This week we offer you an interview with Emma Restall Orr.
This former druid joint chief has been one of the leading forces behind the promotion of animism for decades. Her book The Wakeful World is a highly recommended introduction to animism, that also offers a strong philosophical foundation for this way of looking at the world. (Beware – if you are not a convert already, this book might do just that … as it did for me).
What she shows through her work though, is that animism is much more than a philosophy, but rather a way of life, something which she has most definitely put into practice herself. Evidence of that is her current project, Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground. In this interview she speaks of this project, the connection to our ancestors, and the land that is an inspiration behind it all.
After some twenty years of working within the Druid community, as a student, then priest, teacher, writer and broadcaster, I was inspired to focus on a project that was practical, muddy and of long term value. At Sun Rising we are creating a nature reserve with long-term security, a haven for wildlife and an opportunity to study and encourage species that are under threat. At the same time, it allows us to offer an option for those needing to lay loved ones to rest in ways that are non-polluting, environmentally-sound, and without the profit-led elements of the funeral ‘industry’. I still manage the site with my partner. It’s an honour and a delight!
This may seem like an obvious question but why is it important for us as people to honour our ancestors?
For those who have a spiritual or religious practice that includes honour for their ancestors, the answer is self-evident. It is like asking why it is important to eat healthily or drink enough water: the resulting experience speaks for itself.
However, this is only true for a practice: honouring our ancestors has to be an action, an activity, not simply an attitude. Tipping your cap to the ancestors at shared rituals, or at festivals, doesn’t do it. If the idea is strong as a belief but there is no actual practice, then there is no real effect.
Each individual, each teacher, each tradition gives guidance as to what the practice might be. It could be reciting the names of one’s bloodline, telling the stories of their lives, meditating on specific memories or events, singing the old songs, doing some old craft, walking a track or pathway that has a particular significance: whatever the action is, it must be with a wakeful consciousness, listening, with acknowledgement and gratitude, and it must be regularly done, ideally every single day.
To do so contributes to a richer and more balanced sense of self, allowing one to feel one’s place as part of a larger coherent being. It confers a solidity, reminding one of the crucial role we each have in that flow of humanity, while also giving a sense of one’s own insignificance. Being in conscious awareness of our ancestors allows us strength, knowing what they endured and achieved, knowing where they failed, knowing what has made us who we are. It informs us about our environment, reminds us of what we might otherwise take for granted.
Say, ‘hey, grandma,’ when you put the clothes into a washing machine, remembering her frozen red hands on each washing day. Say, ‘hey, grandpa’, when you turn the ignition key on the car that will take you to work or open the door of the refrigerator, remembering his exhaustion after a long day of trudging through mud in the fields.
When I look at Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground I am struck with how it removes the fear of death reminding me that death is natural – a normal process. The use of low toxicity materials suggests a shift from thinking of death as something that could contaminate us to something that connects us to meaning, making life even more precious. Modern funerary practices use toxic chemicals to ‘clean’ things up but the results are worse than sterile – they are poisonous to the land and disrespect the body. Those are my assumptions about the value of natural burials but I wonder what do the families who come to SRNBG seek?
Foggy-headed with the shock of loss when someone dies, it is easy to follow the expected process: go to the local funeral director and follow their gentle directives towards a cremation, an MDF wood-veneered coffin, a celebrant to organise a service, huge wreaths based on oasis and plastic filled with imported cut flowers. Funeral directors are so well versed in that sort of funeral, their business model geared towards it, that they are totally confident and comforting when guiding you in that direction. It is simple in that it is normal in our English culture.
But cremation is environmentally so very damaging and wholly unsustainable. MDF is a toxic product, and there are so many other problems with that kind of funeral.
Families who use Sun Rising are most often those seeking a different kind of simplicity, something more authentic and natural. Many families create their own funeral service, encouraged and held by the environment, without needing a celebrant. A few garden flowers is sufficient when nature is so beautiful all around. A biodegradable coffin of card or willow is most often carried by family and friends, using the coffin bier. Very often there is no funeral director, no men in black standing at the back. Funerals – whether large and colourful or small and quiet – are all intimate, family-oriented, completely personal, effortlessly and affordably.
