Reconnecting with our Past
The Crowfoot tribe is determined to regain knowledge of its ancestral roots, as I learnt from a youtube video. This made me reflect that local indigenous knowledge is being diluted or forgotten all over the world, driven out by standardised curricula. My three children, for instance, have learnt about the Vikings, English battles, WWII and the slave trade in Bristol, but nothing about the traditions and stories of the local community.
That is why I created a project at my school partnering the faculties of English and Design, Art and Technology to celebrate one aspect of the Somerset tradition. The topic I chose was willow, which was particularly important to our ancestors and wove itself into the very fabric of myths and legends that survive not only in our local community, but across the UK. In the 1950s the North Somerset Levels included large stretches of land given over to willow, but it has massively declined since the 1950s, from approximately 9000 acres to about 350. It has been used for baskets, crab pots, eel nets, furniture, living structures and coffins and much else for thousands of years. In the remote past the Celts used it for wheel-spokes for chariots as well as for frameworks for coracles and fish-traps. Nowadays the traditional craft of willow weaving is only undertaken by craftsmen, but in the old days it was something that everyone would have learnt to do.
Willow has medicinal properties. It was the original basis for aspirin. Willow bark was chewed for colds and fevers and can now be bought as a tea infusion. Artists sometimes choose willow charcoal. It has been claimed that willow could replace fossil fuels and greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Willow is a source of connection to our ancestors through stories. How many schools in Somerset or Bristol teach the stories of the Failand Witch, or the Willow Father, or the Crone Samhain? Most schools use traditional fairy stories, but neglect the stories that originated right on our doorsteps.
In my project, I arranged for forty students from Year 9 and 10 to visit the wetlands to see willow being grown, and then I invited a willow artisan into school to weave a figure of the willow goddess. It became a focal point for the sharing of local stories, myths and legends. It was there that I told them about the goddess Crone Samhain, who disintegrated into the earth at Halloween but protected in her womb the new life that would emerge the next spring.
Most of the students living in Bristol and neighbouring villages had never visited the wetlands before and had no idea of the links willow has with past lives. They were surprised at how the willow could grow in such a saturated landscape and also how flexible it was when woven into different structures. They tried making their own willow ornaments while there, which they brought back to school and created a display for the other years. Other students used their skills further to help the willow artisan when he was constructing the goddess in the heart of the school.
Today speaking and listening is being squeezed out of the curriculum in mainstream education, or assessed on Standard English criteria. However, the willow goddess symbolises stories and voices from the past that interweave now with the stories of the present. Friday afternoon always seemed to be the graveyard session on the school timetable with students exhausted at the end of the week. Taking the willow energy one step further we used this time as a space for stories. The students learnt how to respond to each other in an environment of trust and imagination, just as their ancestors would have done many years ago. Every student took their turn and they learnt to listen to each other and respect each other's space and time. Instead of the graveyard session, Friday afternoons became instilled with their own creative energy as students found their voice through engagement with the past.
The past is not far away. Let's continue to teach our children about who we are in the landscapes we live in so that we can re-connect with our environment. The Crowfoot tribe found that indigenous knowledge helped to re-establish communities and give people a greater awareness of who and where they are, and so give them all a deeper sense of well-being and happiness. Let us follow their example, and give voice to our various communities that are being unknowingly silenced, as they lose their link with their landscape and who they are.