This article continues the Rootedness series. You can read the first article here, or the immediately preceding article here.
We’ve been asking the question: what does it mean to belong to a place? And exploring how capitalism and colonialism have broken our connection to place, the natural world, and even the goodness of that world and the creatures in it (including ourselves.) Now, we’re going back to the concept of rootedness as we seek to further explore belonging.
After all, what does it mean to be rooted than to stay put. One of the most striking things I’ve seen in my life is the exposed rootball of a mature tree toppled in a windstorm. If you’ve stood next to a fresh windfall maybe you know too.
Generally it happens to mature trees that grow wide but shallow root systems. Rarely do you see a tree with a taproot upended in this way. But when a tree does go over I’m struck by how grand that root system is. I’ve stood in the hole left behind by such a windfall and stared up, and up, and up to the top edge of the exposed roots. The sheer size of the root system that had been torn from the ground was amazing, and the tree certainly left most of its furthest and finest roots in the ground when it went over.
Said tree didn’t amass those roots overnight, nor would they have been possible if it were up moving about. But because it wasn’t moving, because it was sitting still in one place its roots joined the complex web of fungus and root systems of all the other plants in its area. It became part of the first internet, created long before human beings came along. We are just beginning to understand how these root systems work, and how complex they are. It seems that somehow, the trees and fungus communicate over these root networks and even share resources, warnings, and news.
There’s a beauty in that. While we (with our predator brains) are wired to seek out new experiences and new stimulae (driving us to be always on the move) the kind of relationships the trees build can only happen by staying put. And for a year, because of a pandemic, a lot of us got to (or had to) stay put. There are ways that staying put was just plain horrible, in what it cost many people in jobs, homes, and relationships. And in no way do I want to diminish the suffering that could have been avoided if we’d made different choices as a society.
But the staying put itself didn’t have to be a hardship. And maybe has even taught us something, given us a gift, if we’re willing to open it.
I’m a photographer, and as I thought about this last year I thought about the year I got my heart camera. To rewind quickly I learned photography in elementary school with my Dad, using an old black and white film camera and a hand held light meter. Eventually I graduated to a Minolta SRT 101 borrowed from my Mother. And in my 20s, bringing my broken film camera in for repair (more than it was worth, I binned it), I stumbled on an antique Minolta SRT 101 in the used case at the local camera store.
I was broke. But that camera had been my muse. So I bought it. I could only afford one lens, and I picked a 100mm Minolta macro. If you’ve done much photography you’ll know that a fixed focal length lens is a very different thing to a zoom. It is what it is, and nothing more. You have to learn to see like it, and to take pictures the way it works best. If you want a different view, you have to move, there’s no zooming.
I spent a year with that one lens. And in that year I took some of the best photographs of my life. I was broke, I didn’t have anywhere to go, and I had a lens that did one thing very, very well. So I got really, really good at that one thing. 20 years later there are still photographs of flowers and fruit on our walls that were taken with that simple lens, drugstore film, and a camera older than I was.
I had to relearn how to see when I got that old camera and lens. I could have chaffed under that kind of restriction, instead I found there was incredible freedom in getting to know something so incredibly well.
All the isolation and suffering of the last year aside, in some ways this constrained life has felt a little like that year with just one lens. I don’t get to run off to a sacred place to do my prayers or refill my tank. I don’t get to go looking for beautiful things to inspire me. I don’t get to pick up and go talk to someone different when my beloved is driving me around the bend.
Like the oak, maple, apple, and cherry outside my writing room. Their branches weave together and for better or worse, this is where they are.
Here we are. Stuck with each other. There is of course my spouse, and the dogs (who are loving this), and the cat. But it goes further. There are the people I nod to on my walks and runs, every day. We know each other by sight now, I worry when I don’t see one of them.
There are the friends who text, our safe distanced pod of humor and honesty.
There are the ties that have been strengthened across the miles because the easy connections close to home weren’t easy anymore.
I have gotten to know this land this patch of actual Earth better in one year than in the previous six. I know which gardens are planted with what, where the dogs always stop to read the news, the wild places (we crossed paths with a bobcat once) tucked in among suburbia. I’ve learned the shape of they sky, the contours of the towering hill on which we perch.
And I am beginning to appreciate the local familiar beauty of a place you know well. The well worn, the loved, the known, even the annoying. That spot 3/4 of the way up the hill, below the big cedar with the drooping branches where half the sidewalk lifts just enough to catch a toe. Yes even that.
I used to wonder how someone could spend all their life in one small place and still create lyrical poetry, beautiful theology, touching stories. But of course the whole world is in a little hazelnut, a beech tree, the call of a hawk.
When we ask ourselves about rootedness and belonging we have to ask: have we put in the time to build a relationship with a place? Have we slowed down enough to really see what is around us, to pay attention to the way the light, and the life in that place changes throughout the seasons?
Have we let that place get to know us? It is a strange new way of thinking for most of us, that place might be in some way alive, and capable of a reciprocal relationship with the creatures (that includes us) that live there. But I suspect that shift in thought is essential if we want to move away from “ownership” to belonging.