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What our ancestors can teach us about climate activism

Storyteller and Creative Producer Becky Burchell writes about her latest project, Women of the Dark Skies, which calls to the ancestors for advice in our current crisis.

We stand at a moment in time where life as we know it is under threat. Many lives have already been lost and much of what we love is being destroyed. But there is worse to come. If we do not act now, our children will grow up in a very different world to the one we know now. Are we prepared to fight for our future?

These words may resonate deeply with anyone who understands the severity of the climate crisis. As a mother of two young children and as an environmental activist, these words certainly represent how I have felt for much of the past decade. Yet as someone who also lives in the heart of the ancient Cranborne Chase landscape, with the echoes of history still present in our long barrows and earthworks, I wonder if there was a time when our ancestors were asking the same question. If so, do they have some wisdom that can help us now?

Over the past year, I have creatively explored this idea of connecting to our ancestors to guide us in the climate crisis. What has evolved is an immersive storytelling pilgrimage for women, taking place at night, crossing the ancient paths that surround the village of Chettle in North Dorset. At the start of the pilgrimage, participants are transported back to the late Iron Age, just after the Roman invasion, to meet Birch of the Hill, a Storyweaver from the Durotriges Tribe. As the night unfolds, she leads these women in a long snaking line, through the darkness, pausing along the route to reveal an important story and an urgent call to action. What power do we each have to act in this moment of crisis?

The crisis our ancestors faced back then was monumental. When Rome invaded Britain nearly 2,000 years ago, our island was populated by many different tribes, with no dominant leader. During the first years of the invasion, there was bloodshed and resistance, as many of the tribes tried to defend their freedom against this powerful and organised force that had come to colonise them.

How would it have felt to have lived here on these lands at that time, wondering what the future held for your children? To witness Rome take your land as their own and steal your harvest through taxes. To see your sacred forests destroyed to create warships. To lose kin in battle. Then how would you respond when a powerful, female, Iceni warrior calls the tribes to rise up against this force? Would you join Boudica to fight for your children’s future?

These are the questions that the Storyweaver in ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ explores, inviting a lucid connection with the ancestors who trod these very paths 2,000 years before us. In between each section of the story, the participants walk in ceremonial silence across the beautiful dark landscape of these historic Durotriges tribal lands. This allows time to connect with the other lives we share this landscape with, the creatures, the trees, the plants. Finally, the pilgrimage reaches a clearing in a woodland, where a blazing fire awaits. The evening ends with the women sitting in a circle around this fire - just as our ancestors would have done - sharing their responses to the night’s experience.

During creating and leading the ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ pilgrimage, I have felt that we have much to learn from our Iron Age kin that could support and embolden us in this moment of climate reckoning. Back then, in a country with no single leadership, Boudica had no way of forcefully conscripting warriors to her cause, rather tribes joined her because they shared her vision for the future. They also shared the same fears. In our increasingly polarised and tribalised modern world, most of us are still united by our core values, our desire for peace, our desire to be safe, our desire to create a better world for our children. Like the ancient tribes of this land, can we put aside political and personal differences to find unity on what we have in common? How can we reach out to those from different ‘tribes’ to find more ways to work together on climate action?

The story in ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ also explores the different roles that each person embodies within a community, recognising the varying skills, roles and powers that were called on in that historic moment. Some people in the Durotriges tribe would have joined Boudica and her warriors to fight the Romans. But not everyone would have fought on the front line. Just like in our activism today, we don’t all need to be warriors. Some tribe members would have crafted the weapons. Some would have healed the wounded. Some would have stayed and grown the crops, tended the animals. Some would be supporting the spiritual wellbeing of the tribes. We all have different roles to play in creating change and this is as pertinent now as it was then. We each have different skills, experience and interests to fuel our individual and collective climate action.

However, finding your place within the often overwhelming territory of climate action can be daunting for many. It is not always easy to see how we can each make a difference. The main character in the story of the ‘Women of the Dark Skies’ pilgrimage is a girl called Arla, a loner who spends most of her time in the forest and away from her community. Some of the Elders in the tribe are scornful of this absence from the group and feel that she is shunning her responsibilities. Until the day when Arla’s deep connection with the landscape, the forest and the darkness transpires to be the very thing that the community urgently needs to save their harvest. When considering the scale and the breadth of what’s currently required to address the climate crisis, we should not dismiss anyone’s ability to play their part. Those who live their life on the edges sometimes have the greatest ability to see different paths forward. So with this in mind, can we find more ways to include those in the margins of our communities in climate action?

Finally, perhaps the deepest lesson from the ancestors we can heed in these turbulent times is that we humans are not alone. We share this land with the most dazzling array of beings who, in the past, would have had a much greater presence in daily and spiritual life. Walking the Chettle landscape in the dark, with our senses heightened and the sounds of the night all around us, the women who have walked the pilgrimage with me found a deep sense of calm, rejuvenation, connection and even enlightenment. Watching shooting stars as we listened to the owls and stags calling to each other, smelling the wet leaves in the mud beneath our feet, walking boldly into the darkness without torches; these experiences ground us to this moment, to this beautiful earth we call home, to the profound wonder of being alive. These moments are timeless. We can imagine that this was how the Durotriges tribe felt walking these paths before us and we want our children’s children to feel this one day too. So when we ask ourselves, just as our ancestors did, are we prepared to fight for our future? Of course the answer is yes.

If you would like to take part in ‘Women of the Dark Skies’, there are four events happening soon on Friday 1st, Friday 8th, Friday 15th or Friday 22nd March in Chettle. To find out more or to book, please follow this link:

Becky Burchell is a creator of festivals, films, plays, women’s circles, community gatherings, rituals and stories. She leads experiences that embolden people to live in ways that nurture our natural world and one another. Becky lives with her family in the community of Chettle, North Dorset.



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