A few years ago now, The Place of Belonging was the title of a book I was going to write. I never did; instead, I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, and some of what I’d intended to say about place and belonging went into that book, and some will go into The Enchanted Life, the book I’m working on now. Sometimes I think I’ll always be writing about it, because although the psychology of place and the myths and stories of place have been at the heart of my work for so long now, it seems that there is always something more to learn.
So many of us have no true sense of belonging to a place. Today, we live mostly in ways that are displaced from the land and from the nonhumans who share our places with us. And yet, from time to time throughout our lives we may catch a glimpse of a different way of being in the world: a way of enchantment and wildness and mystery. A deeply embodied sense of being part of the life and patterns of a place. A way of being in the world that we feel our ancestors might once have had, but that we have lost, and one that we long deeply to find our way back to.
‘By reciting a myth, the storyteller remembers a creation, and, by remembering, is a part of that creating. It is best understood in that dreadful solecism “walkabout”. In walking, the Australians speak the land. Their feet make it new, now, and in its beginning. And the land speaks to them, now, anew, and in their beginning, by step and breath that meet in its dance, so that land and people sing as one.’
Alan Garner, The Voice That Thunders
I first had that feeling of being in step with the land, and with place – really had that feeling, not just some vague foreshadowing of it – in Connemara, when I was thirty years old. It would take me another decade or two before I had a complete sense of being part of the life and patterns of a place – what Garner calls ‘singing as one’ with the land, and what I call ‘falling into the land’s dreaming’ – but Connemara was the place it first happened to me. The place where I began to wake up.
Sometimes, like your first ‘proper’ human love, the place that you first truly love will hook itself deep into your heart and won’t let you go. I left Connemara five years later to escape a marriage gone wrong; it was the only safe choice I had at the time. And ever afterwards, somehow, and for so many reasons, whenever the time came to move on again in my life, returning there just wasn’t an option. And so I lived happily in, and learned to belong to, some of the wildest, most beautiful and iconic landscapes along the western shores of Scotland and Ireland.
But here’s the thing about belonging: it seems that there’s belonging, and belonging. I’ve always believed that you can learn to belong to any place, if you choose – indeed, that there’s a moral imperative to do so, because the land deserves no less of us. I’ve instructed people in that kind of belonging. Learn the ecology, history, language, culture, mythology of your place. Go out into it for long periods of time, every day. Sit in the same place every day for an entire year, in all the seasons and weathers; talk to the land and listen to it, and maybe then you have some claim on belonging to it. And a feeling of being at home, for however long you happen to be in that place. Because not all loves are forever; not all places are forever. Sometimes we have to leave. Sometimes we need to leave. But wherever you go, I tell the people who come to work with me, root. Be a serial rooter if you must, but root deeply into every place you inhabit. Be fully in that place. It’s the only sane way to live. It’s the only way to live that is deeply respectful of the earth.
That’s one kind of belonging. Then there’s the kind of belonging that comes with heritage: a sense of belonging to a place which you may or may not ever inhabit, which is encoded in your DNA. Those of us with Irish ancestry know this feeling especially well: no matter how many generations ago your people left, and no matter where they ended up, there’s a part of you that will always feel Irish. No matter how beautiful the other places that I’ve lived, no matter how transformative my time there, I’ve never properly felt at home anywhere other than Ireland. In my case, a good part of that is genetic.
But maybe there’s another kind of belonging altogether: a kind of belonging that is best expressed within the beautiful old myth of Gobnait, an Irish saint who lived in the early 6th century. Gobnait was born in County Clare, and is said to have been the sister of Saint Abban. She fled a family feud, taking refuge in Inis Óir in the Aran Islands. While she was there, an angel appeared to her and told her that she must leave, because this was ‘not the place of her resurrection’. She should, the angel said, look for a place where she would find nine white deer grazing. So Gobnait wandered through Waterford, Kerry and Cork. She first she saw three white deer in Clondrohid in Co. Cork, and she followed them to Ballymakeera, where she saw six more. But it wasn’t until she arrived in Ballyvourney, in the south-west corner of Co. Cork, that Gobnait saw nine white deer grazing all together. That was where she settled, and founded her monastic community.
From the first moment I heard the story of Gobnait, it resonated with me, and with a life in which I’ve been wandering, like her, from place to place, in search of who knows what. Learning to belong to each of them – loving and merging so deeply with one in particular that I thought I could never extract myself – but even then, somehow, never quite belonging. Always, sooner or later, feeling some sense of being driven on. In search of the ‘place of my resurrection’? The place where the soul is happiest on earth, from where it will happily and freely leave the body, when the time comes? I’ve seen this journey of mine in many different ways over the years, depending on what was going on in my life at the time, and on the particular reasons for my needing to move on yet again. I’ve imagined time and again that I’ve found my final resting place, when in fact what I’ve found were beautiful but temporary sanctuaries along a path I didn’t even know I was following. Each place offering its own lessons, its own transformations. But these days, I see my journey from place to place not so much as a form of restless wandering, but as the acceptance of an invitation – an invitation to delve more and more deeply into the holy mysteries of place. And I see myself undertaking that journey as pilgrims do, with rare and blessed humility, knowing that something is lacking, but not ever quite knowing what it was until they’ve reached the journey’s ‘end’. (Which of course is never a true end, but merely another kind of resting place along a path we’re not yet meant to understand.)
So, here I am. A meshwork of places. A web of placeworlds lives in me. Places that made me – literally, contributing air and water and food; places where I’ve left parts of myself behind – contributing skin cells, hairs, body fluids, breath. And now, this place. This place, where I am now. I washed up on this north-western Donegal shore three years ago, and I have loved it deeply, and hope to continue loving it deeply for a good few more years to come. It has taught me new lessons, and I’m sure I haven’t finished learning them yet.
But there is always Connemara. Tugging, tugging. Nipping. Biting. Itching. Come home, Connemara calls, and I find myself wondering again about ‘places of resurrection’. Is there really such a thing? Is there really, for each of us, the possibility of a place where we truly belong, body and soul, where we can stay, and never feel a yearning for any other place? A genuine place of belonging? A place where we can finally enter into our own wisdom, fully live out our calling? And if there is such a place for each of us, is Connemara mine? Is this why my place-journey feels as if it hasn’t yet ‘ended’? Or is it simply nostalgia, or a sense of needing to lay to rest old ghosts? Are we doomed always to yearn for what we can’t have?
The pathways along which we travel on these journeys are paved with questions, and the answers are often elusive. But I’ve always been a seeker, and it seems that I’m seeking still. It seems I’m a pilgrim still. And this is why, for the next year, I’m going to be splitting my time between this beautiful Donegal valley which I have no desire to leave, and the mountains of Connemara, which it seems I can’t quite bear to live without.
And as I always have, I’ll find that the truest answers can be found in place.
(Image of Mamean by John Smyth)