The Language of the Land

We are celebrating the publication of our twenty-fifth book, available now from our online shop. Our Spring 2024 issue is a hardback anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork from around the world, inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself. Today we bring you an excerpt from Susan Raffo's essay on the land's aliveness, and how many of us have lost the ability to hear the language that it speaks. Accompanied by artwork by Freya Gabie.
is a writer, cultural worker and bodyworker, and the author of Liberated to the Bone. Raffo’s work focuses on the links between community safety and community care which includes land and all our connections. Her work on this includes the Healing Histories Project and Relationships Evolving Possibilities.

There is a field in Wisconsin, in the United States, that I have been learning for the last ten years. For generations before I met it, the field was mowed. Multiple times. Multiple years. Over and over again. Eight years ago the mowing stopped. What happens to a field left to its own rhythms, surrounded by wood that used to be logged and now isn’t? Every season I write down the flowers, the grasses, the saplings that move up through the soil. Here are bergamot and amaranth. And here are prairie sunflowers and red clover. Box elder and right there, oh god right there, the smallest of oak. Five years ago I was out-of-control happy to see milkweed push up in a patch near the bitternut tree. I remembered the years we spent when my daughter was a toddler, walking around the city with seeds and planting milkweed in random spaces. Here, on its own, the milkweed lifted up. The next season it was gone. And then the one after that it was in the field again, but in a completely different place. That’s when I remembered: milkweed is a rhizome. The plant itself is under the ground, sending up shoots of stem and leaf and pod to interact with air and sun and monarch before settling back down again. From season to season, it’s a dance. There, a large patch along the path to the creek. The next season, scattered in small groups at the south end near the walnut tree. Watching how the milkweed moves through the soil, determining each season where and how it will rise, I feel like I’ve been given a rosetta stone, a kind of linguistic key. If I study it long enough, patiently enough, maybe just maybe I will start to understand an echo, a glimmer of the layered language that is the land’s own home.

*

English, like all languages, is a language that emerged from people moving between and across experiences and struggles, looking for the exact right words to name the horror and glory of being alive. A language that didn’t rest. English is useful for having different and very specific names for everything: different shaped atoms, every leaf type classified as its own separate thing. English is like the pointed end of a very sharp scalpel, able to tease apart those fibres into individual experiences, each with its own history and lineage and sound. But being specific and exquisitely explicit doesn’t always work when talking about relationships or, even more importantly, being within a relationship. Anyone who has tried to explain a spiritual or deeply emotional experience has stumbled across this, and it includes trying to talk about the experience of land and not its structure. As an American, I am writing in a language that is at least one step removed from the lands and the ancestors that shaped it. A coloniser language. A language that changed once it rooted onto a different land.

How a word is understood is about its context and its layers of history – in the same way that the oak savannah I love near the Minnesota River is one shifting story on the surface, but then when you walk down the embankment and look behind you, it is layers upon layers of story covered by expanding and retreating vines. I love to look at how words have changed; looking for the clues about who a people were generations ago versus who they are now. Some English words barely resemble their original meaning and other words haven’t changed at all, implying more or less the same concept for thousands of years. I always think that those are our base words, the ones that most shape who we are and how we hold where we have come from.

One word that hasn’t changed is ‘land’ which, according to linguists, has always meant the concept we think of as ‘land’ – a sense of open space, open-ness. ‘Earth’ also seems to have meant the same thing since the far-far back times. If ‘land’ is the open-space, the expanse of it, then ‘earth’ is the physical feel of it, soil trickling between your fingers. 

This comforts me. Everything starts with the earth and with the land. We each only exist because of the land. Always. Your bones, my bones. Our skin, eyelashes, microbiome, hormonal interface, experience of ageing, capacity of sight: each of these exists because of the land, the one that you have known during this lifetime and the ones that your ancestors knew and were created by.

Land and earth: we think they mean the same thing, but what would they say about themselves? How does land understand itself now, when microplastics, these never-degrading-insults, are found in over 50% of the soil below our feet? Would the earth still use the same words to describe its experience of being alive when part of its breath is riddled with things it can’t evolve?

