Pigs, Ferns And Easter Sunrise on Sacred Hilltops

I have mentioned my incredible, brilliant, creative and imaginative sister before in passing, but I haven’t really expressed how much she means to me. My parents adopted two children from Vietnam when they were married there during the Vietnamese war. The eldest one was adopted when she was about 4 years old from an orphanage that didn’t treat the children so well–as a result she has various chemical and emotional problems. My other sister was given directly to my folks when she was still a baby. Both of my elder sisters were war babies. Their fathers were African-American GI’s and their mothers were Vietnamese, we don’t know any of them, although we did briefly try to find them in 1995.

Anyway, that is just a bit of context for you. The sister I spent the most amount of time with was the one closer to my age, let’s call her Jo. Of course, as kids whenever we wanted to ask the parents for something we knew they were likely to say “no” to my adopted sisters would always try to get me to do it, saying “You are their birth child, they will do it if you ask.” I always replied, “They are more likely to agree to it if one of you asks, after all they got to choose you, they just had to take what came with me.” (I personally thought my argument had more clout, and it did tend to shut them up).

But again, I am getting away from what I am trying to tell you. My two older sisters were my world for much of my childhood.

Jo and I were inseprable. Since I was quite tall for my age, before too long we were the same hight and our favorite game was pretending we were twins, she was the boy and I was the girl. She had such an incredible imagination, we were always up to some kind of fun, exploring, jumping on coffee-trees, stealing peanuts, climbing on the A-frame Church, making space-ships out of ferns and mud, collecting mushrooms, running away from home… giggling incessantly the whole time, driving everyone else in the family nuts. I soon discovered one good thing about her being older than me — she generally got the blame for the naughty things we got up to and therefore would nearly always be the one to get the spanking.

We lived in a village where everyone knew us so we were generally allowed to roam about as we pleased without too many restrictions. The main rule was that we weren’t supposed to go outside of our village, as in Papua New Guinea, tribal conflicts can be quite heated and variable. My sister and I loved to pretend we were gallant explorers and often strayed further afield than we were supposed to.

I was really fortunate to have such a vibrant, fun-loving sister to play with growing up, as all the village kids loved to stare at me and pull my hair, and just generally seemed shocked to have such a freaky pale kid in their midst. I probably would have just hidden inside at home the whole time if it hadn’t been for Jo and her non-stop antics.

At some point we got obsessed with collecting ferns. In Papua New Guinea they have an unimaginable variety of ferns in all kinds of shapes and forms. We couldn’t believe how many different kinds we could find. On one of our fern collecting expeditions we came across a corner of the village we hadn’t been to before. Now, in PNG they love pigs more than women. In fact, they think women were made to take care of the pigs. The pigs often get loose and roam about, digging up everything they come across with their large snouts. As a result the villages are criss-crossed with huge long ditches, often 6 feet deep or so, and quite narrow–maybe a foot across–to keep the pigs out of their gardens. It seems pigs can’t jump. The ground in our village was a bright orange clay, so the ditches were quite lovely. On one fern hunting expedition we came across one of these ditches on the edge of our village. It was old and overgrown and on the other side was a fence. There were all sorts of ferns growing out of the walls of the ditch and there was some kind of a wild forest area beyond the fence. This was absolutely irresistible to us and we immediately jumped the ditch and scrambled along the fence looking for a way through.

Once we got through the fence–to be honest I don’t remember exactly how we pulled that off, I do remember it being pretty much a near death struggle–we found ourselves at the bottom of a hill that had beautiful old trees growing all over it. There was a special sacred quality about the hill, and it reminded us of another hill which was also a very magical experience and a place we never managed to find again.

So you can imagine our delight to find another sacred hill. This hill was not so thickly forested and we soon began to figure out that it must be an ancient burial ground. The air was still, the birds were quiet. Even the crickets and cicadas that usually made a constant racket were silent. We slowly made our way to the top, admiring the huge trees and the ferns and other plants as we climbed. At the top we discovered a lovely look-out point where we could see all across the village to the hill where we lived just below the A-frame church. The square hillocks of gardens made a lovely patchwork below the distant purple mountains that rose steeply into the clouds. After we got our fill of soaking in the serene atmosphere and felt recovered from our struggle with the pit-pit fence we decided to find a different way home.

It was surprisingly easy to get home. We simply went down the other side of the hill and found ourselves on a narrow dirt track that soon swung back around to the main dirt road that ran through the village. This time when we got home and excitedly told of our discovery, we weren’t spanked and punished, in fact our mother was so excited and delighted by our find (it was actually in our village this time) that the next day we took the whole family there and our mother declared it was the perfect spot to have our Easter sunrise breakfast picnic–a long-standing tradition in her family.

When Easter Sunday came around we were up before dawn, filling our thermoses with hot chocolate and packing up Hot Cross Buns. Shivering and excited we walked through the darkness, climbing the sacred hill as the sky started to shimmer with the light of the rising sun. At the top of the hill we had just enough time to settle on our blanket. With a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and a tasty bun in the other, we admired the beauty of the sunrise as our father told the story of Jesus emerging from his tomb, telling the Marys not to cry, showing them his healed scars and bringing hope and life and possibilities. When the story was over we all sang a few hymns thanking Jesus for his great sacrifice, packed up our picnic and wandered through the amazing trees, quietly respecting their great age and deep knowledge.

Every year after that, as long as we lived in that village, you could find our family welcoming the rising sun on Easter morning in that beautiful sacred grove. It is a beautiful tradition, welcoming the first rays of the sun, symbolising new life, and new possibilities. The spring celebration of renewal and rebirth is very ancient and is celebrated by cultures worldwide. Hills and high places are sacred all over the world. In Scandinavia, where my ancestors are from, pigs are also sacred and there are many other similarities between the ancient pagan traditions of Scandinavia and tribal Papua New Guinea. It is inspiring to find similarities in sacred rituals all around the world.

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