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Jampa Dorje, Guest Columnist

Rituals help us understand a world that is in a state of constant change, according to Associate Professor and Museum of Culture and Environment Director Hope Amason during a talk she gave at the Hal Holmes Center as part of the ongoing Good Life series. The events are sponsored by the EthicsLab and Ellensburg City Library.

After acknowledging that the Hal Holmes Center resides on Native lands, Amason began her talk about how upholding and continuing ritual traditions are what make a community whole. She quoted from “The Forest of Symbols” by Victor Turner and gave a strict, anthropological definition of ritual as a “prescribed formal behavior for occasions not given over to technological routine having reference to beliefs in mythical beings or people.”

She went on to describe how rituals are connected to the concepts of separation, liminality, and reaggregation based on Arnold Van Gennep’s book “Les Rites of Passage,” and then she asked the audience if anyone had experienced a rite of passage.

A man in a gray and black flannel said he had gone through boot camp, where he had been separated from his family and friends and undergone a “breaking down” before he became a soldier. He had learned new skills and become a part of a disciplined group of men. Amason said all rituals are similar and partake of these three stages of development. She emphasized that all rituals are about change, whether they are about anniversaries, seasons or social occasions; the aspect of change (or liminality) was what she wanted to focus on. She mentioned the uncertainty of phenomena during times such as dusk and dawn or when seasons change during the year. She asked the audience to describe their understanding of the topic.

A woman in a blue sculptured blazer said she was in between jobs and was feeling anxiety. A woman with a rooftop garden floral lace dress said that during such times it was as though she was straddling two worlds, that it was hard to know what was going on or focus.

A woman wearing a red sequined vest asked if altered states of consciousness induced by psychedelics could produce this condition, and Amason said she had read that trance states take a person where they feel they are not in their body and give an experience of being “betwixt and between.” Amason said the liminal aspect of a ritual gives a special power to the individual and the group by allowing them to recognize their togetherness in the same sphere of being, a place where they are experiencing both the human and the non-human nature of existence.

Referencing the work of anthropologists Edith and Victor Turner, Amason introduced the audience to her Tale of Two Trees. The first tree was the Milk Tree that is the main symbol in a ritual belonging to the Ndembu tribe of Zambia known as Nkang’a. In the Nkang’a, the Milk Tree draws together different aspects of motherhood. When a young girl’s milk begins to flow, she is led to the tree and told to lay in the fetal position while the older women sing songs and dance, empowering her to become a woman. The ceremony is connected to matrilineal marriage rites, and the prospective in-laws create a seclusion hut where the girl resides while her breasts develop, and she is told the “facts of life” that will prepare her for marriage. The Milk Tree, a tree that exudes a milky substance, represents the mother and child and all the ancestors, a tree where all the mothers had sat, the mothers from whom all the villagers are born.

Amason’s second tale was about the Christmas Tree of Western culture. She asked the audience if we knew anything about the symbolism of this tree. A woman in a color-block poplin tunic said that it celebrated the birth of Jesus and was a time of gift giving. A woman in a blue crisscross maxi dress said her family was from Germany and that it was an ancient custom in that culture but was not as commercial as it is in America. A man in a slim fit checked twill dress shirt said that traditionally the tree is an evergreen, usually a fir or a pine, and that it is his family’s tradition to get a Forest Service Permit and fell a tree for their front room. He said he enjoyed the decoration process and that there were ornaments that had been made by several generations of family members.

An elderly man wearing a contrast-reverse sport shirt said he had read Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess,” wherein is described a Celtic lunar calendar with each month being named after a tree that represents aspects of the moon during that cycle, adding that a tree is involved in both the birth and the death of Christ. He also said he finds comfort in director David Lynch’s daily weather report on YouTube as a meditative way to start the day.

A young woman in a teal silk blouse said during the talk she was surprised that she knew nothing about the Christmas tree and had always taken it for granted. Amason said this was not unusual, that people often do not know much about the history or content of the symbols in their culture, but they get caught up in the “spirit” of the ritual because the symbols engage our emotions. She concluded, saying that being open to change during liminal moments “challenges our assumptions about the web of life and that the work of social change occurs in these moments of liminality.”