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Belonging to place

Updated: May 16, 2023


! Very important headnote and footnote: When exploring and defining 'indigeneity', it is so important to acknowledge that it is beyond my own comprehension, language and experience to be able to adequately define it for anyone, but I can offer how it unfolds for me as a return journey in the healing work of our time. It is up for any culture to define themselves autonomously, not for a white male from the West to do so, and we are all humble listeners and learners in this earthly pilgrimage, younger brothers and sisters of creation. This essential sensitivity and reflexivity** can exist, whilst we also take responsibility to engage with what it means for us to return to place here and now, to reconnect to our ancestral roots and our belonging. It's becoming increasingly common that many writers, activists and reflectors are shying away from talking about this for fear of appropriation, and this avoidance is a negation of relationship, and a disavowal* of the healing grounds we all need to be walking. We need to balance sensitivity with courage and responsibility, because it may be that all earth-based cultures depend upon ours to wake up, heal and act with love.


two key terms:

*Disavowal: the denial of any responsibility or support for something; repudiation.

**Reflexivity: the ability to self-reflect and discern amongst one's own biases


Re-discovering ourselves in active relationship to place


What does it mean to belong to a place? This writing aims to explore what it might mean to re-enter relationship with land, as the first step on the long pilgrimage back to indigeneity (or to our roots in whatever form they take), and simultaneously forwards into the emergent culture. The concept of reclaiming and remembering our indigenous ways might feel unfamiliar to most, whilst others may find it inapplicable or dismiss it as cultural appropriation. These common scepticisms and sensitivities around indigeneity reflect how soft this wound is in our heart, both in what the colonial mind has done on this planet, and in our own personal distance from our roots. It evidences how far we have wandered from our ancestral threads, from the rich cultural and native history of the ground we stand upon. To acknowledge that hollow space, and start from humble not-knowing and deep listening, is the start of a renewed potential for reciprocity and hope. Writing this in valley of Avon in the British Isles, we navigate the uncertain space between our earth-based cultures of yesterday and our material-based cultures of today. The strength to feel some clarity and direction in this lies in a re-enlivened hope for tomorrow’s culture of reciprocity, emerging and unfolding in the now with each day of our lived relationship to place. I have visited, lived and worked with indigenous cultures around the world, from Maori communities in New Zealand to the native cultures of Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Sulawesi (Indonesia). An 18-month travel pilgrimage with little money but willing hands to work and curiosity to (un)learn took me to unexpected and unknown places, opening my mind to the possibility of a reciprocal relationship to place and belonging, even in this fractured modern world of separation. These experiences were vital and humbling keys to a greater understanding of my own healing and acting responsibilities, and a glimpse of hope in the dark in some courageous cultures of resistance and reciprocity. These cultures are autonomous, unique, in their own context, but I was curious to know if there are common themes of what it means to belong to place and to rediscover our roots. It was only through lived experience and deepening relationship with this place, in valley of Avon, that I could begin to really live and understand these questions albeit within the limits of my own cultural conditioning, language and too-often depleted landscapes.


For the last 6 years I have been fully immersed in the practical, in the soil, with the land and living on a barge on the waters of Avon. I feel deeply rooted in this place and am committed to giving back to the gifts of life she has offered me, and this motivation and spirit of place sustains me and drives me through any challenge. I want to share this openly and vulnerably, because sharing about our relationship to place may be a key to its necessary return in the modern disconnect. We navigate through a time that can be so destabilising and uprooting, so fast-paced and relentless is the scale of degeneration, that it is challenging to unhinge from it, and equally difficult to begin the regeneration work with joy through the storm, patience in the urgency and a reverence amidst the mundane. I want to share abundantly, uncensored by fear of cynicism or dismissal, what a renewed relationship to land and place might look like, and the steps that this has taken for me to begin slowly and humbly on this path, passing on some insights from my great teachers of life.


The gradual steps back to belonging for me have followed a natural pattern grouped around common themes: 1) Entering relationship – Observing, acknowledging, and interacting 2) Rooting deeply – relearning, reconnecting, entering entanglement

3) Realising responsibility - through living both grief and joy

4) Active hope and custodianship – beginning to give back

5) Approaching reciprocity.


It’s a Spiralling and cyclical pattern rather than following the linear time of modern creation. The relationship must be re-entered, tended and cultivated at every turn of the wheel, the rooting comes and goes, but over time deepens, the active hope waxes and wanes like the moon, but is sustained through a nourishing relationship of custodianship, in the ever flowing journey towards reciprocity as best we can. These phases of the cycle will likely be different for everyone but are perhaps united through a life force that connects us all, like the force that propels mushrooms in a forest simultaneously to push through the grassroots and fruit (called “puhpowee” in native Potawatomi language, Kimmerer 2012). Re-entering relationship with place can be a first step to reclaiming indigeneity as an active verb. Regenerating the passively intellectualised, alien-like, unfamiliar word of ‘indigenous’ from two false polarities of our time, one which romanticises all things old and indigenous (leading to nostalgic paralysis at best and cultural appropriation at worst) and an opposite polarity which dismisses or negates the indigenous to the realm of fantasy or a dinosaur-like museum piece. Both polarities miss the point, and avoid the realationship of truth - we are all indigenous to place, that we have lost this connection, but some still hold it and it is available to us all right beneath our feet. Indigeneity is not an academic term to be argued over or theorised about (yet here I am), it is an active verb to be humbly lived, breathed and practiced, in accordance with natural laws of reciprocity, abundance, gift and respect – common to all indigenous cultures and essential for collective survival. Re-entering relationship with place can be a first leap to reclaiming indigeneity as an active verb. Indigeneity is defined by the Oxford dictionary as "the fact of originating or occurring naturally in a particular place." This highlights the place-based focus, but misses the point: to be indigenous to place does not just mean an historic relationship or a simple occurrence in a place, but instead a deeply active relationship of give, take, grief and joy within and as part of a social-ecological web. Beyond this, it spirals with meaning that we cannot comprehend, define or communicate with our cultural worldview, language and limited experience as an adolescent culture.


