In the last year, it becomes my world-wood, revealing secrets long forgotten. It is a sanctuary, a turning place, a landbook out of which I learn the art of grief.
The year begins with the youngest of my children in a hospital bed. She lies comatose, a blow to her head delivered by a horse. She is my youngest. She has golden hair, an enchanted child, born on her grandmother’s birthday, a fifth daughter, a quintessence. There is a bit of the fey about her. The doctor tells me there is little hope. The friends are all praying for a miracle. I pray too but I know deep down I am being given an uncanny strength flowing from a mysterious source to handle the miracle that won’t happen. We walk her hospital bed through a labyrinth of hallways and hand her over to the doctors who will remove her kidneys for donation. Two kidneys, two coins, to be given for passage.
We bury her in the periwinkle woods. It is a brutal hot September day. There has been no rain for over a month. The tall grass waves brown on baked earth. The shale is reticent… Our apologies, but the ground cannot accept the dead at this time…
A machine persists when Nature refuses. A hole is dug by a frightening leviathan that watches us from afar further down the bluff, when we make our return by human hand. A small procession of black clad mourners makes its way across the field. She is in a wooden boat, a small coffin carved as a Viking ship, with a dragon prow – a coffin a child would want to play in, would enter willingly. We lower her ship into the soil, to sail through the shale. I hear the first sound of grief: it is 14 wordless men shovelling Virginia stone – an abrupt, clanking sound. If I close my eyes it could be only a miner opening the earth to extraction, but when I open them what I see is the opposite. I see the return of what has been taken out of the earth. My Ida encased in Italian silk, rosemary, linen and sycamore wood is returned to the land.
The day after my daughter’s burial dawns in golden light. I drink coffee in my kitchen. There is an exhaustion that brings a peace akin to a task completed. But in fact, the work is only begun, and I do not know what to do.
My father is an old man now. He is no longer the strong, bearded man of my childhood photos. He is bent, and his hair has whitened, but his voice is the same. A thick Italian accent cloaks his English. His voice is the second sound of grief. Coming into the kitchen, he asks me to go with him back to the gravesite.
The periwinkle wood is covered in the tell tale signs of a sick planet: invasive honeysuckle, blighted ash, eastern red-cedar.
Throughout my daughter’s death and burial my father is the most peaceful of us all. Perhaps it’s because he knows his passage will likely be next and he has his two coins ready in his pocket. Carrying a hatchet and a small handsaw, he whistles as he wordlessly shows me my grief work. The periwinkle wood is covered in the tell tale signs of a sick planet: invasive honeysuckle, blighted ash, eastern red-cedar. My father cuts away death ash, uproots honeysuckle, but he leaves the red cedar. Grief work is letting go. We work in the wood side by side, sweating our first tears of grief in the September sun. In October my father flies home. I continue working alone in the wood daily. By the time my daughter has been in the ground a month I notice with sick pleasure that the burn pile of weeded honeysuckle has grown bigger than the leviathan. It sits on the bluff, embarrassed.
Then, one October day, I find a stone in the periwinkle woods, a few yards from my daughter’s grave. It is set in the ground vertically, and the section above ground, the size of a shovel blade, is covered in moss. An intentional stone. I find a second stone 15 yards away from the first but on the same longitude. I show them to my husband. We notice that they run parallel to our property line. They are old property markers. My work continues.
October wanes. The year grows thin. All Hallow’s Eve. I find a third stone, but this one is in a seemingly random location. It can be no property marker. I stop pulling honeysuckle and look for stones amidst the periwinkle. A fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh… 30 in all that day. Sweating and exhausted I survey my world-wood, littered with these stones. The ground beneath me seems to shift as meaning whispers to intuition.
That night there are the Halloween rituals of candy extraction. We act for the dead, travelling from door to door demanding something in return from the living. Afterward, as the children exchange candy on the floor at my house, I recount the finding of these stones to a friend. Three days later she returns to my back door with a newspaper. A mile away from my periwinkle wood, as the crow flies, is another periwinkle wood. It too has strange stones, and the newspaper tells me an archaeologist has just confirmed the discovery of a slave cemetery. The ground shifts again. My head spins. Within a mere two months of returning my daughter to the earth, a story has emerged from the same ground.
