Monday, 15 September 2014
Transforming the present through the past: spirituality and the place of place
As for mortals, their days are like grass;
They flourish like a flower of the field;
For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place knows it no more.
(Psalm 103:15-16, NRSV)
How many of us as children have asked that profound question—“Where do I come from?” While this question does not presumably refer to one’s ancestors when it is asked, nevertheless it is a good question. Where do we come from? Who are the people of our genetic past that make us who we are today?
Should the ancestors of many hundreds of years ago be important to us? For the greater part, they disappeared, their lives forgotten by the generations that come after them. Are we really like the flowers of the field, living briefly on this earth then vanishing without trace? This is certainly not a comforting thought for those of us alive today, who would like to think we have contributed something positive to our families, our communities, and to the world that we inhabit. Surely those of many generations ago also believed they had something more permanent to contribute to their descendants and to their communities.
I wasn’t thinking of ancestors when we set out to spend a weekend in the Lake District when we lived in County Durham, in the UK, many years ago. Having spent some time devouring tourist pamphlets, it was clear the Lakes was somewhere that tourists should go. I had also read a pamphlet on where waterfalls were to be found, being something of a waterfall aficionado.
Along the way we came to a little village called Stanhope, and there to the left was a sign to High Force. ‘Force’ is local dialect for waterfall, and I had read of High Force, the largest waterfall in Britain, so we turned off to visit it.
Soon we found ourselves climbing a very steep slope and our little hired Fiat was chugging along in second gear. High Force was going to be one spectacular cataract falling from this height, I was thinking.
Without warning, we reached the top. The Pennine Mountains, in all their craggy, austere beauty, were suddenly stretched out before us. It was an unexpected and wonderful vista.
The next thing that happened was also unexpected, particularly for me. I felt overcome by emotion. It seemed that my legs had shot into the ground and I was putting roots out, deep root down into the soil. I burst into tears. My spouse enquired as to what was wrong. I told him I felt like I had come home, home to a country I was intrinsically and inexplicably rooted to, even though I didn’t understand it at all. He didn’t understand it either, so we drove on to High Force, a spectacular mahogany-coloured waterfall that crashed down in twin flows into the River Tees. The feeling persisted of my being in my native country, but I had no explanation for this feeling. Like an epiphany, it had illuminated me, left me deeply disturbed, and departed. One legacy that I received at the time was a sudden understanding of what land meant to indigenous peoples. For the first time, I really got that.
A year later, when I was safely back in Sydney, an explanation finally came. I had frequently returned to the Pennines in my dreams, ranging around places like Romaldkirk, High and Low Force, Stanhope and Cow Green Pasture. I would wake homesick, tears on my face. Those feelings of belong to the land, of being connected to something greater than myself, had persisted.
I had been researching my family history, and ended up having to pay an English researcher to track down documents concerning the Raines. All I initially had to give her was a marriage certificate of my great great grandfather James Raine, who married Mary Ann Robinson in Easington, a coastal area in County Durham. I had also found an IGA record of a James Raine born to a Dinah Raine that looked promising. Her research confirmed this was his mother, and that he was illegitimate.
Unknown to me, she had been caught by the story of my family and had persisted in her search for connections in her spare time, looking at many documents until a breakthrough came. The Raines – my direct line of Raines – were born and bred in the Pennine mountains, around those very places where I felt myself become part of the land. I had indeed ‘come home’ when my epiphany occurred. And I had ‘discovered’ a whole cast of characters who made up my ancestral family, living in that ‘home’ land.
How was it that my ancestors somehow communicated this to me, their descendant? Why was it that the land there not only welcomed me, but embraced me, gathering me to itself and welcoming me home?
What was the genetic heritage that I was indebted to, an inheritance that my ancestors had bequeathed to me? I wondered: in the split second moment of conception, is genetic information from our parents handed on from the generations of thousands of years to make us the people we are today? Was I unconsciously carrying a flotilla of inherited traits, intuitions and collective wisdom from the past, a gift that allowed me to feel and understand the love of land held by my ancestors?
I had found a country, and I had found a family, ‘a cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), and a sense of belonging to and a consciousness of deep roots that stretched back into the many generations that went before me. Do most of us carry this ancestral memory unconsciously, I wonder? Does it only appear in full force when we find ourselves in places of special family significance, even if we don’t know the place is of significance?
Such places have been studied by scholars in the discipline of spirituality of place and there is no doubt that such places exert a powerful force and evoke feelings of connection and belonging. This phenomenon, which has no rational basis, has been reported by many people who have visited places special in some way to their ancestors. Perhaps it represents the many layers of human experience that, far from being transient or lost in time, have been preserved somehow through our genes and collective family memory. Perhaps it is a ‘thin place’, a place that the Celts believed a veil was momentarily lifted, and the divine revealed to the mundane, and the ancestors connected once more with living.
Far from being transient as the flowers, my ancestors have given me a gift that is enduring, not only in my genetic makeup, but in my connection to place, to earth, to a community. I see places differently now, I feel connection to the environment around me differently. I value tradition more, and seek out community more, for it is privileged individualism that has in many ways got us into the environmental and social mess we are now facing. I recognise, I feel, I am part of a living planetary system with complex and sometimes mysterious spatial and temporal elements and networks. It seems more important than ever to bequeath the land that sustains and nurtures us on to our descendants in good condition, and to work to ensure that we – and the many other species that now live or perish at our hands – do not become as transient as the flowers, leaving a place that knows us no more.