by Patrick Howard
We don’t like to think of our lives as predictable, as being mapped out, but our connections to people and place and how they shape who we become are most often undeniable. Much to the surprise of friends and family, on graduating from teacher’s college, I chose to take a position in a small coastal community in Newfoundland, on the east coast of Canada. I remember justifying that decision to raised eyebrows and incredulous stares. And yet the choice did not seem conscious, planned, or deliberate. On reflection many years later, it was the type of choice to which writer Annie Dillard refers in her observation, “We choose where we live.” Our lives bring us to many places; some we can call home, others we simply cannot. Most often, the choosing feels as if it is has been done for us. But, ultimately, on some level, we choose to stay, to live in a place. The reasons are as varied as our lives.
I felt comfortable on that rocky peninsula jutting into the North Atlantic swept by the Labrador Current. It is a place of rugged cobble beaches with black tumbles of seaweed knotted with fragments of lobster traps, abandoned nets, rope and buoys, red plastic shotgun shells, and pieces of old wharves. Driftwood lays bleached and bony white, heaved above the wrack line by great storms and tides. Onshore gusts and salt spray prune the forests; the wind sculpts coastal trees, nipping exposed needles and buds. This place where my wife and I were going to raise a family was a good fit.
We bought a home overlooking the ocean. The backyard led into endless stands of spruce and fir forest. The teaching staff was close-knit; the children warm and friendly. The years spent there were not without challenge. Coming from homes without a tradition of the literacy and the skills valued by the mainstream economy and culture, many children found the classroom difficult and required consistent, thoughtful care and attention.
For the better part of two decades, I lived with children in a region once home to the greatest biomass on the planet. The incredible diversity and numbers of fish species that swam the nutrient-rich waters of the North Atlantic stood as testament not only to the miracle of the life-generating power of the Earth, but also to the unfathomable depths of human avarice and the capacity to destroy that same miraculous fecundity. The collapse of the cod fishery in the early 1990s had a profound effect on families and on children, dispersing them throughout Canada, undermining self-reliant communities with strong traditions of intergenerational knowledge and systems of mutual support.
As the ocean was plundered and communities decimated, the school children dutifully categorized the natural resources and diagrammed the food cycle. A way of life that had sustained communities for almost two centuries was no longer available to the young. Hope and promise were on the wane. Many children grappled with the prospect of leaving the place that was their home.
And yet, it was in this place and through language, specifically my students’ personal, expressive writing, that the children’s stories and poems spoke to me of struggles in a rapidly changing reality. “Storytelling,” writes the novelist Barbara Kingsolver, “is as old as our need to remember where the water is. It’s as persistent as our desire to teach our children how to live in this place that we have known longer than they have.” In these words, Kingsolver touches on something at the core of what it means to be human and to live fully in this world. Language — words spoken, written in story, prose, or poetry — points to experience, allowing us “to remember where the water is.” Children’s writing, their stories and insights, are often dismissed as too naïve to be taken seriously. Yet, when children connect experience and place through narrative and poetry, it offers a way of thinking about language and experiencing language that situates it, as ecopsychologist Andy Fisher says, “Within this world, as an expression of it.” It is to language that we can turn to better comprehend the relationship between our defining human capacity — language — and the living Earth. Neuroscientist Humberto Maturana emphasizes that the phenomenon of language does not occur in the brain; it occurs “in the flow of interactions and relations of living together.”
I was struck by the numerous references in my students’ writing to “the water,” the term used by so many of them instead of “ocean” or “sea.” The word “water” seemed to elicit a proximity, a primordial, elemental character. These were children whose surnames place them, who “belong” to a particular community. People along that coast ask, “Where do you belong?” not “Where are you from?” My classroom allowed for a safe space to explore this belonging, discovered through story and poetry.
People along the North Atlantic coast ask, ‘Where do you belong?’ not ‘Where are you from?’
The children provided intimate details of their own and their families’ involvement with the land and the sea. They wrote of berry-picking and wood-gathering, of garden plots and cabins, of favorite beaches and punts, and of “cooks” in sheltered coves. I looked for ways to take up the written word, to do as eco-philosopher David Abram counsels, to nurture children in the craft of freeing their words to respond to the language of the Earth itself. In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram reminds us that words, stories, and poems can slip off the printed page to inhabit the tide pools, the beaches, the meadows, and whispering bushes of our lives. In letting language take root, in planting words like seeds, we take up the rhythm and cadence of our place.
Pointing to our inherency in language as our defining human ability and a fully embodied experience, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty believed that languages are different “ways for the human body to sing the world’s praises.” Speech and thought are, according to Merleau-Ponty, “the perceptible world’s explosion within us.” This understanding of language offers a relational, deeply interconnected vision. It reveals that reading, writing, and responding to what we’ve read opens a space of transaction between reader and writer and draws a particular power from an inherently organic, sensorial matrix — an interconnected reality.
