Our First Ancestor- Stephen Jenkinson
Mutual sustenance is the archetypal relationship of life. So it is possible to say in contemporary English without any confusion of sequence or cause/effect that whatever sustained your first ancestor is your ancestor. You could call that One your original first ancestor. And for the traditional people where I live, all of those dodemug (plural of dodem) are animals.
They aren’t mascots, or pocket-sized symbols for characterological inspiration. Mascots are what happened to the natural order when this understanding of ancestry devolved into human-centred DNA inheritance, when animals became exemplars of human traits. There are a wide variety of totem animals, and not all are of the hefty and awe inspiring power animal variety. Some are mammals, some are birds.
So here is a little mystery worthy of contemplation. How is it that some human cultures understand their culture and their humanity to have come in a fundamental way from animals, not from an upright Adam or Eve, not from anyone or anything we might call human? Do they just have a kind of mythic imagination that steps adroitly over the obvious question of how human genetics include animals? Not that I know of, no. It doesn’t take selective ancestral memory to come up with this understanding. It takes inclusive ancestral memory. The Western imagination might now need a kind of mythic primal moment where the wild inseminates the human to make sense of this idea, but we might be in the minority there.
One of the principal acts of creation or conjuring for these cultures is nourishing or feeding or sustaining. These are acts of love, and they are architects of village-mindedness. They are generative, generous, holy.
So this sequence of sustenance is the web of environmental, emotional,spiritual, and cultural health and life, and that web is the warp and weft of kinship. A totem animal is that one who gave life to the first human ancestor, perhaps by giving himself or herself as food, and in that way, acted as ancestors do, by living in the presence of and according to the generations not yet come. (Our word accord, meaning “agreement” or “harmony,” comes from the Greek kardia, meaning “heart.”)
So, if the first ancestor is the one who kept your ancestor alive, then your lineage was maintained, yes, and your lineage was maintenance. In every way it can be meant, this cadence of sustenance is the lineage binding present generations to those not yet born and to ancestors and to the Old Ones, the first ones. How does that work, though? How can acts of feeding and the deep etiquette that attends them be lineage, be kinship? Not “represent” or “symbolize” kinship: how can etiquette be ancestry and kinship?
I read a brief caption under a picture of a Lacandon shaman in evident distress. He had asked the anthropologist present for aspirin for a headache. The anthropologist asked in turn why he didn’t resort to his “traditional” ways to cure the headache. The shaman responded that the aspirin helped the Gods to do their work. So, that’s how it works. Lineage in this understanding uses DNA and the other mechanics of inheritance known now to Western science (and uses other things as well) as the means by which this covenant of maintenance appears, informs the present, and continues recognizably through subsequent generations.
DNA, you could say, is one way the First Ancestor sings to his or her grandchildren, granting them their days, and those songs are the lives the generations of grandchildren get to live. And the grandchildren’s memories of their ancestors are those songs being sung.
That is a powerful thought to think: you have memories of things you’ve no lived experience of. Those memories aren’t yours. Those memories are your ancestors, murmuring their songs of life, songs that you get to overhear.
The habits of mind Western education entrusts to its citizens are in sharp relief when we question and wonder. Many of us have a mania for the monolith and the sequence and for “the one and only beginning.”
So this is a dilemma, isn’t it, this business of the first ancestor not being human? You might say, “Alright, I can imagine this maintenance function being the way ancestry is passed down. But then who maintained the ancestor of the first ancestor, the dodem? It had to start somewhere. There had to be one single beginning. That’s what the word beginning means.” Well, that’s one of the things that it means. Everything changes—everything does—when you put an “s” at the end of beginning.
Let’s say that the dodem, the first ancestor, is a deer. Then who kept the deer alive? This question mutates in answering it, you see. Do you mean what food kept the deer alive, or do you mean what underwrote the health of the deer? Allow this idea of sustenance to touch your idea of what alive means, and what beginning means. The deer is an herbivore.
So if you are thinking of sustenance as food source, you might say, “Young twigs, or tender shoots of anything. That sustains the deer.” So, do you see? By the mandate of sustenance, the first ancestor of the first ancestor deer, the dodem deer, would not be the first deer, but the first born of shrubbery. Then, you ask the same question of the shrubbery, and by that time you enter into a kind of creeping regression inquiry that resembles the barbershop mirror that reflects the back of your head to infinity. But if you think of ancestry as something underwriting health, the unsettling of this “certainty of firsts” can happen. Could it be that the deer’s health (a more generous understanding of sustenance or feeding) isn’t found in food?
Health is a different consideration. Health is one’s negotiation with the limits of health, not the vanquishing of those limits. Think of the current, almost uncontested view of health that animates, for example, our healthcare systems in North America. Health here has become the absence, or failing that, the heavy, tech-reliant containment of what compromises health, illness. Health for us is largely the default condition of an illness-free circumstance. So we don’t really have a healthcare system. We have a disease management system in not very convincing disguise, and it is thrown into high gear not by the appearance of health but by the appearance of disease. That is why we spend about eighty cents of every healthcare dollar in North America in the last six months or so of a person’s life. It is a war on infirmity, not a health crusade. If health is derived from the absence of what challenges or compromises it, there is no health to care for. Life is full of these challenges and compromises. Health, then, is what you manage to wrangle as you keep life at bay. You may not believe that at first, but consider how it may have insinuated its way into your dreams for sanity and for a better day, into your fears about your waning years, into your homeopathic regimes.
In this dodem understanding, the deer’s life is food reliant, of course. But the deer’s health proceeds in constant back and forth congress with genetic frailty, injury or weakness, age and illness. Enter the wolf. The wolf is the tooth of life for the deer, bringing the compromise of health to bear upon individual deer through predation, yes, and leaving the strong and the able to procreate. In feeding herself and her young, the wolf culls the weak, the lame, and the genetically disadvantaged from the deer’s gene pool. The wolf is the guarantor of deer health in this understanding. The wolf is an ancestor of the deer, and if the deer were to congregate in ceremony, their aged ones might in making themselves known to their Old Ones murmur meingen dodem, wolf totem. By this reasoning, one very compelling to me, Big Pharma is becoming our ancestor, is it not?
Excerpted from Come Of Age, The Case For Elderhood In A Time Of Trouble by Stephen Jenkinson
Grief/Dirt: An Online Weekend with Stephen Jenkinson
In this unique online weekend program, we offer you something like an unsentimental education about the Land. An unblinking, errant pilgrimage across holy ground.
Stephen Jenkinson, MTS, MSW is an activist, teacher, author, and farmer. He is the founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Tramore, Canada and the author of four books, including Die Wise: A Manifesto for Sanity and Soul, the award-winning book about grief and dying, and the great love of life. In 2015, he created Nights of Grief & Mystery with Canadian singer-songwriter Gregory Hoskins. With a 5-piece band, they have mounted international tours and released three albums, most recently “Rough Gods and Dark Roads”.