The Elements Are Us by Elizabeth Cunningham

Elizabeth Cunningham headshot jpeg

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:

Earth my body, water my blood, air my breath, and fire my spirit


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.

resurrection ferryboat

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.  

Categories: Death, Earth-based spirituality, Ecojustice, Family, In Remembrance, Loss, Love, Poetry, Relationships

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15 replies

  1. Your essay reminds me of Judith Plaskow’s description of the process of transformation in our new book. “I am aware of how often a new way of seeing took me by surprise, emerging in a moment so full-grown that I know it must have been developing slowly without my knowledge.”


  2. Thanks Elizabeth. Just a thought on energy sources. I have a lot of hope for solar energy because it is pollution-free. And CSP (concentrated solar power) can provide clean energy even when the sun isn’t shining. We need to put more financial resources into further expanding that technology. Five major CSP plants were built last year in the United States, two large plants in India and Africa, and so at least we’re on the move.


  3. Brava! As you know, I have symbols of the elements (in directions I’ve assigned to them) all over my home. And the golden ashes of the Heisenberg you remember are in a little box on my home altar. You’re right, of course, that the earth is holy and the elements are precious. Bzzzzzz!


  4. Wonderful article to contemplate on a Sunday morning, thank you. If Sunday is the day my family traditionally gave to contemplating the sacred, it works so well for me – this, as you show us, is what we are, the source and the return. I thought of a quote from performance artist Rachal Rosenthal: “We are living IN the Earth. Not ON the Earth, but IN the Earth. And what we do to the earth we are doing to ourselves.”


  5. BOTH coal and oil are originally Solar based energy. The earth itself has created a “storage” system of that energy. Pure, direct solar (solar panels) are highly efficient. Storage of that energy is the challenge. Also, what humans do with energy is a GREAT challenge. . . Money is also a energy storage system. Learned that when I spent a week ALL ALONE way up in Northern British Columbia, 100 miles from the end of the road (had to go to my spot by boat.) The money in my pocket had no value other than using it to start a fire.


  6. “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?” Great question, Elizabeth. It always astounds me, though, that what to me (and others) seems so obvious, there are many people who resist the concept “fueling” your question. Wonderful post.


    • Thanks, Esther. Your play on the word fuel is apt. What questions about fuel will we fuel? Well, we might as well keep asking the questions–and living them as much as possible.


  7. Today I attended a short ritual in commemoration of my best friend Farrell, who died Thursday night. Your description of your uncle’s ashes and your statement that the elements are us reminded me of the invocation of the directions at this ceremony (probably written by Rain Gaia):

    Grandmother of the East,
    Provider of breath and memories;
    Carry Farrell’s voice and laughter on your winds of change.
    Blessed be!

    Grandmother of the South,
    Provider of lIfe and love;
    Carry Farrell’s passion and trust in your flames of renewal.
    Blessed be!

    Grandmother of the West,
    Provider of blood and courage;
    Carry Farrell’s grace in the face of sorrow on your waters of release.
    Blessed be!

    Grandmother of the North,
    Provider of the physical and of wisdom;
    Receive Farrell’s body into your blanket of rejuvenation and renewal.
    Blessed be!


  8. I am so sorry for your loss, Nancy. Thank you for sharing this moving invocation. Blessed Be.


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