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
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.
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.
It 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.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.