Understanding language this way called me to identify writers who reflect our place back to us, who lead us into the unseen depths so we may immerse ourselves in the living world around us. There are writers of place who allow us to be open, in degrees, to a sentient landscape — whether it be river valley, desert, lakeshore, prairie, mountain, or coastline. As a teacher, I scanned the horizon for those writers and led my students towards them. But it was my students’ writing that initiated my search to find writers who give voice to the essential fullness of life and landscape. For when we attend to these voices we come to know our place in a different way; the words lead to a tacit, implicit awareness that our lives are part of an intricate web of perceptions and sensations, of a tidal flow that makes up a living, dynamic environment.
In his poem “On the Full Tide,” Newfoundland poet Tom Dawe reflects on his childhood and offers a deep sense of the participatory, reciprocal interaction with his place. In the poem, the speaker desperately seeks the recognition and approval of an old fisherman; yet this recognition is projected onto the land and the sea in which as a child he, too, is deeply invested.
“I always felt that
he smiled at me then
as the pure surf smiled at me,
as the ringing cliffs
as the sea-birds
as the children smiled at me
And it was good.”
There is something here that transcends mere place attachment. There is an element of incorporeality — a deeply felt relationality that, when attended to, serves to bind us to place. The experience of place that sees our connection to and dependence on all other life in the region. Writer Jamake Highwater beautifully describes this notion in Indigenous traditions. Highwater says that at the end of the communal smoking ritual the participants murmur, “We are all related.” In First Nations’ traditions, according to Highwater, tolerance, ethics, duties, and rights become unnecessary, for our relationship with all others is predicated on “the experience of the self as part of others. ‘We are all related.’”
This sense of relationality, of coming to fully and honestly know our place, requires openness, attunement, and engagement with the others, both the human and the more-than-human, who share our place. Language and story which lead out into the world in an imaginative, experiential engagement can allow children to turn to the articulated-ness of things, to their groundedness. Perhaps it is possible to return to the conditions of human fulfillment and embeddedness in the life-world of their place. Just maybe we can confront our place with awe and admiration, respect, and wonderment.
After reading Enos Watts’s poem “Longliner at Sunset,” fifteen-year-old Jamie recorded this brief response in his writer’s notebook:
“The poem ‘Longliner at Sunset’ is a poem that I can relate to. I know what it is to watch a longliner inch above the horizon heading towards the wharf, to see ‘a halo of saddlebacks riding the sun.’ I’ve seen all of this and it fills me with feelings for my home . . . There are times when I have been amazed by what I see around me. I remember this past summer when the sun seemed to be a perfect red ball dipping below the ocean. We were out in boat and the sun was going down. Everyone couldn’t help but just stare at it. No one said a word.
I love this poem and I think everyone, especially people who make a living on the water, should read it. It reminds us of what is awesome around us.”
Enos Watts’s poem elicits the wonder-full, a recollection of an experience that at first glance appears mundane: “the harbour,” “a little longliner,” “gulls,” “the sun.” Yet, the poet renders the wondrous, the instantaneous, the entire experience visible at once. The poetic process, the effect of language on us, makes new phenomena possible. Inherent in this process is the tension between stability and change, and it is this creative activity that makes things visible to us that we might not otherwise perceive. The poem lifts us out of the ordinary. For Jamie, longliners are commonplace, but the poet instills wonder so that what was ordinary is, in a sense, being seen for the first time.
A true sense of wonder is captured in Jamie’s observation of the setting sun: “Everyone couldn’t help but just stare at it. No one said a word.” Fishing boats, a setting sun, a harbor in a small coastal community occur as commonplace. But even the commonplace can shift so I recognize that possibly never again will the world give me this in the same way. In Jamie’s situation, it is a moment shared by others who do not speak, who “couldn’t help but just stare at it.” Language has the capacity to inspire a deeper sense of connectedness to the world, and to that which may appear as wonder-full.
Language can nurture and cultivate an attunement for the awesome, the numinous, and wondrous in our lives. The experience of engaging with the poems and stories of writers who are able to give voice to the essential fullness of life and landscape may allow children, wherever they live, to be sensible to the essential truth of our earth-centeredness, to be present to the great mystery of our being, and to be oriented to a mindful attitude of questioning their place in a cosmological whole.
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Patrick Howard is an associate professor in the Education Department at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada. A former public school teacher for over twenty years, his research explores the intersection between language, literacy, phenomenology, and ecology. His article “Inspiring the Bioregional Imagination: Deepening the Connection to Place through Reading, Writing and Ecology” was published in Green Teacher.
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