Caught by the River

A Postcard from COP: Day 2

Anna Fleming | 4th November 2021

A Council of All Beings: Anna Fleming sends a Samhain update from Zoe Walker and Neil Bromwich’s Encampment of Eternal Hope at COP26.

At night, when the lofty glass ceiling reaches up into the dark sky, the Briggait becomes a majestic and haunting space. Built in 1873, the building dates back to Glasgow’s economic boom, when this northern port city was a centre for industry and commerce, and migrants poured in from across the Highlands, Ireland and Europe. Then the Briggait was a fish market. Now, the great hall is quiet and repurposed into an arts and cultural venue, which this week is hosting the Encampment of Eternal Hope. 

We gather here on Samhain, the night when the veil separating the living from the spirit world is thinnest. This Pagan festival, also known as Halloween, is celebrated in cultures across the world, like el Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. To the modern Briton, the notion of a spirit world is freakish. Our spirits are consigned to the realm of fantasy. But among the guests with us on this special evening, some talk of spirits with everyday ease. The Indigenous leaders have been speaking with their ancestors and those ancestors are reaching out to ours. These people have left their territories and travelled across the world to Glasgow to heal the wounds of colonialism. 

Such consciousness and dialogue with the past points to a great depth of connection between peoples across time. Meeting that culture is exciting and unsettling. I begin to see what poverty we all live in on these British Isles. We who have bought the world live in profound cultural austerity. 

Inside the Briggait, a hundred people gather in a circle around a spiral of candles, soil, fruits and leaves – the altar at the centre of the Council of All Beings. 

During this ceremony, we look to reconnect with traditions that marry us to our ancestors and other beings. 

Steaming cups of soup are passed around, an aromatic concoction of seeds, beans, and spices prepared by the Soul Food Sisters. A birch tree that was felled for HS2 is paraded around the space, shouldered by seven women. An Elder from Chile, a very powerful spiritual leader, steps forward and circles the altar, supported by her son. She carries a sprig of rosemary and performs the rites, helped by others, pouring waters together and lighting incense, chanting in her own tongue. 

We are guided through a cosmic meditation of life on Earth, journeying through billions of years of existence before the Councillors speak. Placing masks on, the Councillors step out of their humanity to represent non-human beings. We hear from rivers, plants, birds and animals. An Argyll Gaelic speaker voices song thrush. Quinoa tells her story in Spanish, protesting against the exploitation of farming for the global market. 

Calfin, an Indigenous leader from Chile, embodies fire. Fire, he reminds us, is where we gather, where ideas are shared and conversation flows. The candle-lit altar flickers as he tells us that countless peace treaties have been signed around the campfire. On this cold night in Glasgow, many voices speak from across many cultures and we are reminded that we are the ancestors of the future. Fire is the spirit of hope.