On belonging

As this placeless world spreads, and as progress is increasingly defined as the ability to look out of a hotel window in any city and see the same neon-lit corporate logos, the most radical thing to do is to belong. To belong to a place, a piece of land, a community – to know it and to be prepared to defend it.
Paul Kingsnorth, 2004

I’ve been wondering about belonging. What is it? Is it important? Where can we get some? How do we hold on to it?Home

A decade ago I returned with my young family to live in the area where I had enjoyed my happiest childhood days.

I refamiliarised myself with the landscape, the trees and plants and birds and rivers, in all their colour and variety. I took the plunge into community activism. I made and renewed good friends in the area. It is a welcoming and beautiful place to live; I feel lucky to be here and generally content.

Yet I’ve rarely enjoyed a deep feeling of belonging. In my gloomier moments I can feel adrift, struggling to find any point of reference. Fortunately, more often, there’s just a vague sense that some component is missing. But it niggles enough to beg the question: what is it that I’m after?

A hint of an answer to that question came as a result of a new direction in my reading. After several years of trying to learn about the workings of our economic system, our political structures, the media and the energy situation, to see whether there was a way out of our destructive behaviours, I changed tack and switched to books about indigenous cultures that had shown themselves to be genuinely sustainable.

I read, among others, Ancient Futures by Helena Norberg Hodge; The Wayfinders by Wade Davis; essays by Jeannette Armstrong, Chief Oren Lyons and Tom Goldtooth. I had the good fortune to meet Aboriginal elder Bob Randall and take part in a day of learning as part of his UK tour to promote the heart-wrenchingly poignant film Kanyini.

I read Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World by David Maybury Lewis, and learned of the Xavante, the Wodaabe, the Dogon and the Navajo and felt like I had been transported to worlds of such colour and beauty that finishing the book was accompanied by genuine sadness, as if a portal to something magical had closed.

What struck me as I absorbed the fascinating descriptions of lives that seemed more vibrant, more creative, more physical and more beautiful in their simplicity than my own was the deeply embedded, all-pervasive feeling of belonging that is shared by the people of these cultures. It is felt in many directions: to place, in terms of landscape and ecology; to community or tribe; and invariably to some interpretation of cosmos or a higher consciousness.

Seventh generation

The concept of belonging often stretches both backwards and forwards in time and is reinforced and passed down through generations by traditions, ceremonies, stories and songs. The Iroquois of North America, for example, traditionally stipulate that every decision they make must take into account its impact on the well-being of the seventh generation to come; many Native American and other First Peoples have rituals that attune them to their history, their future, the land, the four corners of the earth, and the great mystery of the cosmos.

Stone in woodIt seems intuitive enough that for all of us, belonging entails connection. The greater the number and variety of connections we enjoy, the more firmly we are supported by that network of connectivity. If we belong somewhere, we feel nourished and safe, naturally ourselves, free to receive and to give. If we belong somewhere we are in a relationship with the place and its inhabitants: we develop a sense of affection for it, love even. If we belong somewhere, as Paul Kingsnorth says, we will defend it.

Belonging can provide armoury against the heartless travesties of exploitation and destruction meted out by the indifferent, detached institutions and processes of profit and development. Belonging, then, can form the basis for peace, equanimity, and the sustenance of life. But still, I am dallying with definitions and ideals. How, exactly, do we belong?

A year ago I wrote in my notebook: ‘Welcome to a family day in hell’.

We had taken a half-term trip to London for an urban break from our gentle rural lives. I was excited; I like the energy and diversity of cities still. But the London we explored was a large step away from the London experienced by its inhabitants – we were there purely to see the attractions. I took this as an opportunity to scrutinise with fine-tuned scepticism the sights that London had decided it should put on for us; to dissect the artifacts of high culture deemed worthy of display to the plebs from the shires. As such I was as detached as I could be, and on this occasion there was no personal connection with place or people to soften that position.

I’ve rarely felt more disconsolate.

Everything seemed alien. The usual sights associated with the human monoculture — hurrying people avoiding contact with each other; corporate messages; piles of pointless things in rows of pointless shops, and so on – were bad enough. Worse still were the museums. In these I saw the endless exhibits of our imperial minds, proudly arrayed in grids or rows designed to channel accepting visitors past each boastful claim in turn. Constructs and excuses for extraction, reduction, exploitation and murder; denial and abstraction; guided routes down corridors through tales of conquest, past mortuaries of depraved imaginations long-gone, steering us down a path to our inner fault, with signposts. Pin-stuck butterflies, labelled and crucified into the genus where they belong. Belong?

