This essay was first published in Issue #14 of Dark Matter, Women Witnessing, "Dead or Alive: Being With Ancestors" in April 2022 (citations can be seen in on the dark matter website)
The only medicine for the place of aching is to nestle your body into the shape of the absence. Make your body the prayer that resonates from a depth of soil. Become the portal back to home. —Maitake Mushroom1
A vision of self in isolation cannot imagine the materials of mending. —Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles2
The Roots of Dis-ease
Several years ago, I had a vision about my ancestors, a kind of waking dream that bubbled up within me as I stood at the edge of a river.
Standing in the shallow water, sharp little rocks scattered the riverbed, biting into my bare feet, I felt my deep time ancestors as the solid ground below me, holding me up. Between my body and that support, the broken rock fragments felt like the shards of unmetabolized trauma from my near ancestors, settler-colonists dissociated from a felt sense of relationship with the earth.
As I stood at the edge of the water, immense somatic awareness came through my body in waves and my right calf began to tremor. I realized how difficult the sharp rocks were making it to feel my feet fully on the ground.
The experience in the river was provoked by a conversation I had earlier that day, in which I had been speculating about “the roots of dis-ease” with a group of friends from the permaculture training that I was in.
This dialogue about the origin point of colonization, whiteness, and other entangled contexts of domination is a conversation that I have experienced multiple times now in groups focused on systems change and reconnection to nature.
In my experience, the outcome of this conversation often plateaus at a place of simultaneous blame and confusion, accumulating a list of culprits such as patriarchy, imperialism, agriculture, and greed but never really delving under the surface to look at what relational wounding might already have happened to lead to the emergence of those things.
In this particular conversation about the roots of our settler-colonist trauma, my permaculture friends were talking about fear, fear of difference, fear of death. They were sensing into the way that violence and domination originate in a need to control the ecological rhythms of life, a need to have agency over fear and the terror of the unknown in a reality where to die means to cease to exist.
As my friends were speaking about tracing the origin point of colonization, an intense flow of energy started to move through me as I touched into the felt sense of this archetypal rupture. I felt an aching hollowness in my chest and the sense of something melting, as if I had touched into a river of grief so vast I needed banks to contain my flow.
If my kin are afraid of death, it is because we have lost the perception of ourselves as a part of the wider body of life.
There’s a difference between death and not-existing if you perceive your “self” in somatic entanglement with the wider ecosystem. In Small Arcs of Larger Circles, systems poet Nora Bateson invokes this experience of a sense of self beyond the edges of the individual body:
The outlines we draw around ‘parts’ (like a hand or a kidney) are useful to us as arbitrary separations that conveniently contain our study within limits we can manage; but these outlines more aptly serve to indicate areas of interaction, transmission, and reception of information. The skin of my body provides what looks like a boundary around me, but ‘I’ extend well beyond the container of my flesh, both biologically and socially.3
This perception of self-as-ecosystem isn’t threatened by death in the same way because our existing continues to circulate as nutrients through the wider ecosystem after we die. We continue to exist, just in another shape.
On the day of the conversation about the “roots of disease,” a hollowness continued to haunt me after I left the permaculture gathering. Later that day, I found my way to a river, standing barefoot in the shallow water with a prayer on my lips for a kind of belonging that I had never experienced.
What is this aching loneliness in the bodies of me and my European lineage kin, this separation from the wider body of the earth?
Bodyworker Susan Raffo writes about how the first orienting process of a baby upon being born is “the reflex that helps our body build a relationship with gravity.”4 Raffo explains the way that systems of violence and ancestral trauma impact this relationship:
This is the place of contradiction, the wrapped up tight knot that generations of living within and overriding violence have created. It is very difficult, although not impossible, to bring our bodies to gravity’s weight if we don’t believe we can let go of our weight…Rest is how life remembers itself, reflects over what it has learned and slowly remakes itself in response to that learning. All of this is why systems of supremacy hijack the body’s survival responses, keeping our nervous systems at the ready for disaster. Unable to rest.
That day at the river was the first time that I consciously felt into what I have since called the “ancestral abandonment pain body,” the backlog of ancestral grief from all my European lineage kin that sits in between my body and the support of earth.
