a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
We Almost Didn’t Make It:
Stories from Our Decendants
Long after the dust of your bones has become an anthill, the pulp of a tree trunk or mist on a window, there is an echo, a sweet voice thrumming in a distant clearing, a pulse in an elder’s temple, mud slapped together with straw – some signal that says: we continue, look at us, grasp our hands and help us get here.
Flyer sits, trying to follow her breath on the flat stone. She climbed up the hill before sunset to spend the night alone, but it has taken until moonrise to get centered. She is impatient. Flyer has been called to do this, but she doesn’t feel ready. It is her time, but her inner 10-year old in her 20-year old body is causing a commotion. Although she understands the huge merits of this ritual, this initiation, every cell in her body wants to flee. She can hear the support team drumming down the hill, where they sit in her honor, staying warm around a fire pit. She reminds herself that she has her water pouch, her whistle, her knife, but none of those tools will serve her during this journey.
As the night chill sweeps in, she pulls her blankets a little closer. She studies the top blanket more carefully, noticing the weave of one patch, an intricate web and woof of faded blues and purples that has been meticulously hand stitched onto a worn spot. Contemplating the neat rows of tiny threads reminds her of all the ancestors who helped to make and remake this warmth. Reflecting on all those lives offers some comfort, but there’s also unease; she hopes to visit with them tonight. Some of their stories will not be easy to hear or witness. She hovers in that in-between place, a state of mind she knows too well, while she notices some loose threads and resists pulling on them.
Her eyes gaze out to the horizon as she moves her breath deeper into her belly. The movements of the stars reassure her—they are more predictable than any other aspect of their lives. There are songs to that effect, such as: “we don’t know when the rains will stop but the moon will pull the tides where they need to be…”
Flyer gets anxious as she hears indistinct sounds in the distance. What is tonight’s threat? There are memories in her DNA that are triggering her – rogue intruders, wild fires, predators, but none of that is here now. She shivers, witnesses her breath shortening, and fiddles around, searching for the beads in her waist bag, and feels their smooth, cool surfaces. After a time, her breathing rhythm shifts into the quiet stillness she calls her home place. Her elders taught her to see that special place sitting between two parts of her brain, the Pit and Pin, that sweet spot behind the third eye where it’s possible to see beyond physical reality. She visualizes the center of her head filled with soft cushions to sit on, a fountain of clear water to drink from; there are gentle, lapping waves on one side, fragrant, green meadows on the other. Once at ease, and unbothered by anything external, she is able to tune into something larger than her own small self and imagines a chord of iridescent beads attaching from her tail bone to the center of the earth. From the top of her head, a sparkling net of light spreads out, connecting her to both the collective of living beings and the energy of ancestor spirits. She winds that net around her a few times and goes into trance.
Trance space is an interesting one. After many generations of practice, there are pathways to go into the past and other strategies to arrive in the future. Flyer will begin her work to find her ancestors and like a good archeologist she will pick up new shards of evidence every time she visits. In particular, her passion is focused on looking for information directly connected to the shift. The songs have been frustrating in their vagueness. She wants to connect with an ancestor who helped to open the door to the reality they live in.
She walks through a long tunnel filled with every human and animal sound. It could be deafening, but it is not. There’s frantic shouting at first, groaning from pain, weeping, growling, snoring, then some light laughter rises to the surface, some humming and as it quiets, a sigh grabs her attention.
Flyer looks towards the sigh and there she finds a young woman, strong, brown and pregnant. Flyer asks permission to enter the young woman’s consciousness. She, who is named Beezi, says, “yes” thinking that Flyer is her spirit guide. Flyer transmits, “I am here to learn from you,” and Beezi who has been sitting in meditation herself, smiles and returns to her breath.