And us, the zombies in our hordes, with glazing eyes, stopping to let the children mess with anti-interaction displays, tarnished with the grease of a million bored little fingers, all of which were hoping quietly for an exchange with something new and alive but settling instead for a one-way brush with the souvenirs of death.

The only solace I found was in the Museum of Natural History — but then, grimly, only in the name of it — which at least is honest in its acknowledgement that nature is indeed fast becoming history.

Samuel Johnson said “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.” I came away that week thinking that London is not, in fact, where all life happens but where very little of it happens at all — other than the preservation and celebration of the mythological framework that sets out the rules and constraints, the approved values and aspirations of this so-called civilised human society.

Here, in the dead centre of my country, that framework is constructed, intellectualised, calibrated, reviewed, exhibited and optimised, while everything complex and nourishing and connected that flows and evolves and is organic is actually happening elsewhere.

I realise that there are vibrant, active and diverse communities doing wonderful things in cities that connect their participants to reality as much as in any rural community. But cities such as London are also the places where our civilisation flaunts its proudest moments. The great edifices and works of corporate art are mementos from the excursions of empire. We are reminded of its influence everywhere; and within empire, reciprocity is precluded by hierarchy; felt connections by distance.

Mental desolation

Cities encourage us to avert our gaze from the horizontal and upward to the vertical, from the ground to the tops of the towers, from the humble to the extravagant. They draw our compass away from our true context. To me, cities manifest the bleakest forms of human dislocation, of mental desolation.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s observation — “London, that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained” — seems much more apt, on grey days such as the ones I spent in London last year. Cities, I concluded, embody the antithesis of belonging.

And in that gloomy statement is something of value, because it has led me to a better understanding of belonging itself. Where power imbalances are strong and celebrated as the cultural norm, belonging is difficult. Where aspirations are set by others to be beyond reach, belonging is difficult. Where the built environment extends beyond all human sense of scale and eliminates other forms of life, belonging is difficult.

Where our means of validation and measures of self-worth are set and mediated by those in “authority,” belonging is difficult. Where knowledge of the source of our sustenance is hard to come by, let alone connect with, and would be unsavoury if we knew it, belonging is difficult. Where there is not even any contact between bare sole of foot and yielding ground, belonging is difficult. Where to discuss such things among fellow inhabitants is not just taboo but socially suicidal, belonging is difficult.

The corollary is that belonging begins when we look down and around us and start to engage in reciprocal relationships, unmediated by money or law, unspeeded by external timetables, but flowing naturally, and charged with personal response, honesty and emotion. Belonging begins when we identify the means by which the power structures manifest — law, economics and the media — and name them openly. Belonging begins when we take responsibility for our own self-worth. When we create things for ourselves, things that we can touch and feel.

Belonging begins when we remember, with relief, that owning — that deadly lever of power at the intersection of law and economics — is in fact the very opposite of belonging (as pointed out by Jay Griffiths in her incisive essay This England, published in Dark Mountain issue 1.) It begins when we form a relationship with the land around us irrespective of the myths of property. There is a long way to go with such processes of remembering and relearning, but awareness is growing. The Occupy movement is well-named and deep-rooted.

Belonging requires us to move away from linear, hierarchical flows of power, money and debt and towards horizontal, circular, voluntary flows of exchange, described eloquently as the gift economy by Charles Eisenstein in his book Sacred Economics (and succinctly in a beautiful short video). Pockets of these flows are showing up like green shoots in pavement cracks within Transition and other movements.

Equally important are the material loops that mirror the social ones: the loops that stitch us into a relationship with the land and air and water around us. I’ve written about these loops already; they go beyond eating home-grown food and composting our waste: they are subtle, myriad, deep and pervasive. These connections range from the simple fact that every minute of each day we exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with plants and trees, to the arcane but physiologically measurable effects on our bodies and emotions resulting from the intake of aromatic chemicals exuded by a rosemary bush or a pine tree (see Buhner’s Lost Language of Plants), or the effects that we are barely considering of our own pheromonal exudations on living beings around us.

