Belonging to the Land by Carol P. Christ


Carol Christ in LesbosI believe that we can restore our hope in a world that transcends race by building communities where self-esteem comes from not feeling superior to any group, but from one’s relationship to the land, to the people, to the place, wherever that may be.—bell hooks

In these words from her poignant memoir-reflection-analysis Belonging, bell hooks suggests that rather than creating identity by comparing ourselves to others, whether in the academy, in communities, or in the larger society, we would do better to root our identity in the land.

Hooks “left home” in rural Appalachia in order to pursue “higher” (why do we call it that?) education including a Ph.D. which enabled her to teach at prestigious universities in the urban north. Despite her considerable success as an academic and a black feminist, hooks suffered persistent depression in the cities where she taught. Eventually she diagnosed her dis-ease as a longing for the home she had left behind, specifically as a need to connect with the traditions of her ancestors, the mountains, and the land that had sustained them since the end of slavery.

Hooks asks if one of the reasons that so many black people have failed to thrive in the urban north has to do with the loss of connection to the land and ancestral traditions that occurred with twentieth century migrations to the north. Though black people—and hooks herself—hoped to find greater freedom and dignity in the north, hooks wonders if the price they paid was too high.

Though the questions hooks asks are rooted in the experiences of former slaves and their white neighbors in the south of the United States, they are relevant to all of us who as individuals and families have migrated in search of “a better life”—including for education and work opportunities.

The stories hooks tells evoke the memory of my grandmother tearfully pointing to pictures of the family left behind in New York when she and my grandfather and their three children emigrated to California during the depression. They remind me of the painful separation from my family, and the hills, mountains, and ocean of southern California that ensued when I left home to attend university in northern California, and then moved on to graduate school on the east coast.

In the university, I learned that just about everything I already knew was not enough, and that the skills I had, such as the ability to sew a suit with two linings and bound buttonholes from a Vogue Paris Original Christian Dior pattern, or to feed. bathe, and put five children under the age of five to bed as a teenage babysitter, were not valued. The skills that were dis-valued were not only mine, but also were the skills of my female ancestors who knew not only how to cook and birth babies, but also how to sew, how to knit, how to quilt, how to make lace, how to make things of use and beauty, clothes to be worn by family members and tablecloths and doilies to decorate homes.

I also learned that the place from which I came, the lower middle class tract home suburbs of post-war California, were nothing more than “little boxes made of ticky-tacky” that I was lucky to have escaped. To this day, sadly, I retain negative feelings for the homes and neighborhoods in which I was raised, while at the same time holding fond memories of certain people, as well as of peacocks and black-tailed deer.

For hooks the cure for her dis-ease was returning home to her beloved Appalachian mountains, to a university and community committed to overcoming the racism of the past. Not all of us had the deep sense of belonging hooks experienced as a child, and not all of us will be able, as she did, to “return home.’

Molivos archBut perhaps we can cultivate a deeper sense of belonging, wherever we are.

Last night a Greek American expatriate friend of mine and I were speaking about the volcanic past of our island, Lesbos, some twenty million years ago, that we had learned about in the Museum of Natural History in Sigri. “It is so long ago, it feels hard to connect to it,” one of us remarked, “until you realize,” the other said, “that all of that history is found in the hewn stones of our buildings and in the cobbled stones of the road beneath our feet.

Flamingo's-Kalloni3-SaltpanIn recent years I have learned to identify over 300 bird species that populate our island, and to understand why wetland ecosystems are important not only to birds, but to the sustenance of native plants, including species found only in Lesbos. In addition, when functioning, wetlands absorb water that since the channeling of rivers and the draining of seasonally flooded fields, now periodically threatens homes and businesses in the town of Kalloni. Knowing things like this is another part of what belonging to the land means.

As well as connecting to the land and wildlife of the island, I have made new memories rooted in place, become part of the human community of the island, learned traditional songs and dances, worked to protect the environment, and run for office with the Green Party Greece.

Hooks is right. Part of the dis-ease those of us who have left home, and those of us who have pursued “higher” education suffer, is dis-connection from our roots in ancestral memory and in the land.

I believe that we can learn again to value the work of women’s and men’s hands as much as or even more than the “theory of forms” produced by Plato’s mind (which in any case I consider to be false).

I believe we can re-connect ourselves to “to the land, to the people, to the place, wherever that may be.”

