The Land That Owns Us: Identity and Place of Birth
The twenty-first century world has become a place of immigrants, refugees, newcomers and displaced persons. Many are exiled from their place of birth, and whether by choice, or forced by socio-economic or political reasons, the people of the Earth are on the move. So where does the identity of the person lie? Is it with the new environment or do immigrants always long for the land or place of their birth?
As an immigrant myself, first from my birthplace of Jamaica to Canada, and then to America, I am increasingly aware that my identity is still drawn from the place of my birth. Jamaica fully inhabits my imagination and the details of the land come freely back to me. It is as if the place of my birth is contained within the cells of my body and the deep recesses of my mind, just waiting to be accessed even though I have lived more years outside of that country than inside of it (physically). This personal experience leads me to wonder whether this is true of all humans and what we can learn of this aspect of the human relationship with the earth.
This essay explores the ways that the identity of an individual is rooted, or can be rooted in the place of their birth and childhood, and that even after they have moved from this place, it still informs their being in myriad ways. I will look to the wisdom of indigenous peoples and to the field of ecopsychology for clues, and also to what this means in informing our identity into a larger sense of “ecological self.” I will also consider in what way this identity with birthplace can actually benefit the person in later life.
Indigenous people the world over are known to have strong ties with the land. In their book Wisdom from the Earth: the Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, Anna Voight and Nevill Drury studied the Australian Aboriginal culture and their relationship with the land. They found a high importance placed on the birth place of an individual:
[In] traditional Aboriginal life it is not only the entire Earth that is held with reverence, it is also the specific country where one was ‘dreamed’ – that is, conceived from Ancestral Spirit. . . . This home of their spirit is of fundamental importance to an Aboriginal person, for their ‘home’ or ‘country’ for the duration of their life is at location of this conception spirit. Their spirit home is their home. . . .It is not so much a question of ‘my land’ or ‘my country’ being owned by an Aboriginal person or group, but rather that the land owns them. The land and self is inseparable to an Aboriginal person, and thus is intrinsic to her or his identity.
This idea of a “spirit home” is important and is perhaps a reason why we are so easily able to feel attached to the places of our birth. Further information about this comes from Gregory Cajete in his chapter on the “Psychology of Place” in Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence:
[Indigenous people] experienced nature as a part of themselves and themselves as a part of nature. They were born of the earth of their place. A widespread belief was that children were bestowed on a mother and her community through direct participation of “earth spirits,” as children come from springs, lakes, mountains, or caves where they existed as spirits before birth. This is the ultimate definition of being ‘indigenous’ and forms the basis for a fully internalized bonding with that place.
“A fully internalized bonding with that place” sums up the feeling that I have with the place of my birth. Perhaps this is what causes so many immigrants or displaced people to long for their native land, or at least to remember it strongly. It seems that huge bodies of work in art, literature and music revolve around the theme of the exile’s desire to return to their homeland. The Aboriginals and Native peoples seem to understand why this is so: that it is because the place of our birth is also the home of our spirits and we are therefore always a part of that place.
An alternate perspective on the issue of identity and place comes from the field of Ecopsychology. Edith Cobb’s seminal work The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood has been referred to in several works on Ecopsychology and Environmental Education. Cobb studied the imagination of children in different contexts and historical periods. Bill Devall provides a succinct summary of Cobb’s work:
In her book on early childhood, Edith Cobb describes the process by which landscape, natural terrain, becomes a model for the cognitive structure of the child. From her studies of biographies of geniuses she concludes that encounters with place provides a gestalt for germinating intellectual development. The homeland of an eight year old child provides the reality of his life. (Cobb in Devall 60)
Ecopsychologist Andy Fisher also draws on the work of Edith Cobb in his book Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (Suny Series in Radical Social and Political Theory). The child’s immersion in nature and play in nature is seen to be highly important in the well being and ability of the child to mature into a creative individual.