Tracing the Long Body
Poet-philosopher Bayo Akomolafe invokes the way in which the indigenous sense of self includes both this ancestral backlog and the wider earth body, describing human beings as “replete with loss and disappearances and monsters and secretions and microbial transgressions… Not drawing the line too closely around the humanoid shape we are used to allows us to see a vast body, what the Iroquois⁄Haudenosaunee call the ‘Long Body’.”5
I use the term Long Body in my practice frequently, imaging my animal organism as a kind of fruiting body, the tip of an entire cascade of roots, inextricably entangled with the ancestors and ecosystems that sustain my aliveness.
Recently, I started to become aware that I did not know the cultural context through which the term Long Body emerged. So I started to research the cultural lineage of the term and try to find the point at which there was knowledge transmission of the phrase from a Haudenosaunee person to a European person. I especially wanted to learn the original words that Long Body was translated from and what mythology was attached to the term within Haudenosaunee culture.
I searched for several weeks and was amazed to find absolutely nothing. In all the writing I have been able to find about it online, nowhere has there been a description of how white academics came to learn this concept from the Haudenosaunee people, an absence that effectively invisibilizes the process of indigenous knowledge transmission and the particular cultural context from which the term emerged. Besides Bayo Akomolafe, all of the people I have seen using the term Long Body are white. All of them cite other white scholars as their sources for the term. So far, the furthest back I have traced the phrase is an essay from 1986, “Psi and the Phenomenology of the Long Body,” which cites an earlier university lecture from a Dr. Joseph Lyons. That’s where the trail runs dry as I haven’t been able to find any documentation of Dr. Lyons’ work on the internet.
Eventually I turned to my community of animist kin to seek their advice for this conundrum. My teacher Dare Sohei wrote back:
all words are spirits that point to spirits, these spirits that point to spirits also come from spirits (i.e. the original receivers/creators of the words, the persons that heard the words and shared them in books etc). Therefore, all words can be related with as spirits directly (spirits who have many relations and many “parents”), which can allow a “new” direct experience/dream of contact/encounter that is “yours.”.
Based on this recommendation from Dare, I began a process of journeying with the term Long Body to learn directly from the spirit of the word about its origins.
Here is some of what I heard:
Lost in snows, no absences but those unmerited, uncalled for, melted into air. Warming self by fire, the web of entanglements. This was always known, whispered by flames. It only came into being as a concept to be given to the ones who didn’t have it anymore. A perception of the frozen absences—an insight into those who had forgotten their own belonging. It was already a translation, whispering a memory into the bones. Arising out of a moment of contact.
The Long Body is the gestation of soul, the wider unfolding outside of the human womb. The Long Body is the tree within the seed. The imprint of forest giving birth to new life, the energies and shadows that sustain your remembering, the full cycle—the journey of water gushing forth underground and back to the source. Of course the transmission is invisible. It is one of those portal places, the absence that both obscures and illuminates the pattern in itself. Why cry for the loss of this direct knowledge? Maybe it was never yours in the first place. As soon as it passed it transmogrified into the shape that was needed. Wolves devouring the carcass, it is here to meet a hunger. The word was always an offering, a prayer for remembering, a seed to plant in the soil of your own becoming.
What emerged for me out of this journey is that the absence this term carries with it is also a part of its teaching. Part of the dissociative spell of my kin’s ancestral trauma is the creation of absences that trail with us everywhere.
I can feel this absence all around me, haunting my lack of relationship with the materials that sustain my life. My very existence right now is sustained by this obscuring of relationship: from the heat in my room to the light, the computer I’m writing on, the chair that holds me, the chocolate and pomegranate I ate earlier…All of these beings that support my life are ones I am not in reciprocal relationship with where I can feel the impact that I create. Even the desk that I write at, the family heirloom of a friend of mine, is an object displaced from context. I do not know who built this desk, the kind of tree it’s made of, or the specific texture of that tree’s bark against my hand. Instead of these relationships, there is an industrial scale dissociative complexity outsourcing survival to supply chains—leaving little space for response-ability in a tangle of extractive relationships so massive there is no way for me to respond to all of the impacts that my existence is making on this earth.
Nora Bateson speaks about this same pattern of dissociated extraction:
My clothing, probably my breakfast, most of the technology and furniture in this room, the way each of us got here, all of this—is made possible through exploitation and extraction. The institutions of our world have allowed this to happen. That is our moment. This has been true for decades, maybe centuries, but there’s an acute sense that the time is up. And that it’s not comfortable, it’s not do-able to continue in that way. But to pay attention to it causes an unbearable broken heart that has the risk of debilitating the creativity to respond.6
How do you notice an absence? A dissociation? What is its shape? How do you even begin to notice that a gap is there where a relationship should have been?
