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.

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

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

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

In the pool there are fairy shrimp:

Wherever you look, there are pools and wells …

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

(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 …

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

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