Dreamtime sisters (c) Colleen Wallace NungariAnd these are not occasional communications, for, integrated over time, each of us in material terms is nothing but an ever-refreshing flux of atoms, which arrive in us, arrange, become us, and then move on in an ongoing cycle to become other animals, plants, rivers and rocks, some in a matter of months or less. We are not “doing” exchange; we are exchange.

Belonging, I think, means becoming conscious of this, remembering that we are each but one fluid part of these myriad animating, life-supporting exchanges, and actively boosting the processes that revive and maintain them.

Fractal belonging

Belonging is fractal; it happens (or is wanting) on every level, from the quantum to the cosmic. We begin to belong when we realise, with humility, how we are woven in, dynamically, materially, energetically and spiritually, with the shifting fabric of reality — and when we learn to step aside from the matrix of myth that seeks to teach us otherwise so that we can realign with the natural harmonics of that evolving web.

That real belonging is even possible for humans — such that a place can benefit from our presence both in life and in death — is not widely appreciated. But I have learned that there are as many ways of doing this as there are communities that have achieved it.

It’s clear that belonging goes much deeper than having a social niche and feeling at home in the landscape, deeper even than eating from that landscape. No wonder it’s so hard to capture, after millennia of being forcibly weaned off it. A lifetime may not be long enough to get back there from this standing start in the culture of unbelonging.

And the challenge goes deeper still, for I believe we cannot do this work alone.

I suggest that, to be complete, belonging must also be consciously communicated and experienced across society.

You could develop a socially fulfilling community based on a gift economy — and connect with the culture. You could at the same time build a materially fulfilling life of ecological balance — and connect with the biosphere. But unless the whole community, the culture, also feels, shares and lives those same connections with living nature, the two won’t synergise.Yanomami woman (c) Mark Edwards of the Hard Rain Project

For full belonging we must take part in a culture that itself embodies, conveys and reinforces the knowledge, understanding and value of reciprocity between humans and the rest of nature. In his book Red Alert Daniel Wildcat calls this the nexus of culture and nature. It is also defined neatly at Terralingua.

One of the few times I’ve felt a hint of this shared understanding alongside explicit encouragement to participate actively in the ecology of the planet was on a permaculture design course. Regardless of how much I eventually design or implement I will always be grateful for the experience of taking part in a community, however transient, that was ready to learn to belong to the land and not ashamed to say so. It was the briefest of dips into the shallow end of such experience but it was uplifting nonetheless. Permaculture might not answer everything, but it appears to offer an invaluable corner-piece in the jigsaw of re-indigenisation.

Rituals, rites of passage, and ceremonies of belonging, to embed the values and aspirations of belonging back into the culture and provide conduits for passing these down through generations, are also critically important. Expressions of our belonging to each other and the land in arts, crafts, music, stories, dance and gift-giving are needed too.

There are places, like the Dark Mountain Project, where stories, poems and art depicting longing and yet-to-belonging are emerging now.

I dream of new songlines for each place, sung and trodden by all, especially newcomers, so they can rhythmically imbibe specific knowledge and feelings about the land, its mythology and its layers of history, into body as well as mind.

If we are to help something positive prevail through the bottleneck through which the human species must pass, we might consider passing to our descendants suggestions such as these about how to become possessed by Earth again and why it is important to do so — as a counterbalance to the sorry story of how and why we ended up so dispossessed.

As for my own quest to belong: I suspect it will take me all my life to get half-way there, if I’m lucky. But I feel better in the knowledge that the missing component was a problem round here a long time before I was.

For the other half of that journey I hope to give my children the chance to pick up the baton. They need to know that re-belonging is a long haul, a generation game, a race against the de-belongers’ mission to do away with the last remnants of connectivity. It can’t be won by speed, but if enough would-belongers pull together along the way, perhaps some of humanity will get the hang of it, and achieve the finest left-brain/right-brain balance, the most developed state of paradox yet: able to appreciate the scientific wonders of the universe while simultaneously falling into its embrace.


  1. Vanessa, I enjoyed reading your comments – many of which resonated. One of the things that I hate about London – but which others love – is that it belongs to no one – except perhaps the Duke of Westminster. But I think it was probably always thus.

    I live 11 miles away and I cycle to work and frequently pass neighbours and acquaintances with whom I exchange greetings. I think people are people and if there is any stability they will develop cultures for living sustainably.

