Walking on the Bones of My Ancestors
A while ago, I went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to visit my sister, Nancy, and brother-in-law, Jim. I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids until I was age twelve, when my parents and I moved to California, where I lived for the next few decades. Having not been to Iowa for a few years, and with Nancy and Jim getting up in years, I looked at this trip as a bit of a pilgrimage. I love my sister dearly, and often recall how in the midst of our parents’ alcohol fueled arguments, she would come to my room and sit with me and provide comfort and solace during their fights.
Jim is now wheelchair bound, so they spend a lot of time at home. Nancy occasionally goes out to play Bingo at the local church or to visit with some women friends, so I know they welcomed my visit. My other sister (formerly sister-in-law, but since my eldest brother passed, she’s been adopted into the family as a sister) Susan came south from Minneapolis to visit for a couple of days. Along with other nephews and nieces who visited at various times, we had a small family reunion.
I was reminded by this visit of the importance of family, especially as I move into more of an elder status. Having spent my childhood in Cedar Rapids and knowing that my parents and their parents grew up here, I could trace about four generations of ancestors who had occupied this land.
So after a day’s worth of visiting, taking pictures, recalling old times, I drove to my hotel room a few minutes away from their condo. Not wanting to stay in my room for long, I decided to take a walk around the grounds near the hotel. As I’m enjoying the fresh air of the cool evening, I hear the voice of my primary spirit guide, the one I call Grandfather, who came to me as guide and teacher in a shamanic initiation journey on Cone Mountain in the Ventana Wilderness near Big Sur California several years ago. He says very clearly, “You’re walking on the bones of your ancestors!” I stopped in my tracks, felt the gooseflesh on my arms and the hair on the back of my neck prickle. It was a very distinct message. But what did it mean? I thought about it for a bit, having a pretty good idea that at least three or four generations of my clan had lived in this area, on this land.
Then the realization swept over me.
Yes, when someone dies their spirit dissipates into the ethereal realm, but when they were alive their body was an active, vital expression of that spirit. It both contained and expressed Spirit in the unique form of the individual incarnated into flesh. The DNA and other substances of the flesh continue on, disseminated and transformed into other forms of life through the process of decay and regeneration. The various Earth beings responsible for assisting that decay, such as ants, flies, bacteria, etc., all disseminate the individual’s DNA through the atmosphere, the ground, and the waters. Whether it’s bones and flesh or ashes, this primal physical aspect of the individual’s life is dispersed into the land.
As many indigenous peoples believe, our ancestors truly abound in the world around us. Grandpa Mac, Great Aunt Dorothy, Sister Josephine, and many other ancestors are all in the trees, the air, the clouds, the waters, and in the flowers that bloom in the spring. The land becomes a gigantic, organic recycling bin for all of Earth’s creatures!
Then I heard Grandfather say, “Imagine if you lived and walked on the land where your ancestors had lived for 10,000 years.” This astounding thought swept through my consciousness like a wave bursting across a rock at the shore. 10,000 years! At first it was difficult to imagine, but as it slowly seeped in, I looked around me at the trees, shrubs, and the various plants, stepping a bit more gingerly as I walked, feeling a reverence for the original people who had populated this land prior to the transplanted Europeans settling here. It’s as if the land itself was speaking to me, enticing me to greater respect for this intimate association humans once shared with the very ground beneath my feet and all the inhabitants thereof.
As if Grandfather were giving me a breather to absorb this, he then hit me with, “Now imagine if you had lived on the same land where your ancestors had roamed for 100,000 years!” At this, I found myself having to sit on the retaining wall nearby, somewhat breathless, squinting my eyes as if doing this would help me comprehend just how profound this realization was.
I recalled how this has been said of Australia, a land that the original inhabitants, or Aboriginals, had occupied for anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 years, their culture being virtually unchanged until the invasion of the western European settlers. It was difficult to fathom what that would be like, as I could barely grasp the notion that my relatives from the past were in a sense inhabiting the very air I was breathing, or watching me from the trees that contained molecules and DNA that was once in their bodies.