My late uncle, an atheist since age twelve when well-meaning Christians told him his youngest sister was “in a better place,” is now ashes in three red cloth bags. He was the last of my mother’s siblings to die, at the age of ninety-eight, the first being their little sister who died at age four. His children and grandchildren are taking his ashes to be scattered at sea where they will mingle with the bones the pirate Blackbeard, who met a violent end in these same waters almost three centuries earlier. Though most of this memorial weekend is a series of social occasions, and the guests on the boat continue chatting, I am moved by the sight of my cousins taking up spoons and scattering their father and grandfather’s ashes on the wind.
He is returning to the elements that sustained his life: fire, earth, air, water. When we breathe, drink or eat, sweat or shed a tear, in every moment of our lives, we connect through the elements to all the life that has gone before us and all the life that is to come. No belief system is necessary to know this truth in our bones. May we learn to care for the elements—rivers and oceans, air, soil, fuel for light and heat—as we would care for our own bodies. When the elements are degraded, we are degraded; when they are vital, we are vital. The elements are our ancestors, our children. The elements are us.
At the end of a particularly severe Northeastern winter, likely the effect of climate change which in the Northwest may be causing drought, I have been pondering the elements as sources of renewable energy: solar, wind, geothermal, tidal. In preparation for this post, I spent several hours reading about these alternative technologies. I wanted to be confirmed in my hope that we have everything we need to solve the problems we’ve created with our huge population and its escalating demands on the planet. It’s elemental, I wanted to say.
I discovered, even in this brief investigation, that there are drawbacks to each one and potential hazards to a variety of eco-systems, not as detrimental as fossil fuels and the devastation already wrought by climate change. But no easy answers either. (Note: solar appears to be the most benign renewable energy source.) In these articles, the words “exploit” and “harness” appeared with notable frequency. Would it make a difference to our developing technologies if we thought in terms of alignment with the elements, gratitude for their gifts, and reverence for their power—and vulnerability?
Many traditions and cultures, ancient and contemporary, do honor the elements and reflect on how they correspond with directions, seasons, colors, animals, minerals, and more. (In Chinese medicine there are five elements and a system of correspondences that includes the organs of the body.) At High Valley the all-are-welcome center where we celebrated the Wheel-of-the Year (from 1995-2013), we kept things simple and honored the elements without assigning a direction, representing them in form—a shell, a rock, a feather, a candle—invoking them through rhythm and dance, and we always sang chants. Below is one of our favorite chants from an unknown source, passed from circle to circle, woven into a gorgeous original song by the late Nicole Sangsuree:
The day after my uncle’s memorial was Easter. With a long journey ahead, my son and I took the early ferry back to the mainland over the waters my uncle and Blackbeard share with all the undersea life. I close with a poem in celebration of an elemental Easter I will always remember.
we take a chance on the Easter morning ferry
just before seven, sunrise and moonset, clear skies
coffee a dollar in the box, we roll on board
west into the wind, the sheltered back deck all ours
moon disappears into wave, sun finds our faces
more layers, more coffee, salted nuts, warm and fed
my son goes off to roam the boat, I sit alone
gulls winging dark against sun-dazzled sky and sea
this way of water and light leads from life to life
my son returns from watching seagulls ride the wake
I tell him: this is the best Easter of my life
really? he says. what surprises him I wonder?
except for when you and your sister were children,
I amend, Easter egg hunts and chocolate rabbits.
but this, I gesture, sea, sun, gulls, this is Easter
I say things I haven’t put into words before
about rites and beliefs I don’t need anymore
this moment, already memory, is enough
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her third collection of poems So Ecstasy Can Find You will be published in September, 2015 by Hiraeth Press. She is currently working on a mystery series. An Interfaith minister, she is also a counselor in private practice and a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.