Having the whole day to get from Waterloo in western Ontario back to Toronto for my evening flight back to the UK, I decide to drive North for the afternoon to seek some wilderness. The intense discourse of the Community Music (CM) conference at Wilfrid Laurier university has moved me, raising some difficult and challenging questions for me, and I need to connect with some earth.
All my life I’ve lived with the presence of the Cumbrian landscape in my blood and my bones, and since 2008 on my arm in the form of a tattoo of the cup and ring markings found on the Little Meg stone near Penrith. Like The Levellers, ‘I like to walk in ancient places – these are things that I can understand.’ However, the culture of our Neolithic forebears is not a ‘living’ tradition – it has been lost, re-invented, re-imagined and re-claimed by all those who draw inspiration from the enduring legacy of the monuments they left behind.
All that is certain is that – like us - our ancestors must also have stood and been amazed by the power of the ancient stones that litter our European shores. I’ve always found a comfort in knowing that I’m just one of a series of humans over many centuries to be inspired by our stone circles and ancient places. The mystery of not really knowing what meaning my ancestors ascribed to these monuments gives me permission to make my own meaning of them.
So it stabs me through the heart to be confronted by the reality of the indigenous experience at the CM conference, which I’ve obviously always known about, or thought I did. There’s certainly a sadness for me in acknowledging that the wisdom of my Celtic ancestors - who built the Neolithic monuments in Europe that have been so much a part of my own identity - has been suppressed and oppressed by more dominant ‘incoming’ – or invading - cultures. But this sadness pales starkly at the realisation that this hegemonic process of cultural imperialism is a living reality for so many people across the planet. Right now.
I feel like I’ve been living my life in a bubble, free to use my position of privilege to make my own cultural meaning of my surroundings, while the ancient living wisdom of many cultures is torn apart and cruelly destroyed, through inhuman processes like the ‘residential schools’ in Canada where indigenous children were taken to be separated from their parents, to cut the vital cord between them and their ancestors, their culture, their land. The generational hurt is overwhelmingly horrific – it literally makes me feel sick.
The rift that I feel between my experience of the land, and that of my ancestors, is a nostalgic longing for something that can never be; the oral wisdom passed down from generation to generation was snuffed out centuries ago. The rift that is happening right now for generations of indigenous people across the planet is a real and brutal severing of the cultural equivalent of their spinal cord, leaving a raw wound in place of thousands of years of cultural knowledge. Many of the stories I’ve heard this week bear testimony to this most cruel of assaults.
On the flight over to Canada, I listened to a great interview with Jared Diamond, who was talking about his recent book which discusses – among other things - that there are still some indigenous peoples on the planet – mainly in New Guinea and the Amazon basin - who have not yet had ‘first contact’ with ‘white people’. As we become a global society, how do we protect the ancient wisdom of these, our most adapted citizens, who have learned over millennia how to live with the resources of the earth rather than exploit them?
My response to the feelings of shame, guilt and sorrow that I felt at my brief exposure to the experience of the indigenous people of Canada is the same as I usually respond to those feelings – a compulsion to be somewhere remote and to make music, to honour the earth and to humbly offer my imperfect outpourings of song as a way of expressing my commitment to living better and more honourably. To live up to the promise I made to the gods my people swear by to do so. To know that the spirit in me, and the spirit in the land, is the same spirit.
And that’s how I came to be making a ‘singing postcard from nowhere’ on Beausoleil Island in Georgian Bay. Dave, the water taxi driver who ferried me over, told me I was the first person he’d taken onto Beausoleil this year, and I encountered no-one during the few hours I was there. The island is just awakening from its annual slumber, the green fuse of spring igniting and exploding through the crust of fallen leaves. The wind is strong, and the views of Georgian Bay and the start of the 30,000 Islands are awesome and inspiring.
I see few signs of life – a flash of white in the undergrowth once, quickly vanishing. Fortunately none of the rattlesnakes which live on the Georgian Bay islands. As I crash through the undergrowth surrounding Fairy Lake in the north part of the island, I feel reasonably confident that any native wildlife would have heard me coming a long time before they could see me, and headed elsewhere.
However, there is a flock of huge birds which rise and circle over me while I sing in Frying Pan Bay, and I am suddenly reminded of two stories I’ve heard this week. Darren Thomas (his ‘English;’ name), the elder whose powerful and challenging welcome to the indigenous lands the university is built on, tells us that the smudging ceremony he leads us through is partly to do with cleansing us of any ill intent we bring with us, but also partly a way of asking ‘who are you and what do you want here’?
My colleague and friend Brydie Leigh-Bartleet recounts another tale; a beautiful story of sitting out under the night sky with her indigenous Australian mentor, watching birds circle overhead and being told that they are spirits, the ancestors curiously investigating this stranger in their midst. I realise with a shock that the birds of Beausoleil Island are checking me out; they want to know who I am and what do I want here?
And so I sing, because it’s the only way I have of demonstrating that I bring no evil intent with me. And my song is of my land, far away; the quiet places like this where no-one ever goes, the simple act of breathing on the earth, and the sacred union we make when we sing together in its bounty. As I sing, the birds settle back down into the trees. Nothing to see here; no threat.
When I sing in and with the land, wherever I am, I know who I am. It is a primal connection which never fails to soothe my insecurities and my fears. They are songs that I’ve made up, because I have none that have been passed down to me from ancestors thousands of years distant. Their words and songs only exist now in the natural world which inspired them, and which continue to inspire me.
But the song is the same song – the one that celebrates our inhabitation of this place, this amazing earth, this beautiful land. This invented ancestry which gives me succour throws the damage wrought upon indigenous people into stark relief. Theirs is a living tradition, a bloodline of culture unbroken for thousands of years. It is perhaps our greatest treasure and highest achievement as a species. The reality of the destruction of indigenous culture across the globe is a hurt which we all must feel. It is an assault on all of us, and we all have an obligation to do something about it.