For the next few months, I pore over articles on slave cemeteries. I learn that black slaves were not allowed to mark their dead in writing. I learn that groves of trees left undisturbed on the edges of ploughed fields are often burial sites. I learn that enslaved Africans planted periwinkle, a plant native to the west coast of Africa, to mark their dead. Vinca is its scientific name, and it contains alkaloids extracted to treat childhood cancers and save lives. It also thrives in soil whose pH is altered by decaying bodies. Life for death. Extraction for insertion. A fair exchange.
I spend the winter months researching. I decide that when spring comes and the ground warms I will contact an archaeologist to come to the site. But in March, crisis strikes for the second time in six months. This time it is not personal but global. Pandemic brings a second wave of change. Friendships shift, schedules dissolve, and the open, quiet hours of my first grief return to me. I welcome them like an old friend. My children also echo what I sense, but am too afraid to say; that the waves of change are beginning to feel inevitable, and the next crisis after this one has become a stoic certainty. Restrictions ease in late summer, and I contact an archaeologist and a local historian to come to the property. The convergence of strangers in my world-wood is disconcerting, but they confirm my hunches. My daughter has been laid to rest at the outer edge of a long-forgotten cemetery of the enslaved. My grove is a peopled place.
As we attempt to grieve, we awaken to the tragedy that the very traditions, landscapes and language that grief requires are what is also dying.
‘What’s under works up’, says Welsh poet David Jones in his modern epic poem ‘The Anathemata’. Anathema is a twofold word. It means both ‘forbidden’ and ‘sacred’. In our world of progress these two categories, the Forbidden and the Sacred, necessarily diminish. They are the sacrifice demanded on the altar of progress. Life is snuffed, one species, one network, one language, one river, one mycelium, one culture at a time. As we attempt to grieve, we awaken to the tragedy that the very traditions, landscapes and language that grief requires are what is also dying. Yet Jones’ words offer some hope. They remind us that what is lost is not necessarily forgotten. Meaning can return. The mourning work for one small girl has opened the repressed tears of centuries.
Part of grief is laying to rest, reverse extraction. Return. Grave tending is a form of earth tending, but also a form of story tending, in which the dead are allowed to rest in our memory as well as the soil. Our memory is literally earth-bound. Grief requires physical spaces and it may be that the very words and landscapes we need to recover are the ones that our dead want to offer us. But they rely on the agency of the living. ‘Dona eis requiem,’ the priest says at the Requiem mass: ‘Grant them eternal rest.’ Perhaps if we can learn to say these words to our dead, words we do not seem be able to say to oil, to coal, to gas – we can begin to grieve. A burial is, after all, a reverse extraction.
The world-wood is different one year later. One can see through the trees now to the river shimmering on its journey. The stones peep up from the periwinkle. Wildflowers have moved in where the honeysuckle has been pulled and the saplings are growing. A small crowd gathers by the grave of my daughter. We bring flowers and light candles. We open our voices in song. It is the third sound of grief. ‘In hac lacrimarum valle… In this valley of tears’, we sing. Time seems to buckle and fold back on itself like the syncline folds of the mountains which overlook my world-wood. The years compress as the Latin words of a song sung during the bubonic plague echo in a new pandemic and tears for my daughter mingle with the hasty tears of those enslaved 200 years previously.
IMAGE: Botanico Ontario -Milkweed (October) by Sara Angelucci.
Scrambling to ground myself from the shock of my sister’s sudden death, I retreated into nature’s seasons to reconcile the cycles of life. In a state of raw grief, my consciousness awakened to mourning all species victim to climate change’s devastating impact. Scanning plants living in my proximity, layered histories emerged in the compositions. Native species grow entwined with foreign/cultivated and invasive ones, revealing deep colonial histories and ongoing commercial interests in the land. Reminiscent of Dutch still-life paintings these photographs are memento mori, invoking us to remember death as a call to spiritual awakening. Can we rise to the love that is needed to care for life beyond ourselves?
Sara Angelucci is a photo-based artist living in Toronto, Canada. Her work has been exhibited across Canada, in the US and Europe. She is an Adjunct Professor in Photography at Ryerson University, and her work is represented by the Stephen Bulger Gallery and the Patrick Mikhail Gallery. sara-angelucci.ca