In the November 2021 blog post Hiraeth, I wrote about my heartfelt longing for the Welsh hills, for a land where I have never actually lived. That longing is deep-seated. I mused that it must lie buried somewhere in my genes passed down from my father.
One of our blog readers subsequently emailed to say that in Canada, as settlers, we roll around this country like tumbleweed, not yet having had the time to lay down roots. Their comments gave me pause for thought. I have been asking myself, how long does it take to belong? How many generations does it take for the land to lay claim to you? What does it mean to be hefted to the land, and what does the similar Welsh term cynefin mean for me.
When I wrote Hiraeth I had not been home to the UK in over two years, but as I started to muse about this post I was stuck in London, in a bureaucratic tangle mostly of my own making. It didn’t matter to me. There is something comforting about being there. My days followed a similar pattern of walking the dog, working a little, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, making dinner, writing… I lived in London for three years, and part of me still belongs there. In my morning walks in the East London parks, I uncovered primroses, celandines, bugloss, cowslips, marsh marigolds; spring flowers that I learned to identify some sixty years ago.
What does it mean to belong to the land?
Even now, in the UK there are large swathes of common land, that belong to everyone. Even in London. The park area where I walked the dog in Leyton has been common land since the 6th century. On Lammas Day (August 1st) once the harvest of grain or hay had been collected, people were free to let their cattle or sheep graze at will. Same for chopping wood. After mid-November people were free to take wood to heat their homes. The common lands supported everyone, and everyone knew to protect them. So much so, that even now any attempt to encroach on that land is met with fierce resistance. I believe that it goes much deeper than trying to preserve green space: people are rooted in that place. They care deeply because of their strong connections to the land.
Plaque on a pub in Leyton, marking the occasion when the local population successfully stopped the encroachment onto the Leyton marshes. There have been other resistances since, perhaps most notably when the Olympic Park was built nearby.
Over time, much of the common land in the UK was enclosed, through Acts of Parliament that took away “commoners rights” and gave the land to the wealthy. Today, common land areas in the UK are often hilly; areas where few crops will grow but are ideal places for grazing sheep. There are no physical boundaries, the sheep, originally kept in place by shepherding have learned their boundaries over many years. The lambs graze with their mothers on the heaf, that part of the common land used by their farm. They learn the optimal grazing spots, where best to shelter from the elements. And, over generations, they learn, that is where they belong, they are hefted to the land.
In Welsh cynefin is the closest translation to hefted. Many sheep wander the Welsh hills freely and are rounded up a few times a year for lambing, dipping to prevent disease, or for shearing. Like being hefted cynefin wedi’u describes their belonging to the land. And yet it is slightly different. Applied to people, it is also an expression of one’s situation, one’s personal history that influences one’s thoughts and decisions in ways that are not easy to understand.
What does it mean for the land to speak?
For you to know the land so well that you understand its language?
In the May 2021 issue of The Atlantic, the Ojibwe author, David Treuer, wrote that in the US the American National Parks are at risk in the hands of federal governments who understand little of their history, little of the language of the land. As an example, he points to Bears Ears National Monument, in southeastern Utah, which was signed into being by President Barack Obama. Just one year after its creation, President Donald Trump reduced the park from 1.4 million acres to just over 200,000, leaving the land vulnerable to all manner of exploitation. Many of the US National Parks were established in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century when indigenous people were rounded up and moved to reserves, leaving the areas free “withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale … and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the (white) people”. “The parks were intended to be natural cathedrals: protected landscapes where people could worship the sublime.”
Treuer argues that moving forward the parks should be placed under the custodianship of the native tribes: the peoples who truly understand the land because they have lived with the land for so many generations that the land communicates with them.
But what about Canada? What about here? Increasingly, I concur with Treuer in believing that only those who walk with the history of the land under their feet can truly understand its importance. These days, many of the events I attend begin with a recognition that they are taking place on the unceded traditional territories of the Algoniquin/Anishinaabe peoples. Important, but…what does that really mean?
In thinking about cynefin on my daily walks, I have been musing about how my history is not under my feet, but elsewhere. In trying to find my place here, I recognize I am treading on other people’s stories; principally those of the Anishinaabe people, who have lived and walked on these lands for thousands of years. But, I’m also walking on the stories of the Scottish and Irish settlers of the region, who having been starved off the common lands in the UK, came looking for land that would support them.
It made me think about the poems of Adam Zagajewski, whose writing is often absorbed with the presence of the past in everyday life, recognizing its subtle influences on what we see and feel. In my favourite poem of his, he writes Don’t allow the lucid moment to dissolve/On a hard dry substance/you have to engrave the truth. Like my beloved sheep in the Welsh hills, I wander daily through the hills here. I stop often, searching for those lucid moments. The truth is, as our blog reader rightly pointed out, here I roll around like tumbleweed. But I watch out for those moments, when my tendrils might catch, and despite being from away, I might begin to understand the language of the land, I might begin to understand my place here.