In Langscape Magazine Articles

Editorial | Rebuilding Sense of Place: At Home, and In the World

December 10, 2015

The People’s Issue, Part II

Langscape Magazine Volume 4, Issue 2, Winter 2015


“Home is where you hang your hat,” goes a popular saying in the English language. That is, home is where you make it to be, where you feel comfortable, regardless of where you were born or brought up. I can hardly think of a clearer expression of the existential condition for so many of us in the world today: “global nomads,” not rooted in place but roaming around in search of opportunity, of a better life, somewhere else  —  some of us even making a point of not hanging our hats anywhere and being eternal wanderers, moving footloose from place to place to place.

For many, it’s a matter of free choice. We can feel self-confident and even a bit smug about it. For many more, as we can see increasingly these days, it’s not a matter of choice at all, but rather a desperate flight from environmental devastation, political turmoil, and economic hardship  —  three scourges much more closely tied to one another than we often are prone to believe. Those unfortunate people aren’t leaving home of their own volition, but because life at home has become all but impossible for them and for their loved ones. As they flee at unfathomable risk, they leave behind all that they knew and that used to make them feel comfortable, secure, “at home.” They leave behind their collective histories, their ways of life, their senses of identity. They look ahead to an uncertain, dislocated future. They do go join the “global nomads”  —  but in such a different, soul-shaking way!

It’s easy to imagine the scars of this experience for migrants and refugees, the physical and psychic displacement that comes with it. But we tend to think that “we”  —  the ones who left home freely to call some other place, or no place, “home”  —  are somehow immune from any damage. We are inclined to believe that living in a rootless world, in a globalized culture, is a sign of the times, a sign of progress  —  that it’s all good and the way things should be in this day and age. It’s hard to realize what was left behind when we, or our families before us, chose to pull up stakes from a place we were rooted in and went to “hang our hat” elsewhere.

But what does the idea of sense of place have to do with that of biocultural diversity, which Terralingua stands for? When people look at our world maps that show the overlaps between biological and linguistic diversity, they often ask: “OK, I do see the global patterns, but how did they actually come about?” The answer, in a nutshell, is simple: from myriad senses of place. Generation after generation, each human society built its distinctive way of life within a specific ecological niche. It developed and transmitted its sense of place, made up of intimate connections and interactions among people and between people and the natural world of which we are part. That tapestry of diverse local adaptations, reflected in our diverse languages and cultures, is what global biocultural diversity is made up of.

But that was when most people were “ecosystem people,” as geographer Raymond Dasmann once put it  —  human communities living within the confines of, and in dynamic balance with, local ecosystems. Now more and more of us have become what Dasmann called “biosphere people”  —  placeless cosmopolitans laying claim over the entire globe, while having lost the sense of connectedness and the local knowledge and skills that we would need to care for our biospheric home. The consequences are everywhere to be seen, at home and in the world.

We resist thinking that we will live and die on the same errant planet, a planet that is being systematically destroyed by our neglect and cannibalistic attitude,” says Beñat Garaio Mendizabal, one of this issue’s contributors. As both a Basque and a citizen of the world, and as a young person, that’s not the world Beñat is looking forward to. And it is worth reflecting on the word he used: errant. To “err” is both to wander away and to go astray. Whether we did so by choice, or because we felt we had no choice, we have wandered away from our deep, ancestral links with place  —  and in so doing, as a global community we have gone astray.

Regardless of what we gained, or think we gained, by breaking our ties with home, what did we lose? What does the something that we lost have to do with our deep contemporary troubles? And how do we recover that lost something and take a proud, hopeful step toward a better world? The articles in Part 2 of Langscape’s “The People’s Issue” series have spontaneously come together around the theme of sense of place, and address these questions in a fascinating variety of ways.

In the “Ideas” section, Sonja Swift explores the concept of “embodiment” as a way of expressing the profound body-land connection that occurs when we are “in contact with living landscapes,” and argues that drawing that connection  —  or more broadly making a link between the biological and the cultural  —  “has been and continues to be an act of rebellion.” In a similar vein, Bob Weeden envisions  —  and indeed welcomes in  —  an “Age of Restoration,” in which a people’s movement, led by “country minds” and guided by traditional knowledge, will rise up to restore health to the land, and in so doing will also restore healthy relationships of people with the land.

In a more metaphorical sense, Cristina Muru considers what it takes to feel “at home” in an intellectual space between the sciences and the humanities, and between scientific and traditional knowledge. It is in such an interdisciplinary and mutually respectful space, she feels, that a fruitful dialogue can take place  — a dialogue that is both about and draws from biocultural diversity, leading to greater understanding of and support for the diversity of life in all its forms.

In her mood piece for “Reflections,” Mary Louise Pratt muses on her own sense of place in a corner of the world she has loved, and lived in part-time, since early childhood  —  and on the hard discovery of the disruptive and painful social and environmental history that lies behind what she thought she knew about the place. In turn, Jeanine M. Canty takes off from just such a contemporary reality of brokenness and disconnect from place and identity, and reflects on the work that she and other women are doing to create new “edges of awareness and transformation” that can lead to ecological and social healing. Photos by M. Jennifer Chandler and poems by Rachel Bagby beautifully complement her article.

