Saturday Jennie and I hosted a workshop focused on using personal stories to nurture and protect beloved spaces. Those gathered shared stories of the places they hold dear, and the fates of those locales. Some of the places remain, others have disappeared under the miner’s or developer’s bulldozer.
Holding places as sacred is a risky business. So often, that copse of woods, lake, or deserted lot we grow to love are taken from us. Yet, given the opportunity, we humans seem hard wired to fall in love with landscapes, corner lots, and ecosystems. We form deep bonds with boiler rooms in a tenements or the Natural world, including parks; sometimes they are our only childhood refuge.
Development conflicts are almost always arenas for storytelling. Developers tell powerful stories about much-needed affordable housing, jobs, and economic gain. How are we to counter them, given our usually limited resources? One way is through thickly storying the places we love. Chances are, if we hold a place dear, there are others who do the same, others who might become allies in our efforts to nurture and protect. Gathering love stories about a place, and finding ways to share them with a large audience can have a dramatic impact on development schemes. Even when we are unable to save a deeply held place, our efforts may well influence the scope and direction of local future development.
Indigenous people tell stories of emergence into place. I have heard other stories of emergence as well. Many people have shared experiences of coming into self-awareness in a place, being held by a place when other humans were too frightening to approach for solace, and entering the world of adult relationships in a beloved place. These places literally hold us, as Winnicott well knew. Yet there are those who will disparage our love of land and water, will bully us in an effort to silence us. Often these efforts rekindle memories of childhood trauma, and the loss of a sacred place can reenact a childhood fall from love and safety.
It is exceedingly difficult for one person to shield a locale from harm, although I have seen friend’s and student’s do this, and I have done so once myself. That said, I also know that each of these people garnered support from others, and in so doing, built coalitions whose focus was preservation of the sacred. Perhaps this is most readily accomplished at the local level where places may already known and “natural” coalitions may more easily form. Certainly, local stories are often more resonant with folks who feel some sense of proximity, and thus, are in some way impacted by changes o the land.
Of course, there are grand narratives that motivate a much larger public. Certainly the tales told about the grandeur of the West spurred the creation of our much threatened National Parks system. Yet, even those narratives began as evocations of the local.
Last week the state of Michigan sold 9,00 acres of publicly owned “Treaty” land to a private company, for mining purposes. Native people went to court to block the sale but were unsuccessful. This is an all to frequent event these days. Reading this story, I found myself wondering where the land’s and Native people’s allies were in this moment of need. I also wondered how the stories of the land were silenced. Finally, I questioned how it can be that treaties continue to be ignored.
From where I sit, this sale is at best an act of racism, and, at worst, an act of genocide. Yet the story received little attention outside the Native community. Why was there no upwelling of public support? What stories are we not hearing, yet are influencing policy?
I believe our emotional bonds with place are essential to our humanity. It is no wonder they form the core of shamanism, and, increasingly, are understood to greatly influence our emotional, spiritual, and psychological health. Perhaps, then, we should not be surprised when the places held sacred by minority of groups are targeted for destruction. Maybe, rather than turning a disinterested back to these small events, we might begin to notice that, inevitably, those who accumulate power by attaching the vulnerable eventually come for what we hold dear.