Below I begin to outline how the journey has unfolded personally, in the hope that it is useful to spark more sharing about relationship to place, and perhaps find resonance with other journeys. There are many paths to begin living with reciprocity, and perhaps we can embark on this journey collectively, sharing and using our innate tools to prefiguring an emergent culture of custodianship on earth.


1. Re-entering Relationship.


For me this came when I moved onto my small narrowboat home at age 16, with the independence, simplicity and space to begin conversations and dances with nature. Also to come up against her limits, her joys, and struggles. Feeling the power of all the weathers, living semi-outdoors, relying on the sun god for energy, tree beings for fuel, the land goddess to feed me and my body to power a pedal-bike engine! Entering relationship is not just about the honeymoon, wide-eyed nature’s love affair that is increasingly portrayed on social media and nature connection courses. As with any relationship, to really connect requires wholeness, vulnerability, overcoming challenge and work. And yet it is true that this too can be a joy, for once the relationship with life is entered the energy channels are opened both ways, and a new force of life and drive will begin flowing through the veins like birch water, in sweet remembrance of a long-lost lover you never knew you had.

2. Rooting Deeply.

This is such a challenging step in our frantic, time-pressured and space-stretched world of constant doing. It requires taking a step back to see forwards, a renewed perspective on the place we live in and how our identity might transform if we accepted our belonging here. It’s scary, and can be confronting, for it stares directly into the gap in our hearts that we may have been avoiding for a life-time or more. But necessary, to refill this chasm with the honey of life’s embrace, and simply to begin feeling grounded – perhaps for the first time. I returned from my travels, hitchhiking and farming my way back round the globe as a being disconnected from any specific place but held on this nomadic journey by the lands and communities that welcomed me. The spirit of the nomad does not need to be lost in the process of rooting in place, and yet the relationship begins to change form when rootedness is chosen. Travelling felt unequal, like I couldn’t possibly give back enough and live in reciprocity with the places I visited, for all their teachers, nourishment and lessons that were provided to me abundantly. It can be easy to feel this about our human-earth relationship in general, that we cannot possibly give back in return for mother nature’s gifts. Over time, I’ve come to change my mind on this, and through lived action and discovering some of our human gifts, I feel closer to reciprocity, and confident of its possibility in the unfolding now. Through the choice of rooting in place, I began to see with new eyes. The plants around me like brothers and sisters, all people of Avon as potential long-term companions and collaborators on this journey; our common survival dependent upon how we steward the lands and waters here collectively. Rooting in place allowed me to dream and vision like never before, setting up collaboratively a long-term regenerative enterprise, an Ecological Farm for Bath, and a bioregional transformation project called We Are Avon. If I embrace that my body and heart is to be here long term, through many generations, then my relationship transforms, every interaction matters, every day is sacred, and I have a role to play here.


This is not to say that being limited to one specific place on earth is the ideal, or that the above cannot be felt in other, more nomadic ways. Its possible to root in place and still embrace the nomadic, as our ancestors knew, understanding the plants, waters and patterns in their bioregion rather than just a unitary, enclosed area (a mindset associated with private property & commodified relationships to place). And some will feel multiple roots and pulls to multiple places, or have roots elsewhere after being forced to move and may understandably feel reluctant to send out new roots. Our roots are nonetheless bound together by common soil, the same soil which holds our ancestors and will one day hold us to feed new roots.


Re-entering relationship and committing to root deeply have been core parts of my evolving journey in this Avon valley, in Part 2 of this post I will explore these continuing phases of relating to place: realising responsibility, active hope, and approaching reciprocity.


! Very important headnote and footnote: When exploring and defining 'indigeneity', it is so important to acknowledge that it is beyond my own comprehension, language and experience to be able to adequately define it for anyone, but I can offer how it unfolds for me as a return journey in the collective healing work of our time. It is up for any culture to define themselves autonomously, not for a white male from the West to do so, and we are all humble listeners and learners in this earthly pilgrimage, younger brothers and sisters of creation. This truth, alongside a necessary sensitivity and reflexivity**, can exist whilst we also take responsibility to engage with what it means for us to return to place, to reconnect to our ancestral roots and our belonging. It's becoming increasingly common that many writers, activists and reflectors are shying away from talking about this for fear of appropriation, and this avoidance is a negation of relationship, and a disavowal* of the healing grounds we all need to be walking. We need to balance sensitivity with courage and responsibility, because it may be that all earth-based cultures depend upon ours to wake up, heal and act with love.


*Disavowal: the denial of any responsibility or support for something; repudiation.

**Reflexivity: the ability to self-reflect and discern amongst one's own biases

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