This is the second installment in the Rootedness series. You can read the first article here.
What does it mean to belong to a place?
There was a time this probably wasn’t a question anyone really thought about. Which isn’t to say that people didn’t move about in the past, the myth that everyone stayed stubbornly put simply doesn’t hold up to real history.
But prior to the colonial era there was a distinct difference in how we moved, and before the modern world we moved much more slowly. My ancestors homes were scattered around the highlands of Scotland, some of the lowlands, and most likely Wales and Cornwall. And in general their ancestors had lived there for a very long time.
Their belonging to a place was intimately tied up with family ties that crisscrossed the landscape like a quilt; and especially before the industrial revolution, their labor bringing forth a living in partnership with the land on which they lived. The ways the geography of the place, and its flora and fauna had become part of the narrative of their lives meant they had a relationship with the places they lived. Before Christianity came their belonging was also tied up in their sacred stories, which were born in those places and intimately tied to the places they lived, and the plants and creatures that shared that place with them.
That said, I think we shouldn’t fall into is the trap of assuming that one belongs to the place where they were born simply because they were born there. A great many people have lived and died in the same place for their whole lives and cared not a bit about that place.
And we wouldn’t have to go far to find people who care passionately, who have perhaps dedicated their whole lives to the care and protection of a place where they weren’t born or brought up.
Which brings us back to the question of what it means to be belong to a place? And I think part of the reason we struggle to answer that today is colonialism and its partner capitalism. Colonialism fundamentally changed the way we think about land and place. With the advent of colonialism and capitalism land became a resource to be owned.
Can you even belong to a place that you view as a resource? That you own? There are movements seeking to end colonialism, to build something new going forward. Land return movements, insisting we return land to the people who first belonged to it. And my response at first was confusion, after all how can we give land back, where would we go?
And that reaction, of course, is rooted in colonialism and capitalism (as is unfortunately some of the language of land return). Because in my (and most of our) mind land return means handing over ownership of land. Which implies leaving. When we sell a piece of land we must leave it so the new owners can “take possession.”
But I finally saw a simple, short bit of brilliant eco-theological work that crystalized part of the issue for me. Sadly, as is often the case on the internet the original post has long disappeared into the ether and no amount of searching unearthed it. I will try to summarize its wisdom and will add attribution if I can ever find it again.
Beautifully, in a scant 140 characters the author said simply: “Land return and undoing colonialism means learning the land doesn’t belong to us, we belong to the land.” I had to sit with that one for a long time, because almost all our conversations about land, and belonging, and justice remain rooted in the assumptions of colonialism and capitalism. They are rooted in ownership rather than belonging.
Commodity instead of relationship.
And in a way, this is harder, even if more true. But it also requires that we change entirely the way we think. Because most of us have also projected back on the past the modern assumptions of capitalism and colonialism. We’ve assumed things about our ancestors’ relationships and connection to place that we probably can’t assume, in retrospect.
And we make those same assumptions about the future, which hamstrings our ability to dream a new reality, one fundamentally different than that in which we currently exist. Capitalism and colonialism even hold our imaginations captive.
But in the meantime, we exist in a system that is colonial and capitalist. What does it look like to belong, to be in relationship with the place and its fellow creatures we inhabit in the midst of a world that views them as resources and humans as owners? How we we begin the transformation in ourselves, in our society?
And what does any of this have to do with our spiritual lives?
If you’ve known me any amount of time you know all those questions are braided together. I don’t think we can solve the issue of belonging, or deconstruct colonialism, or build something more equitable than capitalism without involving the whole of our lives, and that includes our inner lives, our spiritual lives.
You don’t have to believe in the supernatural to have an inner life, in some ways it helps to not. Think about it, what we’re talking about here is rebuilding relationship to the natural world. To do that we must rediscover our own creatureliness. We must become immersed once again in the natural, find ourselves and our nature in nature again.
So many of our spiritual traditions have divorced us from the natural, have made us souls temporarily trapped in a body we are meant to despise and rise beyond. Have centered the solution to this problem in the supernatural, the beyond nature. My own tradition is one of the worst offenders, and yet it doesn’t have to be that way. The reading isn’t required it is simply traditional. We can recapture both our creatureliness and the goodness of relationship with the natural world.
Doing so will require us to tear down the assumptions of colonialism, capitalism, and so much more. But the gifts we will be given in return are immeasurable. And belonging in chief among them.
But that is for next time. (The next article in this series can be found here.)