Some use Sun Rising because of its ethics, but for most it is the feel of the place: it is full of love. It is very much loved by a great many people who have chosen it for their loved one, and love it for itself. (It won’t be long before we lay to rest our one thousandth individual.) That love generates a deep peacefulness. Yet, in many ways what people love is simply nature: taking time out from busy over-civilised lives, they sit and watch the butterflies and bumblebees in the meadow, they listen to the skylarks, tree sparrows, yellowhammers, they watch the little saplings as they grow into sturdy trees, and they feel the healing that comes from being there, within nature.
Do you have any stories about how the setting has helped people experience connection with their ancestors?
Many anticipate that when death comes, a relationship ends. That is seldom the case with someone we love or respect. The interaction changes but it continues. My heart is warmed when I see how a fractious relationship with a parent, or complications with a spouse, gently smooth into calm. The winds take away the stresses, the rain softens them, the wildflowers transform them.
Sun Rising is near an old battleground of the Civil War, and residual antagonisms still linger in local communities. We have often heard it said that we at Sun Rising are caring for not just the newly departed, but also the dead who still drift after that useless and brutal confrontation. Such beliefs encourage people to think about their own connections and relationships, to study and talk, opening to new ideas and finding new layers of peace within.
Last year we erected a standing stone in honour of the local men who worked and died in the nearby quarries – digging out that now prized honey-coloured Cotswold stone. I often see how people respond, re-think, remember, when faced with such a memorial. Our ancestors lives were physically hard. We should not forget that.
Change can sometimes feel threatening. Did Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground experience any local opposition or was the idea welcomed?
There were a couple of concerns from local villagers who weren’t sure what a natural burial ground was – but once we had explained, there were no objections at all. While some natural burial grounds have had to fight for planning permission, we felt that such a project needed to be based upon peace. Without the support of the local community, it would not have worked and we would have backed out.
We felt too that we needed the support of the ancestors of the land. Without that, there would never have been a deeper sense of integration. When we felt we had gained that support, we were quite sure the planning authority would follow through and allow us to begin the project.
You once said that your philosophy can be described as “the perception and understanding of the sanctity in nature – human and nonhuman nature.” Have you always felt this connection? Maybe it come upon you gradually or as an epiphany?
I have always perceived a vibrancy in nature where others saw inanimate or non-sentient matter. In that way, I have always been an animist searching for the language to describe my beliefs.
It is worth offering a definition of ‘sanctity’ to clarify the quote though. I believe that nature is minded, humming with its own consciousness, as a whole, as the entirety of the universe and beyond, and as numberless coherent collectives and individuals, beings and ecosystems within that whole. That mindedness is god, the godness of it all. Where we perceive that godness, we perceive sanctity.
Have I always perceived a godness? In as much as I can trust my memories, I recall always feeling an awe at nature. I have always been enchanted with it, and the life I have lived reflects that fairly comprehensively.
Slowing down, staying in one place can gift one with so many insights and pleasures. What is your landscape saying to you these days?
My life is certainly slower than it used to be. I seldom travel, and can spend weeks on end leaving the village only to go to the burial ground, a mile down the lane. Living slowly is what allows me to work, to function, and peacefully.
Staying in one place has its value in that relationships build. Most of mine are with the non-human world. Watching trees grow, stones shift, ponds come and go, waterways flood and meander, watching generations of bullfinches, robins, hares, thistles, orchids flow through the passing years, all enrich my relationship with the landscape. And as relationships develop, so does understanding and respect. As I learn, I am less clumsy in my interactions within the environment, and so I hope do I become more positive as a presence with it.
I am still not entirely sure how to define ‘home’, but perhaps that uncertainty ensures I take no relationship for granted.
Do you have any new projects you are excited about?
Creating a nature reserve, writing about it, celebrating it, is excitement enough for now.