The Personhood of Place


Sometimes, when a place has been with you and has shaped you for a certain length of time, you start to really feel the 'personhood' of that place. Many indigenous communities around the world have always felt something like this- giving the land it's own personality and 'being-hood', but I think that in the western culture we lose that sometimes.

That doesn't mean that the land doesn't affect us deeply, but I think that we don't always realize how much or how deeply.

Until we lose it- and we grieve.

We grieve as hard as we might about the loss of an old friend, cherished animal companion, or family member- because the place has become all those things to us- and perhaps we didn't realize it until now.

If the place is somewhere we grew up - it becomes even harder and the grieving process more complex. The places where we grew up shaped us in ways we can't even begin to unravel- it would be like trying to pull an individual grain of earth from a clay pot.

The grass that held our bare feet as we learned to explore on our own away from the watchful eyes of our parents. The violets that grew in the same patches year after year, that we picked to bring home or just looked at intently with our chubby little fingers. The stones that we jumped over and climbed on- testing our limits and abilities as our bodies grew. The fence that held us in while at the same time gave us the freedom to explore as far as those boundaries would allow. The garden weeds that taught us the both the value of hard work for the sake of 'because you live here' as well as the value of a dollar when paid by a generous grandmother for that same task.

A dollar sure feels differently when you earned it on your hands and knees in the dirt and humidity in a hot Maryland summer.

Over the 18 or so years you live there, you come to know every little detail of that beautiful land on which you live.

How the sun looks as it sets over the fields- shining its last rays through the tips of the long grass that will later be cut for hay. The plump tops seem to glow from within as they are lit from behind.

How the honeysuckle smells as it grows thick on hedges; and how it tastes as you pull the little drop of nectar out from within.

You learn that the swallows are not actually dive-bombing you in agitation as you mow the lawn, but instead they are swooping with efficiency and maybe even joy as the lawnmower kicks up clouds of insects with which they can fill their bellies.

You see how frighteningly awe inspiring a vulture can be as it flies (a little too) close overhead; and also how good they are at doing a job most beings on this planet wouldn't want. Recycling the other beings that have fallen on the land, in the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

You watch trees grow and sometimes, you watch them come down. If you are lucky, you get to watch a magnolia tree planted when you were born grow as you grow- until it surpasses you by feet and feet. You see its evergreen leaves covered in ice in the winter- looking like a beautiful glass replica of itself- seemingly delicate and breakable, but in actuality strong enough to hold its own under the ice until spring comes again.

You watch beloved animal companions run over the grass and through the leaves; and you know where these beloved friends were planted back within the earth when it came time for them to go.

Often thought to be a silent backdrop, the land is a character in the story of your life- perhaps not the one with loudest voice, but most likely one of the ones that is the most gently powerful. Every blade of grass, every leaf, every rock, every tree, every flower, every being great and small that makes up the piece of land you call your home shapes you in a million different ways.

And so I say goodbye to the land that shaped so very many aspects of who I am. And I mourn. I mourn, not the death, as the land is still very much alive; but for the change in access to it. That is where it is most like the death of a person. When a person dies, you don't lose the memories and their influence on your life- you lose the familiar access to them. It changes and transitions into a different kind of relationship.

And so with my childhood home. Now, if I visit this precious place- it will be as a visitor.

A necessary and beneficial change in guardianship of this beautiful land. Not the first change of this sort, but the first in a very long time- almost a hundred years. And most certainly not the last, as we are not owners, only guardians; and if we are lucky, we get to steward a piece of this amazing planet as wonderful as the farm I grew up on.

So I say So Long Old Friend- it's not goodbye, as you are present in every cell making up this person sitting here typing this. I will do my best to honor all that you taught me and to pay forward all the nurturing you provided all those years.

I will tend the land I have been given to take care of right now- for this land is the land that is shaping and nurturing my own children.

And I will paint.  It is largely because of your influence that I am where I am, doing what I do. I will paint the beings of this beautiful planet- in thankfulness and utter appreciation for all that you gave me.

Oh, and I'll finally get that magnolia tattoo I've been talking about.


What place has become a Person in your life? I know for many people that place is not a childhood home, but somewhere else that became special to you. Leave a comment- I'd love to hear your story!

Much, much gratitude and many thanks to my sister Karen who took these beautiful pictures and who helped so much with the moving process. I love you so much.