Bone Woman Blog


In the Territory of Memory


Recently, in the wake of returning from Ireland and being with the neolithic Standing Stones, and the unfolding ceremony of events at Standing Rock, I dreamed a dream of words

the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory

I had gone to Ireland to walk the land of my ancestors, of my dead. Finding my republic of Ireland kin only recently, I wanted to walk where they walked in the prayer that the land who they had loved, who had loved them, had given birth to them, would speak to me as a daughter. Claim me.

I have been looking to be claimed by clan my whole life. It’s an embarrassing admission at sixty-seven open to accusations of wanna-be, and all kinds of psychoanalytic interpretations. But it’s true and I’m training myself not to use the psychologized language of obsession to describe this unceasing desire to find the through line of my people.

I’ve come to believe that my dead, their memories, their stories are calling to me, are longing for me. That somewhere in the ley lines of my soul they live. They’re not perfect, not ideal, but they carry knowledge of the way to live with earth as kin, to pay debt to the Spirits of the land, to live as a full human being.

Chief of the Cherokee, Wilma Mankiller once said something like this to her people – if you follow the through line of your people you will be alright. I have not one bit of Native American blood in my veins, yet her words spoke to me deeply. The through line. John Berger writes, in his On The Economy of Dead, “the dead surround the living. The living are the core of the dead. In this core are the dimensions of time and space. What surrounds the core is timelessness.” He speaks of rare exchanges between the core and its surroundings, which are mystical in nature and often not clear. He goes on to say that before the dehumanization of society by capitalism the living and dead were interdependent and that religion used to be concerned with these mystical exchanges. Long before organized religion, reverence for and communication with the ancestors was the spiritual foundation of many old cultures.

At its language root, memory refers to “the reduplication of base. To be concerned for, be anxious about, think, consider, remember.” Telling the old stories again and again, generation after generation. Telling them the stories of the Ancestors, the land, this stone, how that peak called to us to gather, that migration, this famine, stories of suffering and endurance and beauty sink deep roots in the soul of the young. Offering them a through line to hone to.

The barely surviving, but resurging indigenous people of this land and time carry their own diverse cultures that, I believe, echo what many of us of European lineage have lost. I am charged to remember what I was never told. I am called to remember the stories that I am sure run in my bloodlines. I am called to remember and honor the stories of my dead. And out of these rememberings to help create a viable earth culture, where species speak to each other, where we learn to become full human beings in relation to each other, the earth, our dead, our ancestors.

So many are doing this. Apprenticing to the land, to the wind, the water, the stars. We search old texts, read between lines of ancient poetry, follow the wild text of our animal kin through snow and mud, and dream. We use our hands in the old ways of making to uncoil the remembering in our blood and brain. We search for the nearly lost ways, in my case, of Gaelic cultures, for the vapor trail of the last Elders now crossing to the Otherworld. And we dream.

the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory

I am a woman woven of four bloods. Is the soul of each blood different? I am of Scots, Irish, English and Scandinavian descent. I am a daughter of those Puritans who first immigrated to North America and settled what is now Cape Cod and Massachusetts, and Windsor, Connecticut. Some of my Scots people came in 1718, fleeing Ulster in northern Ireland and moving into Maine and Canada. My great, great grandparents, Elizabeth and Joseph emigrated in 1872 from Northern Ireland to settle in Enfield, CT. My Irish ancestors, from County Cork, Morris and Mary came before the famine, settling eventually in Machias, Maine where they established a successful lumber business.

I am a woman woven of four bloods. I am a daughter of Occupiers, whose ancestors occupied Wampanoag, Pequot, Mohawk, Maliseet and other indigenous homelands. Who established homesteads on stolen territory, declaring rights to thousands-of-years-old established hunting and fishing grounds. I am descended from Indian fighters, who fought in the Pequot War and King Philip wars defending their rights to stolen land. I am descended from hard workers, and hard fighters. People honed razor sharp by their history of persecution by the British, the Vikings and the Romans. They came here and proceeded to do exactly what had been done to them, seemingly without much question and often motivated by terror of what they saw as wilderness, and savage. And savage is how the British described the Irish, distinguishing them from “whiteness” and civilization which the British laid claim to for themselves.

There is no doubt that those who came here from other lands and from whose blood I am descended suffered. That some of them came here desperate and fleeing hardship, tyrants and starvation. But this not the whole story, nor is it the only version I can lay claim to.