Beezi sits, massaging her worn and calloused hands. She can hear the whole hive humming. It’s a cacophony of sound, one that suggests safety and welcome. There have not been enough babies in recent generations, so the gift of this one is not taken for granted. Beezi is somewhat dumbfounded by the changes in her body, the large swelling and heat in her center, a desire to make beauty everywhere and to make love often and the tenderness she feels towards every living thing. Her strength is variable, some days she can walk for long periods and other days she is sluggish. Many of these shifts have been explained in the circle gathering, where elders share bits of their memories, carefully editing out the sad ones. But Beezi already knows about the decades of miscarriages and there’s nothing to be done about that except to keep trying. She is fine with the trying part, because it is mostly fun and often ecstatic. All genders own their sexuality now–shame has been eliminated from the process.
There are three skilled midwives in the hive, trained by teams that visited from across the mountains, so she is not so worried. Two healthy babies have been delivered in the past year. And if this baby does not arrive, there will be grieving once again; the rituals for the latter are intrinsic to their lives.
Beezi understands that the whole community wants to live this birth together, but she has noticed that she wants more privacy. To honor that impulse, she sits away from everyone; across the meadow in a place that offers her some cover from the prying eyes of others.
Her mind moves in many directions at once; its energy like that of the rare, green grasshopper she discovered earlier that morning. From a distance she can hear the members of her hive. They are busy with the tasks of living: hauling, lifting, pounding and stirring, tasks that never seem to end. She allows herself to feel that rhythm as joy rather than drudgery, because they are safe now, for the moment, there is water and the gardens are producing this year. Their permaculture ancestors taught them to live in balance with the resources available and to use everything available, efficiently. They’ve not strayed from that teaching. They’ve been able to adapt. A new regional council has been formed between the nomadic bands that inhabit the area, and the violence of bullying neighbors has ceased. The councils meet when the weather allows for travel to make sure that peaceful negotiations around resources continue. There have been many marriages between large extended families of different bands and that has promoted peace. Bickering and conflict is still common, but there are many counselors and games for sorting things out. It has been a blessing to feel such abundance after two generations of endless war, sickness, hunger and hardship.
Contemplating all of this has made Beezi feel optimistic for her child’s future, despite the illnesses that still spring up without warning and the shortage of knowledge for how to deal with them. Sometimes death seems to be only rhythm that the hive knows well, but they have survived and their gratitude songs speak of how death has been the biggest teacher.
Oaksa, one of the younger fathers of Beezi’s baby, is keeping an eye out for her, charged with feelings so complex that he finds himself drumming softly to steady himself. He is recalling her story from a day ago. She had returned from digging for roots, on the far side of the woods. Oaksa and others had suggested that someone accompany her (everyone was feeling protective) but she had wanted alone time then as well. She had come back to the camp all scratched up, with new rips in her clothing, smudges of dirt on her face and a huge smile on her face. The hive looked towards her with apprehension. She was carrying a strange harvest. Aside from a neat bundle of roots in her arms, slung over her shoulder was a large, white plastic bag, tightly bound with coated wires. It was bulging with something unfamiliar.
Oaksa and others watched uneasily as Beezi placed the bag gently onto the hard dirt surface of the main work area. There was a sad history with strange harvests–coughing and slow withering diseases brought on by poisons unearthed from sealed containers. She called to everyone present and began to recount what had happened, “While I was digging for roots on the far side of the woods, I suddenly tripped and fell into a soft, loamy pit. I didn’t want to get up for a minute. I was disoriented. So I stretched and breathed into every place I could feel. As I did this, my foot found a hard smooth surface, something strange, not from these woods, but from the old world. I crawled until I could touch it with my stick and scratched the ground. It was a smooth in places and eroded in others. I pushed away the debris, and found a cracked lid of a chest. I was able to lift up the damaged panel and found this bag. I couldn’t open it alone, so I came back to get your help and open it together.”
Purla, mouse-like in her movements, went scurrying off to find the shared bundle of tools. She was in charge of this precious cargo and had taught everyone multiple uses for each tool. She returned with well-used pliers to pull and stretch the wires apart, and got to work while Beezi held the bag. Whatever wasn’t corroded could be reused, so she worked the tangle with grace. They were masters of reuse.
