When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I found myself deeply connected with stories of the Holocaust. I read all I could about it, I watched TV shows about it, I found poetry and art that spoke to me of the horrors that could never, ever be allowed to happen again. When I began my degree, more than 20 years ago now, one of our first projects was mask making – we made our masks as papier mache replicas of our own heads, and mine became a skull, with a crown of thorns, a yellow star and the words of Carol Ann Duffy’s “Shooting Stars” circling over and over again inside. Art has always been a way to process experiences and events for me, and it was a project which never left me – I can still recite the words of that poem as it literally circles inside my brain. Yet while death and loss were a huge part of my early life, I had no personal connection that I was aware of at the time to the Holocaust. But I cried as I wrote the names of the death camps around the edges of my mashed up paper mask. Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau. Sobbed in my room as I painted and scribed, for all that were lost. Tears still, as I write this, for all we have lost since, and all that has not changed.
A couple of years ago, while digging about in the family lines trying to untangle a mystery, I discovered that a great, great aunt on my mother’s side, who was rumored in family circles to have been involved in the French Resistance and subsequently interred by the Germans during the war, was at some point in her internment, held at Auschwitz.
She survived. She thrived. She lived a full and joyful life despite the horrors she must have witnessed. She was Catholic, Irish, born and raised in the North East of England – the death camps of the Second World War were a far cry from the lives the rest of her family lived. She rarely spoke of her wartime experiences, and the family would never have known that the tattoo of numbers on her left arm were a clue to her whereabouts during that time.
She died before I was born but her story often makes me wonder about the scientific research that suggests DNA carries memories down the ancestral line as a way to support the survival of a species. I think of the people, the stories, the places that hold a mysterious sense of connection that we cannot place – and the way the hairs on the back of our necks raise up in acknowledgement when we discover why: when we finally gather up the threads of our inherited truth. And I think about all the inherent knowledge that we carry, the natural instincts we have to protect our kin, to care for the land, to carry our stories on – written into our DNA but which modern culture has literally squashed right out of us. That instinctive compulsion that runs in our blood to protect the life forces that sustain us is crushed and frozen and eroded and ERASED by the pressures of modern day life. And our modern life is destroying the land and it’s inhabitants. We can no longer deny it. As the world burns around us, we are literally sleepwalking into ecocide.
One woman who made it her life’s work to bring ecocide into not just the public conscience, but into actual International Law, was Polly Higgins. Polly, along with co-founder Jojo Mehta, created Stop Ecocide, a movement focused on protection of the Earth, driving the goal to have ecocide written into Law. Making ecocide illegal, forcing businesses and governments to consider the environmental impact of their decisions BEFORE they take them, and not after, and working from a place of “first do no harm”, could change the face of the planet forever.
I truly believe now, that turning the climate crisis around needs more than personal changes at home (think steel water bottle, family cloth, rejecting single use plastic) but absolute system change, right across the board. And more than that, it requires spaces for us to reconnect with our natural instincts, our inherited stories of connection to the land that sustains us, and our human need to protect and nurture. All these elements must be given the chance to work together, and *we* must be the ones to bring the change that will provide space we so desperately need to breathe our life forces into new (old) ways of living. With compassion for all life. With respect for all life.
On the other side of my family tree, my father’s family were crofters in the Highlands, going back through the generations. Lately, I have been feeling the calling of my ancestors to make what little land I have, serve my family’s needs better. To sustain us in a healthier, kinder way. To use it to protect and nurture my little family in the most connected ways I can. And to honor the strong willed women behind me who fought to survive, by calling up their strength and their power, written in my blood, to keep fighting for new ways of living, flourishing, thriving on our dying planet. New journeys beginning as I answer the call. With a nod and a smile and a thankful blessing to Polly, for all that will come of her tireless work, and to Isabel, who lived where so many perished.
Genocide, the act of intentionally destroying a group of people, was recognized in International Law in 1948, after Raphael Lemkin initiated the Genocide Convention. Ecocide, defined as the purposeful damage to, destruction of or loss of eco systems as a result of human activity, has yet to be recognized in International Law.
Both can only be perpetrated if the masses look the other way.
And we are the masses. You and me. We always have been.
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