Drinking the Tears of the Earth: Lamentation Dance for Ecological and Ancestral Grief

Drinking the Tears of the Earth: Lamentation dance at The Black Stone Hermitage“Ours is a planet in pain. If you need me to convince you of that, if you are unaware of the destruction of forests, oceans, wetlands, cultures, soil, health, beauty, dignity, and spirit that underlies the System we live in, then I have nothing to say to you. I only am speaking to you if you do believe that there is something deeply wrong with the way we are living on this planet.

~ Charles Eisenstein, “The Way Up Is Down

Sacred endarkenment, the central theme of my creative work and monastic practice, is about deep listening (among other things). One aspect of deep listening is receiving the pain that is there.

I’ve observed that I carry a great deal of primal grief in my body in relation to the state of the Earth, and the inter-generational effects of the loss of my connection to the motherlands of my ancestors. Bone-deep grief lurks beneath our collective facade, and there are so few appropriate places to address it in our culture that we are mostly left to our own devices.

As I’ve written elsewhere, this primal grief that lives in my bones and flesh is something other than clinical depression, although depression can be one expression of it, or can co-exist alongside it. Even when my depression is well-controlled with medication, I feel ecological and ancestral grief on an individual level. Yet I’m also aware that the ultimate source of this grief is not locatable within me as an individual, so psychiatric medications and talk therapies are of limited use in addressing it.

In my blog post “Ancestral Grief and My Future Pilgrimage to Sweden,” I wrote:

“The magnitude of what’s been lost to me — culturally, linguistically, spiritually — as a polytheist and animist of Swedish and German ancestry who was born in Illinois, raised in Hawai’i, now lives in Oregon, and has never traveled to her ancestors’ native lands…I can’t even begin to comprehend it.”

Lamentation dance is one of the tools I use to bear witness to grief and mourning related to the inter-generational legacy of settler colonialism from the perspective of a person who was raised as a culturally white person in the US, and who unfairly benefits from the ongoing legacy of white supremacy and colonialism…but would like to move away from “whiteness” as an identity, and strengthen her links to her own ancestral heritage.

Yet how exactly am I to go about responsibly reclaiming my own ancestral traditions when I’m living in lands so far removed from those of my indigenous ancestors, and have not even been able to visit my ancestral motherlands, let alone live there? Indigenous peoples’ relationships with land are based on a kind of deep reciprocity that is incompatible with the extractive economy of extreme capitalism in the US. I’ve been studying the Swedish language for years, after learning that my grandparents spoke fluent Swedish but did not teach it to my mother. I have a devotional practice honoring Norse deities and spirits. But that deep reciprocity?  I’ve never experienced it, and I fear that I never will as long as I remain on lands haunted by the angry spirits of those that our ancestors committed genocide against.

I continued on:

“It’s hard to describe the constellation of complex and fascinating emotions that overtake me when I see photos of Swedish runestones, cairns, and labyrinths in Småland, or the ruins of an abbey in Östergötland, knowing that some of these places may have connections to Skaði, and that my own maternal ancestors have been traced to rural Småland (in Backaby and Skepperstad) and Östergötland (possibly Hycklinge). When Skaði first came to me in 2004, I knew nothing about Sweden, Norse mythology, or Heathenry.

“Norse roots educator Kari Tauring has some interesting things to say about inherited cultural grief. She writes:

“Earth is a planet in trauma, humans are a species in post-traumatic stress disorder. Core cultural values…are lost in the trauma of human grief and replaced with the rhetoric and marketing schemes of an over culture that makes money off of the unhealed human psyche.”

Awakening the Horse People has been encouraging for me on an intellectual level. But the endless waves of grief that arise as I contemplate all that has been lost to me…I don’t even know what to do with all the grief it dredges up. Lamentation dance barely even makes a dent in it – and yet, it’s still the most effective tool I’ve found thus far to deal with grief that my conscious mind can’t even begin to grasp.

 So I do my best to dance my grief – or, as is often the case, allow the grief to dance me.

This is one of the reasons I rarely perform in public. Lamentation dance calls for learning how to listen deeply to the land and my immediate surroundings – including the aesthetic and acoustic properties of the built environment, the spatial relationships among elements of my surroundings, and the atmosphere as a whole. That means it is not easily transferable to different environments. Finding spaces that facilitate the right mood, and the right atmosphere of service to the deities, the spirits, and the land, will always take precedence over the entertainment value of my dance. When I find those places, and learn to listen to what they have to say to me, often the first thing that arises is pain. So that is what I dance.

Vanda Scaravelli writes in Awakening the Spine (a book I highly recommend) that:

“The function of the body is to collect energy from the ground.”

That’s how I approach my dance, and my spiritual practice. The source of the energy that infuses it is the deep Earth.

I prefer to dance in acoustically resonant subterranean spaces that facilitate connections with the deep Earth – i.e., basements and caves.  I’d also love to dance to dark ambient music in the Dan Harpole cistern (aka the Cistern Chapel) in Port Townsend, WA, with its natural 45-second reverb.

When I started Dirge: Grief Ritual Dance, a Pinterest board to collect examples to help me contextualize this project, I had a difficult time finding any at all, let alone any that dealt with themes of ecological or ancestral grief.  There’s Martha Graham’s innovative Lamentation piece, which has inspired many variations, and may be one of the most well-known lamentation dances. Overall, though, it does not seem to be a common practice, especially not in the US.  I would like to see that change.

Iris J. Stewart writes in Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance that:

“A lamentation dance doesn’t necessarily have to be reserved for grieving physical death. Sometimes we need to grieve old losses, events from our childhood, an illness, or the end of a relationship. You may also dance through memories of trauma, assault, isolation, abandonment, anger, or failed relationships. Dancing the energy of grief and loss is a way of expressing and releasing the emotions through bodily movement instead of dwelling in thought.”

I agree, and would add that it can also serve as a way of bearing witness to ecological and ancestral grief.

We need lamentation dance, and the Drinking the Tears of the Earth project is my attempt to take a step in the right direction.

Another practice I’m interested in reviving is keening, a mournful lamentation performed as a ritual practice soon after a death. It’s something I’m just beginning to learn about, and I’m fascinated that the recent “death positive” movement is driven by women.

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