The next afternoon, on Winter Solstice, I clean the outdoor fire pit. It’s a cool, damp day, the grass still green. There’s been no real snowfall yet this year, strange weather for Atlantic Canada, and the bricks lining the pit hold the remains of my Samhain fire. Kneeling, I pick out the charred wood. The aspens shiver. A blue jay calls. For weeks I’ve looked forward to this ritual – kept it before me, a beacon in the brooding grey confusion of challenging times. Today there’s no jammed to-do list, only this one obligation: attend to the fire, and whatever comes.
I set out an offering of walnuts and sliced fruit. Weave a loose nest of twigs, into which I tuck peels of birch bark. Next a teepee of willow, cuts from the tree that grew right over there. Strike a match, and blow life into the flames. Not fully cured, the wood is slow to catch. Fragrant smoke puffs into my face. For years Willow stood companion to our fires; it was one of countless trees toppled or broken by the autumn hurricane. As the fire strengthens, smoke drifts across the yard through the raw-feeling space where Willow grew. A tree dies, and its own body becomes holy incense.
A tree dies, and its own body becomes holy incense.
Three eagles soar over the woods by the river. The Shubenacadie’s deep, ruddy waters empty into the Bay of Fundy every 12 hours, then return in a frothing tidal bore. Rock in the bay and along the river where the eagles nest is over 350 million years old; the river’s great, sweeping rhythm has set the deep pulse of this land since at least the last ice age. When I woke up from the dream I recalled that just over the county line lies Mastodon Ridge, where the bones of these ancient relatives of mammoths, ancestors of elephants, were discovered in 1991. This was once mastodon territory, and is now a mastodon burial ground.
Some years ago, when my husband and I and several dear friends decided to cast our lots for the future together, we found this land, or it found us, and we managed to buy it. Ownership requires a pledge to a bank only. As writer Derek Jensen has observed, ‘Ours is a politics, economics and religion of occupation, not of inhabitation.’ The consequences of an occupying mindset are easy to see here, from the razing of the original forest and corralling of Mi’kmaq peoples to reservations, from the haunting presence of the provincial residential school, still on a hill outside town and now a plastics factory, to the business-as-usual clear-cuts, mines, refineries, and the casual practices of roadkilling and tossing litter.
With the trees as witness, I made another pledge: to inhabit this territory, to dwell within (in+habit), not perch upon.
All territory is bones and compost and seeds and winds and tides, an ancient-and-future matrix of beings moving through our bodies every single moment. When I told the Mastodon dream to a friend, she reminded me that mammals often greet by touching brows. I thought of my fear in the dream, and how fear of the wild and of Others gets drummed and redrummed into us, how war drums have become the constant rhythm of our modern lives, rousing us daily to fear and fight against the latest enemies of-the-moment, be they human or elemental.
All territory is bones and compost and seeds and winds and tides, an ancient-and-future matrix…
When I moved here in 2021, I dreamed of seeing fires lit along the shores of the river. Ceremonial fires have been held here for millennia, and I understood that they needed to be lit again, even and maybe especially by newcomers like me. I began holding fires every six weeks, at the traditional points of the solar year. Making the fire opens an escape hatch on the clock and relocates me in real time, Earth time: the cycle of seasons and aeons, both past and future. Though I’m alone by this solstice fire on an old farm in rural Nova Scotia, far from my origins, I feel the companionship of others holding fires throughout the world today, and those kin who held fires before me and will do so in years to come – perhaps as long as there are people alive to mark this moment of the year’s closure, when the next day brings the start of the sun’s return. Another year of grass in the meadows and clams in the riverbed.
I build up the flames with logs, then pick up the horse-hide drum. It arrived in a large box, out of the blue, just weeks after we moved here. A friend made it under the guidance of an elder, kept it a year, then decided it belonged to me. The drum’s skin is a deep red, almost purple. On its back, thin leather strings radiate in the hollow like spokes. Holding it to my chest, I start beating a soft rhythm. As usual, I feel a bit awkward and phoney at first. But I’ll warm to it. A gift is a gift. And this land wants drumming.
IMAGE: Lynette O’Kane
‘The Eight Fires’
Mixed media on paper
This work depicts the ritual honouring of the eight fires. The structure of the seasons is shown as the eight moons. The fire is one fire on a season-less ground, highlighting the fiery energy of the body and the land and the spirit.
Lynette O’Kane is a Taos-based artist with an extensive exhibition history both nationally and internationally. Her work has been shown in New York, Los Angeles, Munich and Frankfurt Germany, to name a few. Lynette was recently the Artist in Residence at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Reserve in Colorado.
Do join us for an online launch of Dark Mountain: Issue 24 tonight, 19th October 2023 starting at 7:30pm (BST) to catch a glimpse of the book with fellow practitioners, artists, writers, and editors from around the world.
Tickets are free but you will need to book a place on EventBrite here.
‘How We Walk Through the Fire’ workshop series was conceived and directed by Charlotte Du Cann and Dougie Strang with wind, plant and water guides, Nick Hunt, Mark Watson and Lucy Neal. Follow up sessions based on the book will be held leading up to the Halcyon Days this December. Do join us. More info and booking can be found here.