The landscape of story
Wednesday, September 23, 2020
From "The Right Place for Love" (Of Landscape and Longing) by Carolyn Servid, who grew up in India but found her heart's home on the wild coast of Alaska:
"In his book The Land, theologian and historian Walter Brueggemann recognizes a human yearning 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.
"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."
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."
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, now, in this landscape and not another.
But what of those whose "home place" is a transient one, whether by preference or circumstance? Or those who are homeless, or exiled from home? Or the many of us who are immigrants, transplanted from distant countries and continents? What of those (the majority now) 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 fantasy and mythic art, when myth itself is so often rooted in the land?
In his essay "The Dreaming of Place," storyteller and folklorist Hugh Lupton writes:
"The ground holds the memory of all that has happened to it. The landscapes we inhabit are rich in story. The lives of our ancestors have contributed to the shape and form of the land we know today -- whether we are treading the cracked cement of a deserted runaway, the boundary defined by a quickthorn hedge, the outline of a Roman road or the grassy hump of a Bronze Age tumulus. The creatures we share the landscape with have made their marks, too: their tracks, nesting places, slides and waterholes. And beyond the human and animal interactions are the huge, slow geological shapings that have given the land its form. Every bump, fold and crease, every hill and hollow is part of a narrative that is both human and prehuman. And as long as men and women have moved over the land these narratives have been spoken and sung.
"This sense of story being held immanent in landscape, is most clearly defined in the belief systems of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In Native Australian belief everything that is not 'here and now' is described as having gone 'into the dreaming.' The Aborigines believe that the tangled skein of remembered experience, history, legend and myth that constitutes the past -- that is invisible to the objective eye or the camera -- has not gone away. It is, rather, implicit in the place where it happened, a potentiality. It is a living memory that is held between a place and its people. It is always waiting to be woken by a voice.
"I remember the Irish storyteller Eamon Kelly once telling me that in the parish of County Clare where he grew up, every field had a name, and every field name was associated with a story. To walk from one end of the parish to the other was to walk through a landscape of story. It occurred to me that the same was probably once true for any parish in Britain.
"What does it mean for a culture to have lost touch with its dreaming? What can we do about it?
"It seems to me that as writers, artists, environmentalists, parents, teachers and talkers, one of our practices should be to enter the Dreaming, that invisible, parallel world, and salvage our local stories. We need to re-charge the landscape with its forgotten narratives. Only then will it regain the sacred status it once possessed. This might involve research into local history, conversations with elders in the community, exploration of regional folktales, ballads and myths...
"And then an intuitive jump into Imagination."
I couldn't agree more.
Ecologists talk of "re-wilding" the land. I believe we must "re-story" the land as well...and who else better than the writers of fantasy, steeped as we are in mythic traditions, to weave new myths out of the old, creating the vital tales we need in complex, troubled times.
Words: The passages quoted above are from Of Landscape and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge by Carolyn Servid (Milkweed Editions, 2000), and "The Dreaming of Place" by Hugh Lupton (EarthLines magazine, Issue 2, August 2012). The poem in the picture captions is an extract from Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser (New Directions, 1949). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates. Related posts: Kith & Kin, The Center Called Love, On Loss & Transfiguration, and The Tales We Tell.
Pictures: Tilly and her friend, Old Oak, who she visits almost every day. The two drawings are by Scottish book artist Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916).