The other way around – can we rethink our relationship?

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More and more of us are interested in finding a different way of relating to this earth we live on, I am sure. The buzz around movements such as Extinction Rebellion and the call put out by school children to join them on next month’s climate strike express a new level of anxiety and concern for the future of our planet, but also, I think, demonstrates a deep dissatisfaction with our current relationship with it.

In a previous blog post I quoted Robert Macfarlane who, when walking and writing about ancient pathways, asked himself this question:

“…. what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” [1]

Since writing that post some thoughts have been rumbling around in my belly (-yes, I am sure thinking doesn’t only happen in our minds) about the way we connect to both the places we live in and those we just pass through or visit regularly. I often feel a strong pull to seaside places even though I currently live inland, and, doing a slow, long-distance walk along the south coast of England has certainly been feeding into these thoughts about transitory but strong connections to places I pass through. (So far I have covered Ramsgate to Brighton see photos here).

A desire for connection to place seems to become more intense the more transitory life is and, as buying property is becoming less and less possible for more and more of us, we definitely need to do some rethinking about how we connect. Recently I have found inspiration in a few different places. One is Brenna Bhandar who writes on colonialism and property law saying that we need to  embark on “radical acts of imagining how we might relate to and use things that we usually expect to own, and how to collectively create the conditions for turning away from property as we know it.”[1]

Within this radical, and importantly collective imagining, perhaps we can begin to think about holding and relating to both land and bricks and mortar in a different way. And perhaps a more mystical take on our relationship to land could also help us if we are willing to go there. For example, what does it do to our attitude when we reverse the normal grammar used to talk about us and land? What happens when we place the earth as subject and us as the object?

“…. what does this place know of me that I cannot know of myself?” (Macfarlane 2013:27)

Humans who are ordinarily assumed to be all-knowing become those who are vulnerable and open to being known, whilst place is revealed to be that which is able to read us like a book. The poet David Wagoner put it like this:

  “Stand still. The forest knows where you are”

 

Another example of reading the grammar of ‘us and place’ the unusual way around came to me at a lovely photography exhibition I saw recently – the story of one Derbyshire Hill by Kate Bellis. The following words hailed from a wise soul in the Derbyshire farming community featured in the exhibition:

“This place belongs to none of them, but they belong to it. “

Belonging. Not belonging to us, but us belonging to it. The other way around.

Living as I do in a country like the UK, a country with a history of conquering and colonising its way around other parts of the globe, I am not sure we can even imagine not owning and not controlling, not being the coloniser. I think we desperately need help to be able to collectively claim our belonging to the land instead of claiming our ownership over it. But I begin with imagining what it might do to us if we really started to believe we actually belong to this thing so much bigger than ourselves – this place, this earth, both global and local, places where we both live and pass through.

In this thinking about belonging to places, I am very aware that there are many people in Britain who feel a lack of belonging to the place they live due to classism, racism or the many other ‘isms’ which are part of the structures in society which work to undermine our connections to each other and to place.  This makes people who hold an inner sense of belonging even more remarkable. There is something strong about stating the truth of belonging to a place, even when it is only a whisper you murmur to your own soul. Whether they felt strong or not, I thought I heard this strength in the attitudes of Sarah O’Connor, Anthony Bryan, and Judy Grifftith, people caught in the Windrush scandal and interviewed in this insightful BBC documentary. It told the stories of those the home office had re-classified as illegal immigrants, regardless of the decades of life and work in the UK and their right to be here. Despite the awful way they were treated, and the continuing hardships of their lives, they seemed to know they belonged here; it seemed possible that they knew their own belonging as a truth which flew in the face of what others were telling them, and revealed itself as a quiet, tenacious determination to cling to what they knew.

In an entirely different setting, I read of a ninety-year old woman who also clung tightly to the knowledge that she belonged to a particular place. Nan Shepherd mentions her in book The Living Mountain which is a most intimate and beautiful account of a life spent walking the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, a place Shepherd loved and knew well from an early age. In it Shepherd writes of an elderly woman who lived alone, high up in mountains long after her husband had died and refused to move to live further down even as she grew old and somewhat frail. Shepherd explains the woman’s refusal to move simply saying: “She belonged there, and knew it” [1].

Such confidence in declaring and knowing ones belonging to a place – I don’t think I know much about this type of certainty. For Shepherd, it was clear this sense was also rooted in a love for the place in question. For me personally, feeling often quite rootless yet, also somewhat in love with the earth of this planet we live on, I will continue thinking about how we can nurture our connection to it as part of our “radical acts of imagining”. New relationships with each other and with the earth must be possible, as must be change, if we could embrace a different, more interdependent, less colonial relationship to the earth.

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Global day of action for climate change and strike on the 20thSeptember

References:

[1] The Old Ways (2013:27)

[1] Brenna Bhandar Colonial Lives of Property Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (2018:200)

[1] Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain (2014:86)

 

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