The “Dispatches” section brings us examples of how people at the four corners of the world respond when their sense of place is undermined by forces that radically transform their “home”  —  the very places out of which that feeling of belonging is created. Sometimes, as is the case with this year’s Nepal earthquakes, it can be natural forces of such a magnitude, that there’s no defense against them. In their article, Sara Shneiderman and Mark Turin portray the devastation the earthquakes brought about in the indigenous Thangmi communities of Nepal, with whom they work, and show how these tragic events have challenged “traditional understandings of land, territory, family and the environment.” A full set of pictures illustrating the earthquake’s aftermath and people’s courageous response is available as a web-only extra on the Langscape site.

In other cases, the disruptive force is human action, which intervenes to appropriate, or modify the use of, the land that local people call home. This was so for the Udege people of the Russian Far East, Aleksandra Bocharnikova tells us. The Udege put up a brave fight to prevent their traditional territory from becoming a protected area from which they would be excluded  —  something that would have inevitably brought an end to their customary way of life. Their fight made history in Russia, by prompting a change in law that now makes the goal of establishing national parks “protection, not only of nature, but also of indigenous communities living in the territory.

There are other ways, too, in which community action can turn protected areas into sources of benefit for people’s livelihoods and well-being, as well as for biocultural diversity conservation. Tom Corcoran brings us the story of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, and how they are moving away from participation in logging toward establishing community-led ecotourism within the Gamaran Protected Forest. In the process, they are revitalizing and revalorizing traditional knowledge, and thus also creating a “protected area of the mind.Felipe Montoya-Greenheck takes us to Costa Rica to learn about a project that has been devoted not only to establishing an important biological corridor to protect a tract of rainforest, but also to ensuring that the local campesinos (peasants) can maintain and enhance their productive activities as well as their “their sense of place and rootedness, and above all … their love for the land.”

Often, social and environmental transformations go hand in hand, eroding both traditional knowledge and the cultural landscapes that people call home. In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Irene Teixidor Toneu finds that a combination of ecological degradation and changes in the local Berber communities’ way of life is threatening the conservation of medicinal plants and the related knowledge, thus posing a risk for people’s health and well-being. Through participatory consultations, the community comes up with a viable solution: growing medicinal plants in flowerpots. Among the Maasai in Tanzania, traditional medicinal knowledge is also under threat, particularly among youth, who generally have to travel far away from home to get their schooling. Working with elders and teachers at a one-of-a-kind rural secondary school, Heidi Simper probes the value of introducing direct experience of healing rituals in the curriculum to foster the transmission of that invaluable knowledge.

Erasing sense of place is very much a part of the colonialist project that began in the so-called “Age of Exploration” and continues to this day with globalization. The articles in “Action” bring up some of the activist responses that this planned erasure evokes. Jordan Engel points to the ways in which mapmaking has been an instrument of empire, particularly through the overlaying of place names that don’t reflect in any way the ecological and cultural history of a place and the relationship of the original people with the land. His “Decolonial Atlas” project is a remarkable collaborative effort to build alternative maps that “challenge our relationships with the environment and the dominant culture.” Beñat Garaio Mendizabal contemplates what’s happening in Basque Country today, and calls for environmental and language activists to join forces. Linking “green” struggles and language struggles, he argues, can help stave off the rapid “modernizing” changes that, by both destroying the landscape and jeopardizing the continuity of the Basque language, are threatening the biocultural uniqueness and integrity of his beloved home.

As always, images speak “Louder than Words.” In the section by that name, the photo essay by Felipe Rodríguez Moreno and Norma Constanza Castaño Cuéllar, richly illustrated with Felipe’s pictures, brings us a story of recovery of both territory and sense of place in a biologically and culturally diverse fishing community on the Pacific coast of Colombia. Bahía Solano has been deeply transformed, socially and ecologically, by decades of planned immigration of farmers. With their educational project, Felipe and Norma seek to “promote community empowerment and a sense of ownership of the territory among students and the community,” fostering pride of place and stewardship in both youth and adults.

As Indigenous writer and educator Jeannette Armstrong eloquently puts it, “without that deep connection to the environment, to the Earth, to what we actually are, to what humanity is, we lose our place, and confusion and chaos enter” (“I Stand with You Against the Disorder,” Yes! Magazine, Winter 2005–2006). Reading the articles in this Langscape issue against the somber background of current global events, I recognize the challenges of building a future in which we can all experience the groundedness that comes from having roots firmly planted in our local “home.” Yet, at the same time I am filled with hope that, by starting “at home,” we can get on the way toward a mutually respectful and deeply connected existence in our larger “home”  —  a bioculturally rich and thriving biosphere.


Luisa Maffi
Langscape Editor
Co-founder and Director, Terralingua


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