I am writing in a language that is at least one step removed from the lands and the ancestors that shaped it. A language that changed once it rooted onto a different land.

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of attachment, this keystone in psychological thinking that underscores how we do or don’t feel a sense of belonging and connection. Attachment theory is a recent development, emerging out of thinking in the 1960s about what it means to have a secure base, a sense of solidity within life, which then led to looking at how this security does or doesn’t emerge. Focused on relationships between humans, attachment theory speaks to the connection or the bond between infants and our caregivers, most often our parents. Bringing together evolution, biology and psychology, attachment theory names the quality of this early connection – how safe and cared for and attuned to we are – as core to how we develop into adulthood and, in particular, on how secure and solid we feel about ourselves as alive in the world.

When a community is under attack, the bonds within that community can fracture. When the storyholders and cultural teachers of a community are killed or prevented from sharing their stories and knowledge, there is a rupture within the process of building connected belonging and a secure base for the youngest ones who are just emerging. These young ones then grow up to be adults who don’t know the generationally-evolved and beloved stories and teachings, which means that when they have young ones, those young ones are also raised unsettled… and this continues forward generationally. This is one of the ways that disruption from land manifests; it is not only about physical removal.

A tension builds across generations, a tension of grief, rage and displacement; this tension, like all tensions, needs to go somewhere and so it does. It reaches out to hurt those who do still remember the stories to tell their young ones. The unrooted and disconnected ones have a hard time tolerating the rooted connection of someone else because of how it triggers their own deep unexplainable loss of community. 

Meditating on this has shaped a lot of my thinking about whiteness, about violence and oppression, about culture, about imperialism and colonisation, all of it. When Sherri Mitchell, an Indigenous lawyer and activist from the Penobscot nation, talks about indigenous cultures as the sacred instructions communicated by the land towards a people over generations, my curiosity starts to find home. Everything starts with the land, I remember again and again. Everything starts with the land, so how did this get lost? When did my people begin to see owning land as equalling safety? When did we begin to turn land into an object for accumulation rather than our reason for being alive, our relative, our culture? I write that, realising that in some very deep ways, I don’t even know what my questions mean, but I can feel the loss of something.

When the collective attachment bonds of a community are disrupted, this impacts the language that community speaks. Without an elder to teach the stories held in the words and the land held in the stories, then the words begin to shift meaning. The land, the stories and the people begin to separate. The relationships that bind these states of being begin to unravel. One example of this is the changing of the word ‘steward’. The word’s original meaning is not completely clear but there are clues. The ‘ward’ part of the word, which means ‘guard’ or ‘keeper’, comes from the Indo-European root wer which is to perceive, to watch out. To perceive something is a form of quiet relationship; the pause that happens before the pull or push or yielding stillness that creates a connection. As the word ‘steward’ continued to evolve into the 1200s, that sense of ‘perceiving’ was lost. A steward becomes someone who manages affairs and property, who supervises; someone who has a plan and is responsible for managing how the details of that plan are actioned out. The pause that allows perception drifted into the assumption of management.

Everything starts with the land, I remember again and again. Everything starts with the land, so how did this get lost?

But that is the history of the English word. Behind that word is an older one. There are many verses in the Bible that refer to people’s relationship with the land, but most begin with Genesis 2:15, ‘And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.’ This sentence comes from the English translation of the Bible: the King James version. Before this was a Latin version, and before that, a Greek version. And Genesis, the section of the Old Testament where ‘stewarding the land’ as a concept first appears, is a Christian retelling of the Torah which was and is written in Hebrew with some parts in Aramaic. The two Hebrew verbs in this verse mean something different from their English translation. The first verb, le-ovdah, means ‘to serve it’. The second, leshomrah, means to guard it. After reading some rabbinical reflections on these two verbs, this verse feels much more like indigenous concepts of being land and water protectors than it feels like Christian concepts of land stewardship. Somewhere between the original Hebrew version of Genesis and the King James Bible, this concept of protecting/serving/guarding the land evolved into managing the land. 

