Letting the land teach me who I am

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Today I was honored to have two different speaking/interviewing events at Earlham College, both about my involvement in community building in Richmond.  In preparing, I returned to an interview that Vine Deloria, Jr. did with The Sun a while back, and was reminded how useful and meaningful his words have been to me in the last decade.

I thought I'd share the section of the interview that affected me the most:

Q: How does being in one place for a long time teach you who you are?

Deloria: If you live in one place long enough, you begin to lose the defenses you've erected in order to survive in industrial civilization, and you fall into the rhythm of the land. You develop a different sense of the natural world and no longer have to think of things in the abstract. You think, instead, of how the land looks and what it's telling you. I would think many Appalachian people have this sense, especially the ones who've lived back in the hills for five or six generations. They have begun to adjust to the land, as opposed to forcing the land to adjust to them. If you talk to them, you'll find they don't have many of the abstract concerns that so-called civilized people have.

Q: What sort of abstract concerns?

Deloria: Always wondering who you are. Always trying to prove yourself, to prove that you are good enough, strong enough, rich enough, good-looking enough. Always trying to define yourself in terms of what you do for a living or what your hobbies are or what you can buy. I can see how that would be an effective survival technique in New York City, but if you live in a place where you're not always having your identity called into question, you don't need to worry about those things. You can simply be yourself.

Because of the industrial machine, no one really has an identity anymore. So you have to keep giving people numbers and meaningless ways to define themselves. If you look at the bestseller list, you see all these books offering to tell you how to be yourself. Well, when the land gives you a foundation, you don't have to struggle with that question. If you live a long time in one place, you have an ongoing experiential context. If you don't, your life is limited to little disconnected experiences. To really feel alive, you've got to grab as many of these experiences as you can. Thus, you've got MTV and malls and discos.

I try to be thankful every day for the foundation I've found in the land that we call Richmond, Indiana.

3 thoughts on “Letting the land teach me who I am

  1. @anna lisa: not necessarily, but it does mean that if/when I leave this place, I'll have to be very conscious of what it means to create a new foundation in a new space.

  2. This is a valuable idea for me as we consider where to start a farm. In that somewhat literal "setting down roots" the value of staying in one place involves the investment of improving the long-term fertility and health of the soil, but also one's own long term security in community connection.
    The irony for me is that I want any prospective children to live near me as adults, but I want to choose where I live independently of my own parents' choices.
    I agree with Vine's proposition that past generations of presence in a place help define and give substance and context to an individual. It is by definition a long-term prospect, though, and in this society requires life-times of what some might call self-sacrifice (but may simply be disciplined investment).
    At any rate, Anna Lisa's question would have made me break out in peals of derisive laughter (having grown up in the area), but your work and reflections, Chris, make Richmond a great deal more appealing to me. Thanks for your contribution to the scene.

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