We ritualize to not forget. We have already forgotten so many things—have so many things silenced—that we have lost our ability to hear, to hear ourselves, to hear others, to hear other worlds. We need rituals, performances, and ceremonies to help us to listen and remember who we were and who we are becoming every day. We can only do that if we are able to remember those who composed our stories and those who give us the possibility to live and continue to become. In order to do that, we need to pay attention to other species and how they also compose our very humanity.
In Australia, the birds called Honeyeaters are disappearing because their home has been destroyed and they are becoming so few in number that their elders are disappearing. With the vanishing of their elders their songs also vanish. The younger males cannot learn their own songs and have lost their ability to attract the female Honeyeaters. The females can’t hear the males singing their songs and have little interest in them. The males try to learn other birds’ songs but that does not help them much. Without songs, there is no love and life cannot continue. The result: the Honeyeaters are dying. After I read their story, I had to make sense of this loss and wrote this prayer poem to them. The loss of the Honeyeaters songs showed me how I have also lost so many of own songs and how I need to relearn what was stolen from me. To remember the Honeyeaters was a way of remembering them, but also a way to remember myself. It was way of honoring through this ritual of remembrance and words, the life of the honeyeaters, their loss, and keep them in the memory of my heart.
By the Oak tree near my house I sat down and wept.
I have heard about you. How beautiful you all are!
Far away from you, I heard about your condition
Your struggle to survive
Your home being desecrated
Your refugia being erased
Your people dwindling down…
I heard you can’t find your own singing
The young ones can’t find your elders to teach you your own songs
For they are all almost gone
But the few young ones are trying to learn your own songs
So, you can mate and prosper and continue living
Your singing comes from learning from your own people
How wonderful is that!
You are literally the songs of your fathers, mothers, great fathers,
great mothers, great grandmothers and great grandfathers.
But how tragic it is now:
They are not there anymore, and they cannot teach you the songs you
so desperately need to sing
And without your own songs, you go on mimicking the songs of
In different places, we hear you sing different songs
You are trying to survive by learning whatever song you hear
But those songs are not your songs
And without your songs, your “warbly noises,” you can’t court
They are not attracted to the unrecognizable songs you sing.
You sound metallic, too loud, off of your own tune.
You are there but at the same time… you are not.
You exist yes, but for whom?
Your own people cannot come close to you
For your songs are not recognizable
You are losing your own self because your own self is not your own!
You are not a lone single singer but a myriad of voices and songs
Your self is collective because your song is collective.
Your song belongs to generations past, made by ways of listening
that only your people know
But now… now you are losing yourself.
Your song doesn’t fulfill you
As much as you try
As much as you listen
As much as you are eager and perhaps even desperate to sing any song
Your song now is a foreign song
You are becoming foreign to yourself
The songs you sing are not your own, are not you
You live in a diaspora of songs
Yes, I can utterly relate to you when
In my attempt to mimic other people songs
I don’t understand how, after a whole day singing
Your songs are becoming less complex!
And without your song you are losing your strength!
Through the regular battles of your day with other species, you
easily lose your fights,
especially against the “noisy miners,” other Honeyeaters who
are more aggressive.
Just because you don’t have your own song
Your story reminds me of Chiilaphuchiassaalesh, or Bull Goes into the Wind, renamed as Plenty Coups, great Chief of the Crow Nation (Apsaalooké). He once said to a white man these piercing words:
“I have not told you half of what happened when I was young,” [Plenty Coups] said, when urged to go on. “I can think back and tell you much more of war and horse-stealing. But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere. Besides,” he added sorrowfully, “you know that part of my life as well as I do. You saw what happened to us when the buffalo went away.”
Like you, dear Honeyeaters, Plenty Coups and his people lost their ways of being, feeling, living… When the buffalo went away the hearts of Plenty Coups’ people fell to the ground, and there was very little singing.
Just like you losing your refugia
Just like you losing your singing
I don’t know much about you. And I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what will happen to the very few of you left. But I hope the people who live near you in Australia will help you to continue and re-exist. All I really know is that my heart fell to the ground when I heard your story. I felt that there is very little singing in me. Do I sound metallic, off tune and annoying when I sing? With your loss, part of me will also die. What I will do is to sing to you every day from where I am, even if I am so far away from you. From here I will listen to your songs on my computer, then I will go out of my house and sing your songs very loud. If you cannot hear me, I promise I will keep you in my heart.
All my love, and my singing, to you.
The sad story of the honeyeaters is also the story of so many of us. We have forgotten we had songs to sing. There is so little ancestral singing in some of us. But life is what we pass on. Perhaps we can learn our collective singing is our ceremonies and then we can remember ourselves. Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist, and member of the of the Potawatomi Nation, reminds us of why we need ceremonies:
Our elders say that ceremony is the way we can remember to remember. In the dance of the giveaway, remember that the earth is a gift that we must pass on, just as it came to us. When we forget, the dances we’ll need will be for mourning. For the passing of polar bears, the silence of cranes, for the death of rivers and the memory of snow”1
Rituals are ways to help us go through many losses in this time of the Anthropocene. There is already too much mourning in our world with the passing of so many people to COVID-19, and so many species going extinct. We have no other choice but to sing with and for the people (human and more than human) and offer the gifts we still have. We have to sing with those who are living and with those who have died. When I mourn the death of my friend’s mother, the vanishing of the bees, or the disappearance of the Honeyeaters, I compose an assemblage of species, a hymnody of sounds, composing a rich soundscape of many beings and many worlds.