Feel for a moment the very different physical sense of these two things. Take a moment to look for something important outside your window – a tree, a flower, a passing bird. Notice what it is like to perceive that being, toattune to it, to allow it to present itself to you. What does that feel like in your body? What is the experience of relationship between yourself and that other life? Now imagine what it is to manage that being. What is different in your body? What shifts in the relationship between you and that life? How much of your attention is needed if you are managing it: trimming a tree, cutting the grass, weeding a garden bed?

We can speculate on events in history that might cause or continue a rupture away from perceiving the land towards managing it. The upheaval of the Norman Conquest, and feudalism’s view of both land and people as resource. Famines. Enclosures. 

Listen for how this all makes you feel. What rises in you, what shows up from your aliveness at this specific and particular moment in time? We can’t ‘know’ the real roots of our ways of being, these beliefs and practices passed down through generations that experienced traumas and dispossessions. We can only sense them. We will never really know in the way of fact and proof and even when we do know, we can’t feel all the thousands of generations that make any of this true. This is always poetry, the language the land speaks in, the language our aliveness unfurls.

*

One of the things that survival mode does is shift the pattern of attachment. John Mohawk, an Indigenous historian and writer who was from the Cattaraugus Seneca nation, and who is one of my favourite thinkers, said this: Culture is a community’s collective agreement on the best way to survive. This means that culture is shaped in relationship to a community’s greatest pain as well as its greatest glory. This also means that if attachment – to land, to people, to a sense of belonging – has been violently disrupted and that violence lasts over generations, then the culture that continues to evolve afterwards is shaped by the fact of this disrupted attachment. Enough generations go by and this disruption just seems ‘normal’, like the way it’s always been. Even more generations go by and the original violence is long forgotten; scabbed over for so long that we no longer notice that those original spaces are numb.

If we were to widen our understanding of attachment beyond the psychological process described by 20th-century researchers to include the relationalities of our full eco-social selves, then we can see how we moved from feeling the deep core of our relationship to the land, our sense of being part of the land, to one of separation; of management. This means, my friends, that we have lost something fundamental, something far older than the writing of Genesis. We have lost our capacity to wait for the language of the land to show itself to us over generations. And this means we have lost some essential part of what it means to be alive. To belong.

This is all about grief and we have to grieve this. We have to grieve the loss, including the way this loss has been normalised, shaping economic, cultural, political and environmental policies. The indigenous concept of land/back is not just about having access once again to the physical truth of mountains or meadows. It is about everything that land includes: language, cultural and spiritual practices, stories, food, and more. These are the many ways that the sacred instructions of the land show itself…which then shapes a culture and a people. 

This is what has been lost and writing this, I know that I can only begin to touch on what that sentence even means. 

When we do not grieve, soften the places that are rigid with pain, we grow hard. And that hardness translates into everything. Those among us who have not mourned, both then and now, pass down the unhealed pain to the next generation, to the neighbours, to the ones whose lives we have decided are getting in the way of our own. The life of the land, plough it under. The life of those other hungry people who make us fear the safety of our own food supplies: plough them under and lock up our food with bigger locks.

Management. Control.

 

You can read the rest of this essay in Dark Mountain: Issue 25

 

IMAGE: Freya Gabie
Difficult Maps
Pen on paper, 2022
Chamizal plants growing on the US/Mexican border. These hardy desert plants gave their name to a long-running land dispute, caused by a southern shift in the Rio Grande/Bravo River in the 1800s, leading to US encroachment onto Mexican land that went unresolved until 1964. Adapted to survive and thrive, in arid, hostile conditions, every part of this plant is used by indigenous communities for food, medicine, and shelter.

Freya Gabie trained at Chelsea College of Art and the Royal College of Art. Her work is site-responsive and collaborative, she’s worked with diverse communities, from fishermen to opera singers to archaeologists, and many people in between. She’s exhibited and been commissioned widely, both internationally and in the UK. freyagabie.com

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

Read more

Comments
  1. I often remember how difficult it was for . . . Mom , especially, to sell the farm in SD. It seened to me that for them it was like selling a part of the family, or failing to fulfill some ancestral obligation. The sense of ownership was very strong. So my ancestors had certainly imbedded that sense of “owning” the land. Took years and years for them to actually let it go. . . even after it was sold they talked about whether or not they should have done it.

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