An oldie but goodie: Sonja Swift’s talk on place she gave as part of the Place panel at the February 2013 residency. Sonja completed her Individualized MA at Goddard that year and continued writing, talking, and serving. Read some of her more recent writing here and here.
In speaking of place it feels appropriate, if not essential, to introduce myself within the context of the place I am from: my original place, my place of origin.
This leads me to think about how in today’s world many of us are descendants of immigrants or refugees so place or territory doesn’t overlap with heritage or ancestry in the way it used to. So our original place tends to get left out of introductions, sidelined. We name the cities or towns in which we dwell, the states or nation states, instead.
I think there is something very powerful and worthy in taking the time to more explicitly introduce oneself in terms of place based origin. I think it is a really human way of introducing oneself.
I am a child of North America with European bloodlines. To my American side, I am half Danish. To my Danish side, I am a yank. I consider myself first and foremost a child of this continent and more specifically from a landscape on its western edge.
I grew up amidst oak groves and sagebrush in the California foothills on the central coast. South of Big Sur. North of Point Conception. I fell asleep each night to the howls of coyotes. Red tailed hawks keep a close eye over the valley and the Pacific Ocean is visible from the ridgelines. There were cougars and rattlers to keep eye for. We raised Texas longhorn and subtropical fruit. It was a lonesome paradise. In many ways it was the land the raised me, the land that gave me sanctuary.
The spaciousness of where I grew up gave me room enough to endure a dysfunctional family reality. It also meant that I’d later have to learn how to find that same spaciousness, the spaciousness of rolling hills and open ridgelines, within. It is a process I am still amidst.
So that is where I’m from. It is as much a part of me as the color of my eyes.
The only other place I’ve found a similar sense of place is in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I think, in part, this is because the landscape is familiar in an uncanny way. The perennial grasses are more intact than in California, where overgrazing after the Spaniards arrived took a heavy toll. There are ponderosa instead of live oak, and the vista glimpsed from the ridges isn’t the ocean, it is the wide-open of the Great Plains. But there is that similar endlessness, and similar rolling, grassy, ruggedly beautiful terrain.
I think we are molded by landscape. We embody the places we are from and carry them with us wherever we go. This can be a very powerful thing, especially for people who are exiled from the places they love. I am thinking of a friend of mine, a Tibetan nun, who in all likelihood will never return to her homeland.
I also think that if given the opportunity to connect to the earth at a young age then we can feel at home anywhere. I think this elemental connection is essential to our survival.
There are a lot of people today who don’t seem to feel at home on the earth and I say that because they are doing a fine job wrecking it.
Ultimately though, I think the topic of place opens up a conversation about re-indigenizing ourselves as bodies born of this Earth.
When I think about what I value in indigenous cultures I think of coherent self-awareness rooted in terrain. I think of language being in touch with non-language, sophisticated and intact sensory somatic intelligence, a fearlessness about death, interspecies communication, innate attentiveness to synchronistic events, and a very basic, unquestioned knowing of oneness with all of life.
These qualities are not limited to un-contacted tribes in the heart of the Amazon or the Plains Indians pre genocide. These are universally human characteristics of human in contact with place, characteristics that have been fragmented and forgotten in a myriad of ways.
The real question is how are people today NOT aware of the whole planet as a living organism??
How are people NOT connected to place, to earth, to our shared existence?
I think it has a lot to do with trauma. The recklessness we are dealing with today has to do with the opposite of place: displacement, by way of colonialism primarily, and the trauma that came with it.
So I think the value of discussing place within the context of our times is to remember that we are only as intelligent as we are in contact with the intelligence around us.
We are intelligent in relationship to place.
Asterile, devoid landscape, a bombed and desiccated city, creates a parallel kind of mind. To destroy this animate earth is to wreck our opportunities to learn from and receive intelligence beyond us, but part of us, at once.
We can easily get overly intellectual about this topic but at the end of it all I think it has everything to do with the pure love of being alive.