Intro: What does a giant underground vault near the North Pole have in common with an oral history collection? More than you think, Ellen Coon explains.
Sometimes, a word or two can change the way we think about things. The words are usually small and inconspicuous and come upon on us when we are waiting for the water to heat up, the soup to cool down, or a lecture to begin.
The words often carry a message that we don’t even know we’ve been looking for. They can provide us with advice about an impending decision or warn us against a serious misstep. They operate in much the same way as intuition or inspiration. They’re usually freely given, but we have to be open to receive them. They can also be coaxed into consciousness by reading poetry, Russian short stories, or even the great works of Svetlana Alexievich.
At the March 7, 2019, oral history workshop lecture given by Ellen Coon, who has spent three decades recording oral histories in the Kathmandu Valley, I was fortunate enough to hear two such words.
Toward the end of her talk, Coon compared her oral history collection to a seed bank, “Yes,” I thought to myself, “This is exactly what oral histories are! They’re seed banks to preserve everything we know about a place, a people, an entire civilization. What could be more important than this?”
In the Kathmandu Valley, the once pristine skies are grey with industrial pollution, the rivers contain innumerable chemicals and the lush green rice paddies and vegetable gardens have been drained and replaced with ramshackle housing. The deities who dwelt in the trees, ponds, rivers, and rocks and advised the people on everything from stray dogs to disgruntled in-laws are being erased, too.
This isn’t just happening in Kathmandu. The earth, land, places, are in crisis. So much is being forgotten. In this context, I think of my archive as a kind of a seed bank, protecting one life-nourishing way of seeing and being in the world for us to draw upon in the future. There’s a hunger now to learn of sacred ecology, to learn from indigenous ways of living with the land, in which a vibrant landscape and spiritual life are feeding each other.
When the elders are gone, future generations will be able to go to Ellen’s seed bank and pull out the packets that contain the ceremonies that will help them re-connect with their gods. By rediscovering the power and joy imbued in those old rituals, they may find the strength and resolve they need to drive out the forces that are threatening their ancient civilization and the fragile ecology of the Kathmandu Valley. The Newar people possess a sophisticated civilization that rivaled Rome and the valley was once rich in biodiversity. The ‘sacred ecology’ of the Kathmandu Valley is one of humanity’s treasures and all of us will be poorer if it is lost.
The Kathmandu Valley is not the only place where seed banks are being created. As the effects of global warming increase, officials have begun to ponder the question of how to preserve the world’s biodiversity. They are establishing repositories that contain actual seeds. Like our oral histories, these seeds, too, contain a life and a history.
One of the largest, called the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is located on a remote island that lies between Norway and the North Pole. It was built by the Norwegian government and contains more than 400,000 varieties of seeds. Syrian farmers, whose crops were destroyed by war, returned recently to the seed bank to retrieve seeds so they could replant their fields.
The Svalbard Vault was thought to be immune to global warming, but when temperatures rose two years ago, water seeped about 50 feet into one of the tunnels before refreezing. Since then, the Norwegian government has sought to protect the vault by eliminating heat sources and trenching the ground so water is directed away from the vault.
Oral history collections, too, can be endangered by natural catastrophes and accidents. They also can become lost or misplaced or the technology used to record stories can become outdated. That’s why we’ve learned to keep duplicates of our oral histories in multiple places and keep them in various formats, including typed indexes and transcripts.
Some journalists have dubbed the Arctic repository a “Doomsday Vault.” But the employees who work in the sub-zero facility prefer to think of it as the “Noah’s ark” of plant diversity. Boxes of seeds from Russia sit next to boxes from the Ukraine. “ Even if they are enemies outside, in this seed vault they cooperate,” said one worker.
One could argue that oral history collections, like Ellen Coon’s, are also arks. On board you can find all the glory and diversity of the human race -- language, music, religion, customs, and history.
There are many places in the world where ‘seed banks,’ or oral history archives, are needed. Wars, technological changes and climatic disasters are causing erasures on a massive scale. People are being displaced in Central America, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
Here in the United States, virtually every neighborhood in the country seems to be under assault. Massive displacement is occurring.
The week before Ellen Coon’s presentation, we were fortunate to hear from Professor Nishani Frazier, who spoke of her efforts to create a national movement to fight gentrification. She warned that not only homes and neighborhoods were being erased, but also the “aural memories” of those spaces. “We’re descending into historical madness,” she warned. “That which was appears as if it was never there.”
In Denver, Colorado, my hometown, a tsunami-like gentrification movement, which is powered by developers and the city’s pro-development mayor, is erasing entire neighborhoods. A friend of mine woke up one morning to find a real estate agent in his backyard measuring the width of his property.
Small homes are being bulldozed to make way for high-end apartments. Are the residents leaving willingly? Did increasing property taxes drive them out? We need to collect those oral histories and put them in seed banks so people will know what to expect when the next wave of gentrification occurs.
Ellen Coon spoke eloquently of the ceremonies that mark the important phases in the lives of the Newar people and the delicious feasts that are served afterward. In Kathmandu, the deities are not the all-powerful Gods found in churches and temples and mosques. They’re small gods who inhabit a hole in the fence, a pipa tree, or even the body of a profane medium who can shift-shape into the Hindu god, Kali.
I yearn for a world of gods who could protect me from misfortune and help me make important decisions.
I like to think that the gods can be found here, too, and that I can connect with them by being attentive to the periphery of the world that flashes by like a dream.
So, I keep the headphones off in order to hear them better. Sometimes they come, in the shape of words.
Eileen Welsome is exploring how trauma and memory is passed on through the re-examination of a long-buried Cold War experiment. The patients were known by code numbers only, but through the Freedom of Information Act -- and the small gods who confer luck on reporters -- she was able to identify the patients. Surviving family members received reparations and a national apology from President Clinton. You can experience her work, America Atomica, at the April 26th and 27th OHMA exhibit.