Yet the underlying animistic cultures of Indonesia, like those of many islands in the Pacific, are steeped as well in beliefs often referred to by anthropologists as "ancestor worship." Some may argue that the ritual reverence paid to one's long-dead human ancestors, and the assumption of their influence in present life, easily invalidates my contention that the various "powers" or "spirits" that move throughout the discourse of indigenous, oral peoples are ultimately tied to nonhuman (but nonetheless sentient) forces in the enveloping terrain.
This objection trades upon certain notions implicit in Christian civilization, such as the assumption that the "spirits" of dead persons necessarily retain their human form, or that they reside in a domain entirely beyond the material world to which our senses give us access. However, many indigenous, tribal peoples have no such ready recourse to an immaterial realm outside earthly nature. For most oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous Earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The "body"--human or otherwise--is not yet a mechanical object. It is a magical entity, the mind's own sensuous aspect, and at death the body's decomposition into soil, worms, and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one's elders and ancestors into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.
Each indigenous culture elaborates this recognition of metamorphosis in its own fashion, taking its clues from the particular terrain in which it is embedded. Often the invisible atmosphere that animates the visible world--the subtle presence that circulates both within us and around all things--retains within itself the spirit or breath of the dead person until the time when that breath will enter and animate another visible body--a bird, or a deer, or a field of wild grain. Some cultures may cremate the body in order to more completely return the person, as smoke, to the swirling air, while that which departs as flame is offered to the sun and stars, and what lingers as ash is fed to the dense earth. Still other cultures, like some in the Himalayas, may dismember the body, leaving certain parts where they will likely be found by condors or consumed by leopards or wolves, thus hastening the reincarnation of that person into a particular animal realm within the landscape. Such examples illustrate simply that death, in tribal cultures, initiates a metamorphosis wherein the person's presence does not "vanish" from the sensible world (where would it go?) but rather remains as an animating force within the vastness of the landscape-whether subtly, in the wind; more visibly, in animal form; or even as the eruptive, ever-to-be-appeased wrath of the volcano. "Ancestor worship" in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.
This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience we encounter, whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds, are never absolutely alien to ourselves. Despite the very obvious differences in shape, ability, and style of being, they remain at least distantly familiar, even familial. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship or consanguinity that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.
Why this response?
I was reading from The Ecology of Magic last night before bed, and this description of our belonging in the life force of our natural world stuck with me. Wonderfully enough, my dear Macky-J posted an artwork that appeals directly to the concept of our death meaning only the continuation of more life in our home, our earth. The skeleton symbolizes the death of a human, but the garden growing from it symbolizes the continuation of life so beautifully described in the bold print above.
How does this relate to growth?
Our life is part of a changing and growing natural life force. Even after death (when one might assume that growth has permanently ended), our lives and our bodies will go on to help grow new life.