“So, where are you from?” Seems an easy enough question. But when asked, I have almost always given a more complicated answer. “I’m a Newfoundlander who lives in Toronto.” Proof: the picture atop this blog is me looking out over the Bay of Islands, where I grew up.
All of a sudden, “where I am from” becomes “who I am.” This would not surprise the people I met when I traveled to Palestine and Israel in 2005. Nor would it surprise the Indigenous peoples I have met or worked with here in Canada or in my travels to Ecuador a year ago, peoples who live in places of incomparable beauty, underneath which lies oil, the current or projected extraction of which threatens the land.
Place is one of those qualities, perhaps the most important one, that defines us. The “local landscape,” writes Ellen Davis in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, is “not just physical but also economic, political, and cultural.” It is, in a sense, the summary of who we are.
Biblically, we are searching for the promised land, the land of milk and honey. When the book of Isaiah imagines justice achieved, the language is unequivocally land-centred: in chapter 55, the righteous are told that “the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” In chapter 58, those who act justly are assured that they “shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.”
One of the reflective activities we undertook at the “Rooting Faith” summer institute I recently attended was to sit in silence and think about the place that meant the most to us. A slideshow clicked through my mind: the hill behind, the swamp below, and the woods surrounding our house in Corner Brook, where I spent almost every summer and many winter days of my childhood; the rocky point, studded with low-growing juniper, on which my grandfather’s summer house was built in Brookfield; Gros Morne national park; cold, misty, and rocky Middle Cove.
And yet, when I opened my eyes to answer the question, what was the last picture? A small backyard in Toronto, with a big silver maple, a growing lilac of the deepest purple you could imagine, sumac bushes, geraniums, dahlias, nasturtiums, alpine plants among the rocks, vegetables in a constant battle of survival against squirrels, and birds singing everywhere.
And within a 15 minute walk, a sandy (and sometimes icy) beach:
two well-treed ravines, full of life:
and a little further along, a thin spit of land reaching into Lake Ontario giving nature a toehold in the city and standing as a beacon for migrating and breeding birds:
This is my territory, the land I walk, the land that comes to the forefront when I am pressed to think about where I identify. I was surprised to realize that England, where I was born and lived the first three years of my life, didn’t make the list. This led me to what I think is the most important part of the “where are you from” or “what place means the most to you” questions: “why?”
Is it important to you because it’s where you were born? Because it’s where your people are rooted? Where you enjoyed the exuberance of a childhood spent outside? Perhaps it is important because it’s where you built your own life away from your family of origin. Is it where you invest your emotions, spirit, and energy? These last four, and increasingly the last two, are clearly the more important to me.
Where we are from might be as much about what we have made there as what (or where) made us. I say this as a European Canadian and believe that it is probably a very different answer than many Indigenous peoples in Canada or elsewhere would offer. And I wonder, is that because we are disconnected from the land or differently connected?
I recently visited a friend, the writer, painter, and naturalist Julie Zickefoose, on the 80 acres in Southeast Ohio that she and her family are letting revert from farm and orchard land to its natural state.
I asked Julie to tell me, without thinking about it, where she was from and she swiftly answered “Appalachian Ohio.” This from a person raised on the east coast of the United States who spent most of her life (so far) there and a not insignificant amount of her time identifying and protecting some of its more ecologically valuable and at-risk areas. Unlike me, while she also had a deep sense of where she came from, she did not articulate dual ties. She could gesture out her studio window towards the former orchard where her father-in-law is (quite legally!) buried and know that one day she would end up in that same soil … and that that was how it should be.
Julie is deeply rooted in and connected to her land, to Appalachian Ohio. Although crafted in part by working the land, that connection is undoubtedly different than that felt by the people who farmed it before her — because this work was to bring things onto the land, not produce out of it. Rich fields and woodlands are now (once again) a haven for frogs, birds, turtles, snakes, rabbits, deer, coyotes, foxes and probably one day, bears. Native wildflowers flourish, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Yet this connection, also made in part by the desire to see that land in its natural state, is undoubtedly different than that felt by the Monongahela, the area’s original inhabitants displaced after the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Is it any less a connection, or is it just different?
Some of the other participants at the “Rooting Faith” seminar had trouble identifying the place that meant the most to them because (as I recall) they did not yet feel rooted in a place. This may have been because they were still in or recently emerging from university life, and sat on an unsettled cusp. Or perhaps as children they lived an itinerant family life, permanently on that cusp. I’ve no doubt they’ll find the answer but I have no idea when. Maybe when they find their own private Appalachian Ohio. Or maybe they’ll be like me, always invoking one home while simultaneously pointing to the other.