As I traveled through Ireland, thousands of North American indigenous peoples gathered in North Dakota to stop the expansion of the pipeline under the Missouri River. They call themselves the Water Protectors and they understand their actions to stop the pipeline as ceremony. They make a human wall of prayer and dissent, to obstruct the private and public militarized police forces who have come to remove them with dogs, rubber bullets, pepper sprays, and sound cannons. And legislation. They stand in faith with the old ways, the ways they know are in alliance with mother earth, water is life. The old laws.

I am a woman of four bloods. The English warred on the Irish and the Scots, the Ulster Scots then occupied the land of the Irish. And then there are the Vikings. As I prepared to and as I traveled in Ireland, there was a war between my bloods. The old wars had become interior, now an internal dialogue of longing, prohibitions, rights or lack of. Where do I have the right to walk, what earth can I claim as kin? Who am I? Where are my people? To what land am I kinned? Stephen Jenkinson says that for people of European descent, home is no longer a place, it is a skill. How to home?

As we traveled I was continually yet subtly reminded of the devastations inflicted on the Irish people by the British and the Ulster Scots. Each time the dawning sense of familiarity with the sacred iconography of passage tombs and standing stones and with the people who created them, a growing sense of kinship, was shrouded with heart-ache and a responsibility not to deny the whole of my lineage.

The rain pelted, stinging against our faces, our rain gear ballooned, and snapped in the wind as we climbed over the green step ladder straddling the cow fence, allowing us passage while securing the cows. A very large and beautiful cow, her sides bulging with calf, stood watching us enter and proceed up through the wet cow pasture where large cow paddies sitting on tufts of green grass glistened with pooled water as we stepped carefully around them navigating the boggish ground.

The tall stones sit on the hill, they are there now, under the low sky, arranged in a circle. Immense, silent witnesses to timelessness. In the center a flat stone sat laden with offerings and prayers. On that day, I approached the north stone, and slipped behind it. Taller than the other stones, aligned with the north star, it stands a bit outside the circle.

Hidden, I lean into the rough granite, mossy and licked by cow’s tongues, and I weep long-stored tears. I have been remembered. And I have remembered. I rub my tears onto this old memory keeper, I lick the rough stone and I pray. I want to stay forever.

Leaving, I am reminded of my grief at having to leave my father’s people after rare visits. My people who I might not see again, if so, only rarely. My connection to him. I felt I was leaving kin and I turned as many times as I could to catch a last glimpse of the family of stones.

the Constitution does not protect the territory of memory

Indigenous peoples of the world know what land has been given to them to protect, to call home, a right given by the land itself, by their deep intimacy with that earth, the water, the animals, the plants. The land of Ireland is filled with cairns, passage graves, standing stones, sacred burial grounds, and ceremonial sites acknowledging the Otherworld of the ancestors. Mysterious, inscribed stones, taking generations to complete, speak a language known by the heart and our old memory. Of tectonic forces and old powers of creation, of sun and moon, of what and who is sacred to a people.

The people of Standing Rock in North Dakota stand for protecting the sacred. They have experience hundreds of years of devastating oppression and it’s attendant poverty and despair. And yet, there are the memory keepers, the Elders. They stand now for their old ways and while I hadn’t intended to make this about them, how could it not be? Are they carried by the Standing Rocks, those keepers of mother earth’s memory? Might we all be? The Constitution does not protect the terrain of memory, no.

But neither can it regulate nor legislate memory, because memory in the earth, in the stones of earth, written in scripts all over the world. Waiting. Perhaps it is they, these abiding keepers of memory who enter our dreams, who speak to us of ancient possibilities and ways.

A through line. To home.

John Berger, “On The Economy of the Dead,” Harpers Magazine, September 2008.

Ernest Klein Etymology, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Elsevier Publishing Co., New York 1967

2 responses to “In the Territory of Memory

  1. Susan Bradley November 26, 2016 at 1:14 pm

    Nora, this is powerful and beautiful and nourishing. ‘In the Territory of Memory’ stirs deep down in the ley lines of my soul. I love the description of your approach to the North stone, it lights up all my senses. Love, Susan

  2. Dorothy Mason November 30, 2016 at 8:11 am

    A strong and deep remembering wakes again in me of the reciprocity between human and land, ancestors and creatures, kin and power of place. All of them holy conversations. Thank you for this beautiful offering. Loving gratitude, Dorothy

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