Just as we bond to caregivers in infancy, so do we – in this new phase of symbiotic immersion in the green world – need to become bonded to the earth. The child “must have a residential opportunity to soak in a place, and . . . the adolescent and adult must be able to return to that place to ponder the visible substrate of his own personality.” (Fisher 144; Shepherd qt. in Fisher 144)
The above ideas appear to provide symbiotic knowledge in Indigenous science and the findings of Ecopsychologists regarding the importance of nature to the identity of an individual. On the one hand, Indigenous science tells us that when we are born in a place, that place is our spirit home for life. On the other hand, Ecopsychologists state that the connection that we have with nature in our childhoods is a critical stage in human development that provides the foundation for our further creative growth and well being.
Recognizing the importance, then, of our connection with the place of our birth and childhood, how does this further the ability of the individual to recognize his larger “ecological self.” Ecological self is defined as identifying less with the personal self and increasingly with the larger world of nature and non-human beings. Paul Shepard defines it as follows:
Ecological thinking . . . requires a kind of vision across boundaries. The epidermis of the skin is ecologically like a pond surface or a forest soil, not a shell so much as a delicate interpenetration. It reveals the self ennobled and extended rather than threatened as part of the landscape and the ecosystem, because the beauty and complexity of nature are continuous with ourselves. (Shepard qt. in Devall 41)
I believe that ecological thinking is enhanced by the conscious awareness of one’s connection with the landscape that helped form our identity in the world. My personal experience is that even though I chose not to return to my home country of Jamaica to live, preferring instead to visit now and again, the island still owns me. It remains alive in my memory and continues to inspire the development of my ecological self. The experiences I had with its waterfalls, rivers, beaches, mountains, caves, forests and sinkholes that I visited regularly as a child continue to live inside of me as a wellspring of inspiration.
I have visited many places in many countries, but it is still the landscape of my childhood to which I remain most intimately connected.
It anchors my ecological self and all my relations with the non-human world. In considering how the benefits of drawing identity from childhood places may affect people in later life, we turn again to the work of Edith Cobb. In her studies of people who had achieved exceptional works of creativity in their lifetime she found that they drew on their experiences in childhood as a source of inspiration for their creative works in adult life. She says:
These vivid experiences [in childhood] described retrospectively by adults, appear to be universal and suggest some universal link between mind and nature as yet uncodified but latent in consciousness in intuitive form. . . In childhood, the cognitive process is essentially poetic because it is lyrical, rhythmic, and formative in a generative sense; it is a sensory integration of self and environment, awaiting verbal expression. The child “knows” or recognizes in these moments that he makes his own world and that his body is a unique instrument, where the powers of nature and human nature meet. These very moments are recalled autobiographically by the adult who seeks to renew and reinforce vision and so extend creative powers. . . Examining statements of adult geniuses about their own childhood and comparing them with references to the child in myths and early religious interpretations of the origins of the world, we note striking resemblances to the world play of the child. In addition, it seems clear that there is and always has been widespread intuitive awareness that certain aspects of childhood experience remain in memory as a psychophysical force – an élan that produces the pressure to perceive creatively and inventively, that is, imaginatively. (Cobb 89)
This suggests that childhood experience in nature has a profound ability to impact the work that we do later on in life. The topic of identity and place of birth warrants further study however it is clear that Indigenous and Native Science and Ecopsychology offer some guideposts for understanding why we identify with our childhood places. If this is truly the home of our spirit, then surely we draw on the knowledge of that place for solace and creative inspiration.
As the field ground for the development of our imagination and creative powers, our childhood places serve us in the critically important developmental stages of middle childhood. I propose that our connection and identification with ‘the land that owns us’ provides us with a link that serves our growth and maturity into our larger ecological selves.
– Content and photos copyright Kathy Stanley
Cajete, Gregory. Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence. Foreward Leroy Little Bear, J.D. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 2000.
Cobb, Edith. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. 1977. Foreward Shaun McNiff. Dallas, TX: New Spring, 1993.
Devall, Bill. Simple in Means, Rich in Ends. Practicing Deep Ecology.. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1988.
Fisher, Andy. Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (Suny Series in Radical Social and Political Theory). Foreward David Abram. New York: State University of New York P, 2002.
Voigt, Anna and Nevill Drury. Wisdom from the Earth: the Living Legacy of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.