The wires were removed and hands pushed the large bulge to the bag’s opening. What emerged almost without sound (except for the gasps of the group), appeared like a giant pod-like form, made of some sort of pulp. It was multi-colored; strange symbols scored in its surface. Unfamiliar seeds were embedded in the rough texture. Beezi and her peers stared at the strange artifact trying to decipher its meaning and origin, and everyone began speaking at once. An elder interrupted the buzz of voices and suggested that the artifact be placed on the altar until people had calmed themselves. The community reluctantly shifted gears, some slowly returning to necessary tasks, while others drummed quietly until a meditative state was accessible.
All of these recent memories are tumbling through Oaksa’s mind as he waits for Beezi to return.
And Beezi is doing her own sort of tumbling through time. Since early childhood she has heard stories about her ancestors. The stories were sung in different rituals. Some of them were hard to believe, and some were so sad that the elders would cry while singing. Stories of selfishness and cruelty were the most difficult to untangle. She felt sorry for the ancestors who were hated, feared and punished for being different and would send them blessings, bathing their wounded hearts and minds, during ceremonies.
There were also moments of extraordinary and unexpected kindness as things became more difficult with the climate changing, and that without that love, they would not be here today. As a child, she was told that those ancestors’ bodies, all of them, from the ones who shaped the miracles, to the confused and abusive, have become earth beneath her feet and she imagined them gleefully holding up her springy step.
She starts to sing a curiosity song as she walks with deliberate steps back to the cob dwellings. Some of the others in the band hear her and call out words or tap rhythms to strengthen her spirit. Even as she feels warmed by the support, a cloud of worry begins to settle in somewhere. She notices it, but keeps singing.
Beezi and her people move with the seasons, and the seasons are unpredictable. Up to the caves in the hills when the rains are intense, out to their mud and straw structures in the woodlands and meadows during the short window when things can be planted and harvested, and when the heat is too much, they head down to the coast. They, like their parents and parent’s parents, are gatherers and scavengers. Sometimes their efforts have been desperate, and hunger is in very recent memory. They get most of their protein from plants and eggs. Her elders remember times with lots of sickness and the places where illness seemed to dwell. They sang about the poisons created by long ago ancestors who did not think about their children and spoiled the fragile nest they lived in.
As these feelings crept into her chest, causing an ache, she hummed a gratitude chant for all the ancestors who managed to survive, allowing her to be there.
The new artifact is not at all like the most common debris that the band finds, the plastic broken stuff that litters the edges of pools, creates odd sentinels on the beach and pops out of the soil when digging for tubers. For as long as she can remember, one of the bands’ preoccupations other than creating the necessary forms for survival, was gathering plastic. It was understood that collecting this stuff was necessary, a part of their work as survivors. Plastic was everywhere and binding it together and containing it as altars and signposts would act as a reminder to future generations. Some of these altars were beautiful, with intricate patterns of color and shape. Others seemed more carelessly thrown together because the group was being hurried by weather. Never completely finished, the people would sing to these altars, and pray that the smaller critters, bacteria and mycelium, would eventually turn them back into something inert. It was understood, although not in all its complexity, that the pervasiveness of plastic was part of what sickened the ancestors.
Beezi goes back to her dwelling to drink from the rain catcher, and then sits down near the pod-like artifact sitting on the center altar and studies its markings. The surface reminds her of the walls of caves she saw as a child. Scribbled with thick and thin lines of charcoal and other faded colors from paints that no longer exist, the walls told stories. There were many narrators. Some spoke with symbols that were hard to decipher; others were more direct and spoke of hardships, difficult journeys and gave warnings. Since there was no guarantee that the group would ever find their way back to a particular cave, the elders had decided to turn the information they gathered into songs, songs that would be taught to the children so that the stories would not disappear.
