"Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." - traditional
Recovering Sense of Place
By Jesse Wolf Hardin
Home. It's got a good sound to it as it comes out of the mouth, sort of like the involuntary utterance we make every time our lover gently brushes the hair back from our eyes, or we slip into a cool river pool--Mmmmmm! Savor it as you say it, like a bite of the best food, and it comes out hommmme. As the Sanskrit word "Om" is said to be the root sound of all sounds, so is "home" the root condition of all life, even a people traditionally or perpetually on the move. "Chanting home"...
"I'm writing a book about Home," I offered. "Which home?" our guest wanted to know, "The heart?" Yes...home is the heart--in relationship with place. In crucial, reciprocal, devoted relationship with place. It is intimately connecting with the spirit and will of a particular area, interpenetrating, immersing. It is becoming so personal with the land that you take any threats to it personally. Clearly our task is to become indigenous again, in deep again.
Long before I hear the actual footfall of approaching visitors I'm alerted by the alarm calls of the river tern, soon followed by the shrill whistles of ground squirrel sentries positioned on rock outcroppings between me and the water. When someone comes within a few yards of the cabin the canyon wrens switch from their normal angelic, cascading notes to a series of short, agitated peeps. The neighboring wildlife are as sensory extensions of my own animal being, I wear them, and abide within them. I am housed in a particular place, a living sheath I now know as my home. It is a sense-filled envelope that not only contains and informs me, but helps define my very being.
We are told that we have no roots, but it simply isn't true. We are not rootless, but uprooted--our roots torn from the soil as we struggled to keep up with our restless, roving parents or broke out on our own. They themselves responded to an ancestral instinct they didn't understand, an inherited compulsion to search out the means of survival in specific, cyclic migrations. Fueled by culturally impressed dissatisfaction, we find fault in what is near and seek out the strange, losing affection for each thing as the shine of its newness wears off. We often pull away from any "base" instincts that seem to counter our civilized protocol or suggest a different pace or lifestyle. We jerk away from whatever seems to "hold us down," "ground" us, or threaten us with stillness. But we are not rootless. Our roots dangle out the bottoms of our skirts and trousers, as we drag them behind us through unfamiliar streets and hallways. If we really focused on it we might still feel them, the way an amputee experiences the sensation of a limb long after its surgical removal. We may have been severed from the body-earth, but our roots still protrude, grasp at the ground at our feet wherever we are, seek out with their probing tips the stability and nourishment nothing else can provide.
We are told that to develop this relationship with place, to be or to become indigenous, requires us to be born in the same watershed where we will one day die. Some scholars of these issues claim it takes generation after generation in the same spot before a people can claim a right to be there. While generational overlap undoubtedly deepens one's sense of connection through a history/herstory of place, I assert that the sole precluding requirement for that relationship of belonging we call "native" is the individual's deepest experiencing of place, their giving back to place, and promising themselves to place. This relationship I call home, like any relationship, is a reciprocal sharing requiring the involvement and approval of both the person and the place. To put it most simply, being "native"--"belonging"--means both gifting to and being accepted by the spirits of the land. Such acceptance requires attention and time, but it is ours to find.
Given human's relatively recent emergence on the evolutionary scene and the almost constant migrations that follow, everyone is in a sense a "newcomer." Yet we all remain native as well, disparate individuals arising out of a single indivisible body, an unbroken planetary sphere. The continents are not dissimilar, free-floating entities, but rather portions of the terrestrial whole, distinguished only by those thin stretches of water we call the oceans. I like to envision these continents as the exposed body parts of the planetary body, with giant mountain ranges where the planet-Gaia raises her knees out of the shallow, salty bath. To be truly native in this unique and precarious time is less a matter of sequential generations of occupation than a quality of perception, and a state of commitment.
While the Native Americans are fortunate to draw strength from the stories of their peoples' origin, geneticists and anthropologists have traced Indian roots that stretch back across the Bering Straits--Asian-Americans descended from Afro-Asians. While untold generations invested their lives in ancestral Tartar lands, the fact remains that these committed people were not delivered at the beginning of time to those mountains they hold so dear. For all of our existence we humans have been migrants, moving out of Africa and deep into all but one of the seven great continental islands, developing racial and cultural distinctions while adapting to, and being acted on by diverse new terrain, climate, and the various integral personalities of the land. A desert environ contributes to the development of a different kind of person physically and temperamentally than a damp rainforest, all uninsulated lifeforms coming to reflect in part the particular qualities and characteristics of the places where they "make" their living.
So, how is it that a region's terrestrial form and meteorological patterns have such an influence on a two-legged species known to migrate? As an evolving species, we roamed in order to survive. To belong, we had only to move slow enough. For most of our existence as erect hominids, our migrations were primarily circular and bioregional (not intercontinental), arcing north and then south with the changing seasons within a definitive, intimately familiar territory. A homeland in this case encompasses the entire range of a family or tribe's movements as they pass from one accustomed sight to the next, past one recurring landmark after another. By traveling essentially the same sacralized territory over and over, we grew knowledgeable of an expansive home-ground, grew roots in a trail that reached out but always looped back, never out of touch with that which we had relationship with. As a result, while we weren't always still we were forever coming home. Down from the arctic land bridge. Down the Rocky Mountains, the enchanted Sierra Madres and the sacred Andes rippling like a well-muscled spine, finally dipping a toe in the icy waters off Tierra del Fuego. Coming across the wilderness of ocean in flimsy craft, encircling the globe at the equator like a hug, a hug...a hug for the Earth...