The Shape of Absence
November pond. Empty log. The shape of absence.
This is the place where I sit with turtles on most days.
This place is a part of Turtle Island, of Mni Sota Makoce, the ancestral homelands of the Dakota people, a people who are still present in this land where I live, as much as they have been systemically invisibilized by my settler-colonist kin.
This place is a backwater of the Mississippi River that may once have been a tributary linking the Mississippi to the Zumbrota Rivers, until the flow between the two was separated and the Zumbrota River redirected. In the summer, the water here is often stagnant due to lack of flow and pollution from the boat harbor nearby.
Getting to root myself into relationship with a place I have gone to almost everyday for the past four months has been a sweet and humbling experience. For a while it was novel and exciting in high summer when I would get to know the turtle who sat on the rock in the middle of the water, the turtles on the log near the path who would jump into the water every time I biked past, and sometimes, quiet turtle heads peeking out of the water at me as I sat and talked or sang with them, then dipping back under the water leaving ripples of concentric circles in their wake.
After a while, it no longer was such a peak experience to come here every day. The turtles are my friends, the ecosystem is a friend, the daily visit is a more-than-human check in process into my connectedness. No matter how grumpy or tired or lonely or excited or grieving I am, this place is always there. And sometimes those little heads poking above the water, looking at me. I speak to them every day, about my life, about my kin, about what is broken and what is longed for. And I listen for the rhythm with my drum and I entwine the harmonics of my voice with the meeting point of flow.
Now it is November, and the turtles are burrowed deep underwater, brumating in the mud, slowing their metabolisms and breathing through the pores of their skin until spring. The log where they basked is now empty. For me, the empty log is a description of the absent turtles, evoking in my perception what Nora’s father Gregory Bateson calls the abductive process of each being in an ecosystem describing every other being through their relatedness. But most people who don’t have a relationship to this place, who don’t know that’s where the turtles bask, wouldn’t know that the log had that description.
Part of the shape of absence in my culture is the loss of relational context. Of knowing that the turtles aren’t basking on this particular log, in this particular not-anymore-tributary, on this particular occupied Dakota land. And yet how can we begin to turn towards what has been dissociated from when simply tuning into the absences in a single room of a house is to be paralyzed by an immensity of supply chains, overwhelmed by the haunting of relational absences.
On that day when I stood calf-deep in the river, noticing how afraid my body was to fully allow my feet to touch the earth, time curled and I received a transmission from my ancestors. I felt the terror of the women when the men did not come home initiated, when through some accumulation of unmetabolized trauma the knowledge of ceremony was lost that webbed my people into relationship with the wider body. I felt the way the mothers had to uproot their energy from their lower body, pulling their life force away from relationship with the earth and wrapping that energy around the children to try and protect them.
On my second journey into the spirit inside of the term Long Body, I received the image of an elder from the Haudenosaunee confederacy speaking to a white anthropologist. I understood that “Long Body” was a metaphor the elder created to try to explain to this anthropologist a consciousness that was missing from the colonizers’ perception. I heard the words of that elder…
“It was a gift to the broken people. The frozen ones, who threw their hurt into others’ surfaces. It was a reminder of their mothers, of what…”
Then a feeling of blockage, and energy coming in and stopping the words, separating me from the energy of the elder….
What’s happening now? Blocking the words.
The massive grief dragon inside the European, inside the lineage of harm that broke the story.
“Roar! I must speak first, I must crowd all the air with my warning. All who approach my shadow risk being met with the full force of my despair. I am not crumbled into ash. I am an accumulating entity, I live in the lineage of your belly, I echo the tightness of your muscles and vibrate the ligaments that link together the existential patterns of your being. Your perception of these has been severed. You are not a body any longer. I feed on your fragmentation. I was born out of a lack of keening the loss of the sound that wove your fabric to that of another. I was the dragon that romance was on a quest to slay. I was the evil in the garden, the fall, the memory of pain. The not-to-be-turned-away-from witnessing of aching loss. I am what remains in the liminal if the loss is unwitnessed. I haunt the broken bonds weaving together the fabric of the world.“
And then another energy emerging, older than the dragon…
“I exist with each of your children in the placenta. I am the salt fluid floating and shaping them into their becoming. I am the field of intelligence they drink from, the essential belly of bellies, the mother of mothers. The imprint given back through each emergence, the essence that shapes matter into a field of stories. I must flow between you. My intelligence expands on its passage in between. The fissures and canyons and ligaments and joints that channel life force from one part to another. My existence is spreading and flow. You must meet me in the passage, at the threshold, you must learn how to relate to me, to join within the wider network, to pour yourself forth into the empty places, to participate in the flow of betweenness, to dream as organs of this wider being. This is the Long Body, this wider circulatory system, including the sacred, the invisible passage from identity to mystery to pulsing relationship with the organismic intelligence containing you as you create it with your song.”