Beezi walks quietly to sit on a log polished by many behinds in the talking circle. She graduated to this spot, the most comfortable one, with her pregnancy. As she sits down, she sighs with the weight she carries from both the growing life and new questions brewing inside. She comforts herself by caressing the loose dirt with her feet.
Soon, without so much as a chirp or whistle, the members of her extended family join her. Lots of things happen via telepathy now. It’s a skilled that’s been honed for generations. There’s some playful teasing going on to break the tension. Masha moves slowly and deliberately, using a walking stick for balance, as she heals from a recent injury. Purla does a hip-thrusting dance just behind Masha to help raise her energy, and everyone cracks up. Dust is kicked up by all the activity. Everyone greets Beezi with enthusiasm, glad for the break in domestic chores. Still and Stem, the twins, look over the mud wall separating them from the circle. They feign a look of being too busy to be bothered, but at the last moment, they smile with twinkling eyes and carry their work of sorting seeds into the mix.
Beezi reminds everyone about the words of the elder named Looman, a wise two-spirit who traveled from each extended family cluster to another. S/he warned that the treasures underground, while important to unearth, might create conflict and that there contents could be disturbing and distracting, but ultimately unavoidable. Looman encouraged them to approach new discoveries with their best tools: mindful breathing and deep listening. With this acknowledgment, Masha starts a song to nourish their hearts, bodies and all the beings that could hear them.
But in the midst of all this gentleness, Oaksa begins to fidget. He has an impulse to speak, but what emerges is more like a shout. He expresses impatience with all of his body, jumping up from his seat to emphasize his feelings, and the words emerge, “STOP, just stop this now…I am scared. Remember my parents, Paulo, Rosita, Lucky and Spy and the can they opened? They wanted to protect us, so they did it privately and then they died so quickly none of us could even say good-bye. We still don’t know what killed them.”
Everyone looks at him and the rest of those gathered with alarm, but Stem gently steps towards Oaksa with a comforting gesture, and says, “We know that there are dangers, but we have to take risks every day. We must trust that not everything we open will kill us.” Beezi returns to her breath and says quietly but firmly, “Unveiling the mysteries of the past can trigger deep trauma…we will hold you and each other through our fears, little brother.” She reaches into a small bag of round pebbles on her waist and casts them into the circle. They form a constellation that is readable. Everyone agrees that it is time to examine the artifact.
Beezi carefully removes the artifact from the altar and notices that there’s a seam like that of a bean circumnavigating the pod. She works her skilled fingers carefully along that line. She applies some pressure and then almost without effort, the object pops open revealing a womb-like space that holds a densely folded paper, creased like a switchback trail. The smell is musty but pleasant. Everyone gasps. Hands reach in to pull the leaves of the inside apart and images and words appear. More excited sounds ripple through the group. Stems and Still, the twins begin to argue about how to do this properly, and Beezi asks them to notice their impatience and they grunt in unison.
Everyone looks carefully at the mysterious forms marking the delicate paper, each understanding that their ancestors are reaching towards them. Beezi starts to chant while Purla startles everyone with a dance. Still and Stems draw some of the shapes they see in the dirt, investing them with all their feelings of excitement and Oaksa catches the rhythm of it all in his drumming.
Flyer is interrupted in her trance by the songs of the dawn creatures. She expresses gratitude to Beezi for this short visit into her life and begins her descent to the fire pit. She is eager to share what she has learned.
Beverly Naidus is an interdisciplinary artist, author and educator based in Seattle, WA. Early recognition in the NYC art world offered her many opportunities to exhibit her interactive installations and digital works in diverse venues, including mainstream museums and city streets. Inspired by lived experience, topics in her art are often focused on environmental and social issues. She facilitates a unique, interdisciplinary, socially engaged, studio arts curriculum, for the UW Tacoma campus and leads workshops in her Seattle studio. She is the author of Arts for Change: Teaching Outside the Frame and numerous essays. Her work has been critically discussed by Lucy Lippard and many others. She has served as guest lecturer and led workshops all over North America and in Europe.