    The sense of belonging you refer to in indigenous cultures is rooted in the concept of people staying in the same place and things changing only very slowly. You are alive at the wrong time to experience that! Realistically, cities are the only way that 7 billion people will ever survive. They will certainly starve to death if they employ basic agriculture and hunting associated with these cultures.

    It sounds like you have pretty much built the world you seek and you seem to embody the phrase ‘Think Global Act Local’. What else can one possibly do?

    All the best: Michael

  2. v. nicely written, V.

    […]London is not, in fact, where all life happens but where very little of it happens at all — other than the preservation and celebration of the mythological framework that sets out the rules and constraints, the approved values and aspirations of this so-called civilised human society.

    Why have I never had the guts to say this out loud? I suck!
    Cities as the antithesis of belonging – of course! How can you inhabit the land when you suck all the resources necessary for your survival (plus a stack of them that aren’t) from other places stretched out across the globe, and then pave it over and attack it with a bunch of concrete and glass abominations to boot?

    And yet, even if you live outside of the cities you’re most likely dependent on them in one form or another to supply your livelihood – local produce has to compete with market prices, people have to earn more to afford inflated property prices or keep up with rent etc etc ad nauseam – the metropolis sends out its thousand and one death-tendrils and in the end there’s no escape. I wonder if Michael’s right that this is just the wrong time; that any talk of belonging is just a bad joke in pretty poor taste. On one level it fills me with angst and bile to have my face rubbed in the lives of these damn savages, knowing that the odds are stacked against me ever experiencing anything like what they took/take for granted throughout their existence. On the other hand, maybe that means it’s the perfect time to talk about it and to start grabbing hold and putting down little roots where we can.

    @protonsforbreakfast: ‘I think people are people and if there is any stability they will develop cultures for living sustainably.’ – yes, that’s what gives me hope. The system thrives on massive, regular disturbance and chronic insecurity from agriculture to the schools to the job market and the wider economic system. There’s no chance for a deep sense of belonging with all this crap getting constantly dumped on us, forcing us to adjust our life strategies several times even within a single generation. When that constant hassle dies down, that’s when we get our chance!

    Glad to see you writing again 🙂


  3. “Realistically, cities are the only way that 7 billion people will ever survive.”

    As long as there are hinterlands to plunder. Then, the jig is up.

  4. Vanessa, thanks so much for this incisive piece, which I found via the Earthlines blog. It’s a theme I find explored often in Barry Lopez’s work, and your comments on the relationship between indigenous cultures and their land reminded me of Hugh Brody’s wonderful book Maps and Dreams. Of course, we are an indigenous culture ourselves, albeit a repressed one, who have forgotten the knowledge we once had. These are themes I wanted to explore in my own writing on the Dark Mountain blog (http://www.dark-mountain.net/wordpress/2012/02/03/the-narrow-orbit-of-our-belonging/) and on my own blog site (The Printed Land). Thanks, for stimulating so many new thoughts. Ian

  5. Thank you everyone for these thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, and my apologies for taking a few days to acknowledge them. Really glad that the article struck a chord or two.

    Michael: I too like your ‘people are ‘people’ observation. It does give cause for hope, as Ian M suggested, providing we get a long enough period where we are allowed to decide for ourselves how we want to live. You’re right that we (in this culture at least) are living in the wrong time for a settled, lower-energy way of life – although of course there are still people trying against the odds to hold on to just that in other places, outside the mainstream industrial culture. I’m not sure I’m with you about cities being the only way that 7 billion people will ever survive, although I understand why (given current energy availability) they offer efficiencies of distribution. The longer view is less promising…

    …For, as leavergirl says, cities exist only by virtue of unsustainable exploitation and extraction from the surrounding lands. I don’t believe there is any arrangement that can support current numbers of humans on the planet in the long run. But that’s another subject!

  6. Ian M: thank you for your appreciative words! You’re quite right, of course, that living outside cities doesn’t get us much closer to true belonging, and for the reasons you rightly outline. But I suppose at least there is a taste of it, a bit of nature here and there, some sense that food comes from land, and less of the parading and pretence (in my view anyway ;-)). Chuckled at your suggestion that “any talk of belonging is just a bad joke in pretty poor taste” – that is quite possibly true! And, while giving it a go surely has to be a good thing, it may be that if we ever do (as a species) get there in the end, it will come about naturally, unpredictably, and of its own accord, and will probably not look anything like the belonging I or anyone else expect…

    Ian Hill: welcome and thank you too for your kind words. Now I’ve clicked on it again, I realise I had seen your piece on the Dark Mountain blog back then. I enjoyed it, and it might even have fed into my own early, semi-conscious musings on the theme. In which case, I’m very glad to have it flagged up here. Thanks also for the pointers to Barry Lopez (who I haven’t read) and Hugh Brody (whose material I have now made a note to read more of). Great to make contact! I’ll take a look at your blog too.

