On belonging, and the storying of place

One of my favourite books on myth, story and place, Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places, focuses on the ways in which a sense of place and of belonging among the Western Apache people is tied up with stories that are embedded in the landscape. Their stories are born out of a magical mixture of oral history and reconstructed memory, and have an educational function in the community (‘stories go to work on you like arrows … stories make you live right’). Here’s how Basso describes it:

‘The past lies embedded in features of the earth … which together endow their lands with multiple forms of significance that reach into their lives and shape the ways they think. Knowledge of places is therefore closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one’s own position in the larger scheme of things, including one’s own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.’

Few of us are blessed with a sense of belonging to a place that reaches so deeply into so many areas of our lives. But in this peripatetic world in which we live, where so few of us are truly rooted or grounded in a place, developing that sense of belonging can be hard. There are many of us who seem never to stand still. It’s one of the things I often think about in relation to the Outer Hebrides where we live, and where so many incomers come who have no history here. How then do you develop that sense of belonging, without taking over or appropriating?

I believe the truth is that you don’t have to be born in a place, or have your family history in a place, to be rooted in it. You root yourself in place in two ways: by observing and learning about the natural history of the land (its wildlife, flowers, rocks, seasons …) and by understanding and participating in its culture (its history, stories, language, values …). You need both, of course; if you’re going to live in a place you owe it and its inhabitants that much respect. That’s how you learn belonging, and if it’s a different kind of belonging from the people who were born and who grew up there, it’s no less valid.

But you don’t stop with learning the old stories. You go on to make your own stories of that place, because you then become a new and unique part of its ongoing natural history and culture. You bring your own points of reference, and you will tell new stories of the place based on your own way of seeing it. (And if your life should move you from place to place, its no less important to develop that sense of belonging in each of them. Instead of being rooted in one place, many of us are rooted in several – an interconnected meshwork of places with which we’ve had relationships.)

And so, sometimes in a place that you’re beginning to belong to, to feel rooted in, new stories start to come to you. For example, there is a place nearby that is very special to me. I don’t know of any stories about it, and as I’ve walked there, sat there, slept there even over the last two and a half years, a new story has begun to form. It’s only the very beginning, the framework of a story right now, and nothing is ready to happen yet, but I thought I’d share it with you anyway.

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If you know where to look, there are way-markers.

Some of them aren’t obvious.

On the way, there are many beautiful things to look at.

Bog cotton

You know you’re close when you meet the guardian of the threshold.

LRBird BW

If he lets you past, once you’re inside, everything changes.

There’s a beautiful grotto with a crystal-clear pool:

LRgrotto

In the pool there are fairy shrimp:

LRFairy shrimp

Wherever you look, there are pools and wells …

LRpool

The rock-people line up at the top of the cliffs …

Rock people

(The night after I made this journey I had a dream that the tops of these cliffs metamorphosed into roughly carved towering animal-mountains – there was a wolf with two holes for eyes which the sun shone through; there was a bear and an eagle, and behind me in the shallows of the sea there was a whale and a dolphin …)

There’s a rock-bed for a giant – or maybe for the Cailleach …

LRrock bed

And finally, at the end of the road, the treasure.

LRshore

What the treasure consists of, and whether or not I get to take it home, the story will reveal in its own good time.

6 thoughts on “On belonging, and the storying of place

  1. As the descendent of anglo Scots and Irish immigrants (some voluntary, some not!) to this vast brown land of Australia, this is something I feel acutely. Your question, “how then do you develop that sense of belonging, without taking over or appropriating?” is a constant in my mind lately. How do I find a way of harmonising the stories of my ancestors with the stories of the people here, without, as you say, appropriating what is not mine to take, and find a balance? Something I will keep working on for a long time, I think!

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  2. Hi Christina – yes, I’ve lived in a couple of places where these questions haunted me. Curiously perhaps, it was one of the things that brought me back from a few years living in the USA to Scotland & specifically the Hebrides, as my own roots are Scottish and Irish. But still I’m viewed as a incomer here, and so the question goes on in another form …

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    1. It has just dawned on me that my husbands Scottish/Irish heritage includes some of the Blackie family, not sure why I didn’t remember that considering I am the insane person who is attempting to trace his family tree for him…mine is sooooo much easier!
      Anyway loved reading this Sharon

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  3. Hi Sharon,

    Just wanted to say how much I’ve really enjoyed reading this post (and indeed your whole blog) – so full of touchstones (in several ways!) that hold a very deep resonance for me. I must seek out Keith Basso’s book…

    I love your words and image story. I was going to say that it was wonderful to follow its footfalls through the land… but, it’s more of a multi-way happening than that, isn’t it – more an unfolding; from the land and dreams and noticing and moving through place… A deliciously elusive, surprising and edgily illuminating process…

    I also wanted to say how much I love EarthLines magazine. Its aims and ethos are an answer to a long-held wish! Very much appreciated. Thank you…

    Melanie

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