On art, culture, and radical hope
Happy Valentine's Day

A Hunger for Place

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From "The Right Place for Love," an essay by Carolyn Servid, who grew up in India but found her heart's home on the wild coast of Alaska:

Eleanor Vere Boyle"In his book The Land, theologion and historian Walter Brueggemann recognizes a human yearing for place -- and acknowledges that yearning as a primary human hunger. I think of it as an instinctual desire and need for my own habitat, a word primarily used to describe an ecological home range that allows a given species to thrive. We usually don't think of ourselves as the sample species, but I'd like to consider the notion of habitat in a human context for a moment. For those of us who use the English language, it is interesting to note that habitat is related to a cluster of other words -- habit, ability, rehabilitate, inhabit, and prohibit. They all come from a common Latin root, habere, and spin off a fundamental concept of relationship: 'to hold, hence to occupy or possess, hence to have.' They constitute a family of words that ground us by describing where we live, how we live, what we are able to do, how we heal ourselves, what our connections are to the landscape around us, what the boundaries are for our behavior. Together, they offer a set of parameters that might allow us to thrive in a place we think of as home.

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"Given the biological evidence that the earth is our home, it's not difficult or even particularly imaginative to assert that we in Western societies have been living for centuries in a perpetual state of homesickness. We have worked hard -- somewhat blindly and somewhat successfully -- to disconnect ourselves from the source of our being. Our efforts have only partially succeeded because we cannot, in fact, separate ourselves from the fundamental truth of the context of our lives....The human hunger for place that Brueggemann speaks of might be thought of as a longing to be reconnected to the very source of our being. That longing is also a hunger for love -- for the nurturing that a home place provides, for its familiarity, its comfort, its human community, is natural community, its light and landscape. I believe, too, that our hunger for place is a yearning for a sense of the holy, for home ground sacred enough to sustain our faith, sacred enough that we will not violate it, sacred enough that our commitment to its holiness will not falter."

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Servid returns to the theme in a second essay, "The Distance Home":

"Homesick, we say, when our hearts reach back to those places that have embraced us, our language allowing us the truth that when we're away from them we feel unhealthy, ill at ease. Sentimentality, another voice says, urging me to ignore the bonds that form between the human heart and peculiarities of the earth. But perhaps the sentiments we attach to place are more natural to us than we know. Perhaps what is at work is an instinctual desire, a need, for a set of specific details to help determine our bounds, our own habitat, a particular context in which we can come to know how to best live our individual lives, how best to survive not only within the human community, but in a distinct region of the larger natural community that is our only real home."


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For me, "home" is powerful concept, attached to the land I live on as much as to the family and community I live within, and much of my creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, and the folklore attached to all these things. It is shaped by the person I am in this landscape and not another one.

But what of those whose "home place" is a transient one, whether by preference or circumstance? Or those who are homeless, exiled from home, or migrating from one "home place" to another? What of those (an increasing number of us) for whom home is an urban environment? Or those who have never found a place, outside of fiction and dreams, that feels like the place they truly belong? And how does this effect the creation of mythic art, when myth itself is so often rooted in the land?

We've touched on different aspects of this subject in previous posts (especially "Kith & Kin," but also "Writing Without Roots," "More Thoughts About Home," and "The Magic of Cities," if you'd like to refresh your memory), and I'm curious to know your thoughts. Is place important in your life? In your creative work? In your relationship to folklore and myth?

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Of Landscape & Longing by Carolyn ServidThe two passages above are from Carolyn Servid's Of Landscape and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000); the passage in the picture captions is from the title essay in Scott Russell Sander's Writing from the Center (Indiana University Press, 1995); all rights reserved by the authors. Both books are highly recommended. The drawing above is by Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).