Today marks the third year anniversary of my exploration of the elements across the globe through my blog FireupWaterdown (https://fireupwaterdown.com). Seventy six posts later, it is timely to review the topics explored so far, which ones have been widely viewed and which less so, the connections I have made over the last three years, and to reflect on the question ‘when people want to learn about the elements, what do they search for?
In early November 2016 I received an email from Rych Somdah, a gentleman living in the US who had traced his ancestry to the Dagara people of Burkina Faso in West Africa. Rych reminded me that in my first post on Africa I wrote that at some later time I would explore the shamanistic practices of the Dagara tribe in relation to the elements. Now is that time. I am grateful that Malidoma Patrice Somé has devoted his life to sharing the teachings and practices of the Dagara with the English speaking world. The five elements of fire, water, earth, minerals and nature are an essential part of his, and their, story.
Dogs and thunderstorms. Frogs and rain. Elephants and earthquakes. These are some of the many observations, across cultures and the ages, of the acute ability of nonhuman animals to sense changes in the elements – of wind, water, earth and fire – often long before we do. They do this using senses many humans have lost in modern times, and some that we have never attained. While some may attribute these responses purely to the physical ability other animals have to see, taste, hear, smell or feel extremely subtle changes in the environment, it goes well beyond this. As people take the time to look and listen to what these animals sense, think and feel, our eyes are being opened to the extraordinary lives of the other species we share the planet with, both big and small.
2015 is the United Nations International Year of Soils. It is a year to highlight and celebrate the fundamental role that soil plays in sustaining life on our planet and providing our food, fibre, fuel and much more. The International Year of Soils also presents an opportunity to focus on long-term solutions to the many challenges that soils face. In its natural form, soil teems with billions of living organisms, most invisible to the naked eye. It is full of life. The benefits soil brings us are humbling yet often go unnoticed. That may help explain the poor treatment it often receives. As a potent expression of the Earth element, soil represents life, regeneration and reconciliation. There is a lot we can learn from it, if we take the time.
On August 30th, 2005 the focus of the world was on New Orleans in Louisiana, USA after a category 4-5 Hurricane called Katrina unleashed its elemental power. Combined with a levy system that could not cope with the intensity and aftermath of the hurricane, Katrina was the most destructive storm to strike the United States and the costliest in U.S. history, causing over $100 billion in property damage. The human cost of the storm, which is not something that you can put a dollar figure on, is still playing itself out. Lessons on how to plan for and respond to extreme elements can be learnt from the experience of cities like New Orleans and other parts of the planet.
Each of us has a special place, or places, that we have a strong connection to. This “sense of place” is developed through personal and cultural experiences and knowledge of a particular area. The “elemental” landscape is an important part of these experiences, one that expresses itself on many scales – from the sun on your face, to the changing of the seasons or the impact of earthquakes or storms on a region.
Architecture and the elements are intimately interconnected. It is estimated that around 50% of the world’s population lives or works in earth buildings, constructed mainly of dirt (clay, gravel, sand, silt, soil, loam and mud). Stone, also of the earth, has been used to great effect by civilisations like the Tiahuanacu and Inka, as well as in buildings in Europe and their colonies. Iconic buildings like the Flame Towers in Baku, Azerbaijan pay homage to the elements. And ancient practices such as Feng Shui from China and Vastu Shastra from India use the elements to assist with the placement of buildings in a landscape, on a site and their internal design.
It’s time to put the mystical continent of Africa on the elemental map. It’s been just over a year since I started my blog exploring the elements and this will be my first post on Africa. Its day has come. The cultures and belief systems found in Africa are diverse and many. Having chosen Sufism as the starting point, perhaps I could have selected something simpler! Having begun though, I felt that it was important to finish what I started.