  7. Lovely stuff! I live in Manchester, and the size of it is perfect – I almost always meet someone I know for a chat. London – yes, I used too to be excited by the “buzz”, but that has worn off over time. Do you know the Jam song, “Strange Town” – in part the lyrics go

    Found myself in a strange town
    Though I’ve only been here for three weeks now
    I’ve got blisters on my feet
    Trying find a friend in Oxford Street

    I bought an A to Z guide book
    Trying to find the clubs and YMCAs
    When you ask in a strange town
    They say don’t know, don’t care
    And I’ve got to go, mate

  8. Hi Vanessa; A lot of what you say here is consistent with my experience too. I got a chuckle (but a sad one) from: “Here, in the *dead* centre of my country…”

    Some thoughts: Belonging of both kinds, belonging to a place in the earth and belonging to a community of people, has been grievously injured by our propensity for aggression. People who belong to one location and group too often see those who belong elsewhere as “other” and come into conflict with them.
    The whole continent which I grew up on had been stolen from the indigenous people who belonged there; stolen by people of my own British and French ancestry who obviously didn’t. As a result, perhaps, my sense of belonging to any place in particular has always been shallow and transient and the same applies to belonging with any particular social group. I’ve had to make do with “belonging in the universe” and, really, that has been good enough.

    We humans once lived as though we belonged in this beautiful earth and a few still live that way. Civilization, though, requires that we behave as destructive intruders here so we just don’t belong any more, ie: the planet would be better off without us.
    How can we regain that lost feeling of belonging? It would mean freeing ourselves from the patterns of thought and behavior with which civilization has shackled us. It’s quite a challenge.

    Just loving where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing (doing what you truly love) is the best way anyone can begin, I think. Empathic love creates the connections that might just grow into a real sense of belonging as time goes on.

    Thanks for the many valuable insights.

  9. Delighted to have you visit, dwighttowers and Tamnaa. Thanks for taking the trouble to read and for your appreciative comments.

    Yes I do know that Jam song – very apt! I also have a soft spot for Manchester. It’s not just the size but the northern friendliness too (also perhaps the fact my grandparents came from Moss Side!).

    Tamnaa, your observations on belonging vs conflict are important ones. I guess they were vaguely, implicitly there in my references to power hierarchies and dispossession, but since taking by force is such an obvious (perhaps the main) barrier to belonging, for the thieves and the robbed both, it deserves explicit mention. Your next point, that civilisation requires us to do the things that prevent belonging, emerges elegantly from there, and clarifies the picture further; thanks.

    Also like your starting point for reversing this process. Having got all that off my chest I do now feel more satisfied with this as the best approach available to us, at this time.

  10. “The illusion that cost India the efforts of thousands of years to unmask, is the same illusion that the west has laboured just as hard to maintain and strengthen!”

    Brilliant blog Ness! I read all of this one, because I just became more and more absorbed, the subject drew me in of course, but your talent for writing engulfs my personal love of a kind of applied expression which reaches out with honesty, that is… ‘saying it the way it is’ using the power of the word for those who connect through the word. (Which I do of course, but am mostly drawn through the cosmic experience, which is of course ineffable.)
    I’m so glad I made myself stop & read it! The sun is out ere and I need to tend to some trees.. Have you read the book of “Chuang Tzu”… I get a feeling you would love it, I do which is why I point it out. If you want to belong perhaps you may want to belong to Karuna and live in a more sensible house of your own design.
    Himalayas of love Janta x8x

  11. Janta – thank you! An honour to have you visit and comment. I’m really delighted that you took something from this, and appreciate your encouraging words. It happens that I’m on the brink of another article after a very long gap. I think you’ve just given me the final nudge I need to get on and do it!

    I haven’t read Chuang Tzu, no; thanks for the recommendation. And also for the very special suggestion of belonging to Karuna. What a dream that would be.
    Love to you too. xx

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