How different it can be for those of us of mixed descent, born from recent immigrants in a city to no particular culture other than the cults of technology and consumerism that surround us. Or to be flown abruptly to the North American continent from a far off country, one that we may never really have known as home. In urban centers, there are none of the landforms or flora that could orient us, familiarize us with the expression and intent of the place where we find ourselves. There's probably little immediate evidence of the area's relevant history, and we're confused by identical generic suburbs sprouting on both coasts and in between; architecture that demonstrates little resonance with natural and cultural environments. In the absence of other guides, we are taught to "own" the land, rather than how one can learn to belong. We're encouraged to behave as strangers, to mythologize the "stranger" archetype, and to feel as strangers in our own bodies, communities and bioregions.
"There's no going home," the saying goes. What they mean, of course, is that there's no way to go back in time, no retreat to the comforting arms of parents who always made sure there was food on the table and the cuts on our knees healed, going back to whatever structures housed our earliest memories.
What a terrible thought--you can't go home! No matter what the circumstances under which we left our parent's domicile, at one time or other most of us experience a longing to return, not only to simpler times when others saw to our every need, but also to whatever familiar landscapes--childscapes--once permitted us a sense of being ourselves in conditional safety. We may sometimes ache to take refuge again in those well-worn tunnels under suburban hedgerows, beneath concealing stairs in a wilderness of alleys, or in the trusted arms of trees conspiratorially lifting us above the line of sight of any supervising adults. To a toddler, one's house constitutes the entire universe, as if nothing exists beyond those things within the reach of their hungering physical senses. Before long that universe expands to include a yard and then an entire sprawling neighborhood. The growing child ventures out in all directions but returns home each time, usually well before dark. Its movements back and forth trace the spokes of a wheel whose center remains essential and intact. For most kids this reality, this home keeps on changing, but each new house becomes the center of their attention in turn, the center of the known world. We want to believe, long after we're grown and on our own, that we could go back if we "really wanted to." We'd like to believe against all evidence, that even if birds ate every bread-crumb left behind to mark our trail, we could somehow find our way back home. Back not just to a time but a place where things made "sense," where our senses are at home in its characteristic tastes, sounds, sights and smells.
And taken this way, maybe we can't go home. At least not to that home, the way we remembered it. Chances are it was never really our home anyway, perhaps just one in a long string of rentals, in a succession of inner city apartment houses, or in suburbs one step ahead of urbanization. Our conceptual home often remains hidden in the "Never-Never Land" beneath the old maple bed, a place full of secrets and dragons and bears extending down through the floor and foundation, down into the soil and the depth of stories it could tell.
Houses collapse, old neighborhoods are flattened and paved over. But it is the ground, and sometimes only the ground that lasts. Home-ground. Forests are leveled, hills terraformed by men in roaring graders, and one building after another succumbs to rot and age or the fickle whims of a never-ending series of title-holders, but beneath all this surface traffic the earth abides. Micro-organisms feast in it's fermentive hold, working away in the dark, patiently feeding on those "made to last" materials standing between it and the warming rays of the sun. As children we bond not only to the layout of the rooms, but to the particular feel and odor--even the taste--of a blended soil peculiar to the area we lived in.
One can learn to listen carefully and appreciatively to the varied voices of the soil communities: the deep baritone monologue of Louisiana bayou loam, the elderly whisper of Appalachian dirt, or the chanting volcanic dust of the Mogollon rim. Perhaps as much as anything else, they each say, "Stay. Please, stay." There's something inherent in the personality of place, something intrinsic to the very soil that inspires the traveler to slow down and notice more, the seed to send its root in the direction of the core, the weary migrant to finally settle down. It puts the brakes on spinning wagon wheels, soothes the beat of restless rambling hearts, and seduces folks on their way to somewhere else to stop and run their hands into its warm, giving ground. Sense of place is not so much a progression as a return. The journey is less in pursuit of the sky gods, and more a sounding of the inspirited depths. We are at our best an outgrowth of the fertile, giving ground, the children of the soil. Real, grounded down to earth.
Listen! The canyon wrens call me back to attention, back out of my reverie. I am not only a being in, but a being of my home. Foods from this area, this ground, power my eyes and muscles as I look out to see what the wildlife is alerting me to. I often act out of dreams that seem scripted by the entities of this place. I have to make hard decisions about the land and the impact of both its allies and its obvious foes, always for the sake of the canyon itself. I look down the river in an effort to identify our unseen guests, responding to the sloshing footsteps, the shorebirds and the rock squirrels that announced their coming. This land informs me, empowers me, provokes the fullest living of my life, demands from me its own exacting definition of awareness and unflinching integrity, gifting and devotion. As is usually the case, the visitors today come seeking the combination of stimulation and serenity that natural places provide, and will be moved by the energies of this place to circumvent denial and distraction in favor of their own most authentic expression. When I give them welcome it will be made (without any need to say so) on behalf of every swaying tree and glad-faced flower, every magic grain of sand, every leaping-flying-crawling creature that animates this blessed land.
We are native when we experience ourselves at the deepest levels as integral parts of a living terrain, as relatives of every other part of the miraculous whole. In re-becoming native we re-create a contemporary culture, community, vocabulary, mythos, spiritual practice, and, finally, a history. Whoever you are, wherever you are, there exists an opportunity for this reindigenation, a set of tests and promises through which one might come to know themselves as home. This place, this moment.
Jesse Wolf Hardin is an educator whose books include Homeland: ReBecoming Native, Recovering Sense of Place (Crossing Press, 2000) and Kindred Spirits: Animal Teachers & The Will of The Land (SwanRaven Pub. '99). To book Wolf as a presenter or for information on his wilderness retreats write: The Earthen Spirituality Project, PO Box 516, Reserve, NM 87830; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; website: http://www.concentric.net/~earthway
©1999 Talking Leaves
Volume 9, Number 2
A Sense of Place