First Stone and Living Water
For the next four days after standing in the river, I was suddenly, violently ill. I became dizzy every time I tried to stand upright. I had tried to hold a grief within my body that was way too immense for me, and I did not yet know the skills of asking for deep time ancestors and earth to hold the emotion with me and help me to modulate for the “just right amount.”7 My body was reacting in overwhelm to a “too muchness” that I could not contain within my system alone. Vomiting and faint, my digestive and vestibular systems were in turmoil, as if my body had ceased to move in cycles. I realized the water of the river that I had drunk through my cupped palms as I prayed must have contained pesticide runoff from the monocultured crops around it, a devastating metaphor for grief within this settler-colonist culture. What do a people do to heal when the water they pray to has also been contaminated?
A few days later, still so dizzy I was unable to stand upright, I went to an herbalist who felt my pulse while one by one she placed bottles in my open palm, face down so I could not read the labels. One of the bottles felt like a pebble dropped into rippling water, falling deep into the place where the weeping came from. The herbalist said my pulse flatlined as I was holding this bottle. She turned it around and the label read “Rock Water.”
Rock Water is spring water from a subterranean source, “living water that comes directly from the womb of the Earth.”8 After taking the Rock Water essence, I could walk again without dizziness, and it was as if all of the intensity that had been stuck in my body with no place to go was now able to circulate down through my feet and back to the wider body of the earth.
Years later, in a bodywork session as I pressed my feet against the hands of a trusted therapist, the somatic memory of standing in that river came back into my body to be witnessed. With my therapist’s supportive holding, I was able to breathe into that moment of ancestral rupture without becoming overwhelmed, sensing into the support that was accessible before my ancestors’ bodies contorted away from the felt sense of ground.
As my body began to orient to the contact of the therapist’s palms against my feet, repatterning my relationship to ground, the words “standing on first stone” appeared to me, along with an archetypal image of the moment when fungi first left the ocean, learning how to draw nutrients from barren stone so they could live outside of the water.
I received the message that the fungi’s ability to stitch relationship between water and land by metabolizing death into nutrients for life has medicine for the ancestral abandonment pain body that has become so amplified within the bodies of my settler colonist kin.
We are always standing on first stone. Even when our perception of it is obscured by generations of ancestral trauma, the stone is still there beneath us and inside of us, in our bones, in the support of gravity holding us into relationship with the earth. The stone of all the dead, all the ancestors, every living thing there was, returned to feed the wider ground of life. The question is, how can we learn to feel this support again? What mycelial processes of relationship can re-member our felt sense of that primordial ground of Original Belonging, of rest and gestation, digesting death into the soil that supports all becoming?
In a recent essay introducing the term “Aphanipoiesis” as a way to support this kind of “unseen coalescence towards vitality,” Nora Bateson talks about “re-tissue-ing the gaps,” reweaving relational tissue between the places of absence:
It is as though the gaps provide the necessary opportunity for tissuing, connecting, impression-ing processes to take place. The stitchery between these gaps is the abductive process at work. In the same way that metaphors generate responses from the unseen inclinations of the observer, the gaps are there to allow themselves to be filled with inter-steeping inklings. In that stitchery is where the rhythm, the tone, and the rules of communication between aspects of the system are forged.9
The Tissuing Process of Rippling Contact
Right after the bodywork session, I had a sudden longing to stand in water near to Bdote, that mingling place where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet. Bdote is the original birthplace of the Dakota people of Mni Sota Makoce. I’d felt a lot of tentativeness about relating to this ceremony place as a settler-colonist on occupied land, deeply conscious of the way my kin’s genocide, internment, and exile of the Dakota people only 160 years ago haunts the still breathing mystery of this sacred landscape. But what came to me very clearly after the session was to go not to the island that is the center of Bdote, but to the other bank of the River on the side where my home was, and see if there was a place from there where I could go down to the water.