The Rattling at the Gate
Trillium is blooming.
Flowering when the days feel like May and the nights feel like February, Trillium occupies a liminal space. A medicine of childbirth and tuberculosis. A flower that comes before winter has given up its ghost.
In another spring in another forest on another coast, I wrote:
in the moments
Our Lady of the Forest
draws no distinction
she will hold you
through the night
then deliver you
to the April morning,
your first breath.
Here on the southern tip of the place colonial cartography calls Vancouver Island, I found the first Trilliums of the season blooming in the place the WSNANEC call SNIDCEL, “The Place of the Blue Grouse,” named for a bird whose presence or absence marks the health of the land.
The bird was driven from this place when settlers came and cleared the forest to build a cement factory where Chinese and Sikh laborers lived, worked, and died. The factory is gone now — only the foundations of the buildings remain. The forest is growing back — Cedar, Trillium, Fawn Lily, Ghost Pipe, Coral Root, Skunk Cabbage, Otter, Raven, and Eagle have all returned. But the Grouse is present only in the artwork adorning the sign that calls this place by its true name, a reminder off once and future worlds.
It is in places like this, at this time of year, when I hear them the loudest — the dead rattling at the gate. The human ones and the wild ones whose presence was essential to the wholeness and integrity of the living world, who were driven into the realm of the dead before their time, and who are clamoring to return.
When I think of those deaths, I am reminded of the meditations of the Jewish Marxist mystic, Walter Benjamin, written in the final days of his life as he watched war and genocide spread across Europe. Benjamin wrote:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [. . . ], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
Benjamin and his angel find themselves trapped with in an eschatological framework within which the storm unleashed, created by an omnipotent, tyrannical god, and set loose as a result of human disobedience to divine dictates, cannot be turned back.
But, as a Feri priest, I work with gods and magic that are older than this world and are not bound by linear time. I refuse to accept that “progress” is irreversible or that what is dead is gone from the world.
And, so, I stand at the gates of death beside one of my gods, who comes to me in the form of a bear, though many others associate him more with the stag. (His name suggests the Old Welsh word for bear which is also contained in the name of a sacred king.)
Bears are beings that inhabit two worlds. They spend most of the year walking among the living. But they spend the dark months in the underworld, where they can hear the songs of the sleeping, the gestating, and the dead.
The god I am standing with is known by most as a death god, but he tells me that he is more than that, he is the one who stands between worlds. He is the opener and closer of gates. And, while we are used to thinking of the dead moving through those gates in only one direction, that is not the only possibility.
He reminds me that two thousand years ago, a Jewish Palestinian magician brought a man named Lazarus back from the dead — bringing down the wrath of an empire, because, in the words of the radical theologian, William Stringfellow, death is “the only moral and political sanction of the State.”
But he tells me that is not the only way the dead return. Plants return when the concrete begins to crack. Forests return when human hands stop tending land. Visions return when we reach deep into history to summon the memory of once and future worlds.
The dead who are rattling the gate aren’t insisting on their physical return in the bodies they inhabited before. They are insisting on a world in which their lives become possible again. They are insisting on the shattering of pavement and the breaking of foundations. They are insisting that we will not earn the pardon of the bleeding earth so long as we are meek and gentle with such butchers as those who cut short their lives. They demand the return of wildness and enchantment.
Among the living, there are many who warn me against opening the gate. They say that worlds could be torn assunder. They say this could be the undoing of systems on which peoples’ lives depend. They say I risk chaos and destruction.
The dead reply by pointing to the wreckage left by the storm called progress. Clearcuts and mass graves. Prisons and shantytowns. Strip mines and cancer wards. Sweatshops and toxic waste dumps. They say that the persistence of the systems of control now in place around the world is a greater cataclysm than their collapse could ever be.
Beside me stands a bear-like god who tells me the choice is mine.
And the rattling at the gate grows louder and louder . . .