I agree with hooks that it is through restoring these connections that hope and healing for ourselves, our communities, and our world will be found.

Carol leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (on facebook) spring and fall–early bird discount available now on the 2015 tours.  Carol can be heard in interviews on Voices of the Sacred Feminine, Goddess Alive Radio, and Voices of Women.  Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.  Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.

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Categories: Activism, Ancestors, Earth-based spirituality, Embodiment, environment, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Environmental consciousness is beginning to change the “urban north.” And that change I agree is deeply empowering subconsciously, allowing even city folk to root their identity in the land.

    When I first began living in New York City, there was no ability to walk along the Hudson River, not a single tree anywhere, just endless warehouses and garbage dumps. You couldn’t even get to the river. Then one day I opened the NYTimes to an article stating that all those warehouses would be removed and a tree-filled parkland would be rebuilt along the entire Hudson shoreline from the tip of Manhattan to the upper West Side. I couldn’t believe it, I thought it would never happen. But now I walk those paths along the river routinely. I love that the land is open and free, for rich and poor, an absolute gorgeous landscape for anyone to enrich their soul.

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  2. This year I turned 60 and renovated the first house I have ever owned – a tiny stone home on a pine covered hillock in the center of Athens Greece. As yet I can only spend part of my time there but I feel deeply that sense of belonging to the land (the high rocks on that hill have spoken to me in my most difficult times) – the way the light shines in Attica (the ancient philosophers were right about that!) – the vibrant city – and my simple neighborhood of common people where I am blessed to feel welcomed and part of the community. I am going back tomorrow to plant the tiny front garden and the big old pithoi (clay pots) I have had for 14 years waiting to make my own home in Athens. I did not come from there but I made it my place and it made me a part of it. I will file your article as it says everything for me about living well..

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  3. Brava. As usual. Thanks for this thoughtful essay. I grew up in Ferguson, Missouri–yes, that Ferguson. It was 100% white in the post-World War II years and through the 50s. The neighborhood I lived in was one of those “Leave It to Beaver”/Ozzie and Harriet/Howdy Doody cliche working-class neighborhoods. I don’t miss it at all. I’ve been in SoCal since 1976 and have always felt more connected here, especially in Long Beach. But I still have occasional bouts of nostalgia. When I do, I phone my uncle, who is the only one left near St. Louis, though he’s across the river in Illinois.

    I think your point about migration is well taken, but whether it’s people or birds or our four-footed cousins or even salmon and whales……..migration has always had its dangers and its rewards. We do indeed connect to new places and hopefully we can be happy in those new connections.

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  4. Yes, yes – connection to the land and connection to ourselves, to each other, and our true gifts are so intertwined. It is the land and its culture that called me to settle in New Mexico and the land with its culture of Lesvos that always stays like a bright star in my memory. Thanks Carol for these beautiful reflections which sychronisticly mirror my next post.

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  5. I’m an outlier when it comes to stability (in the U.S.). I grew up in one small town in Upstate New York, and after college, I’ve lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I feel like I have two “homes.” I return to Upstate New York every year, and I love living on Lake Mendota here in Madison. That being said, I could NEVER have continued living in my small Upstate NY town. I was already feeling stifled at the age of 12. I needed a bigger world — a more cosmopolitan world, a world with culture beyond record players and high school dances — to engage all of me, especially my intellect. But going back “home” feeds me in a way that my new landscape doesn’t. It’s not nostalgia, but a a knowing and understanding based on early experience, rather than accumulated knowledge. In order to make up for this deficit in my new home, I’ve been keeping a “Lake Mendota Journal,” that records the migrations of the water fowl and other birds and animals in my immediate environs. So today I was very excited to see almost all of the migrants on the lake that I’ve seen in past years, especially the scaups, since last year there were very few of them.

    I also wanted to note that — with the exception of African-Americans — all us who live in North America are descended from the kind of people who pulled up roots and migrated, including the Native Americans, who came here a lot earlier than the rest of us. I’m sure this has something to do with the fact that Americans move on average once every five years. We’re often portrayed as a “restless and rootless” people. When I first visited Europe as an 18-year-old, the difference between European rootedness — at that point in time based in large part on the linguistic differences even within countries, where you were a “foreigner” if you moved just a few miles — and American mobility was clear, even though I had yet to move from my small town on to college.

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