?
The Red Deer Frontlet masks/“masks” at Star Carr (contemporary northern Yorkshire, or about a week’s walk from my Ancestral Seat in Galloway/Dumfries) hint that maybe this was A Thing for My People a whole 11,000 years ago.
But, again, we don’t actually know.
I certainly don’t.
And that was a looooong time gone.
 
Anyway. As I said, I’m only on Page Ten of this book. I have no idea how forests – or meadows or, most relevantly, the scrubby disturbed-earth that makes up a lot of That Other Space in urban areas – think, or might think, or might be inclined to have relationships of any kind with me.
 
But a place to start – at least according to a Druid I got to talk to not that long ago – is to notice and recognize, to pay attention and acknowledge, to say Hello to the non-human people you meet who aren’t just directly-related to humans (e.g.: a dog on a literal leash, or your friend’s favourite succulent – although sure, them, too). Go out. Say Hello. Start – or keep on – getting to know The Neighbours.

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