Friday, November 18, 2016

Land of Memory

Each semester in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, I assign a reading about Apache place names by Keith Basso. The Apache, like other indigenous peoples, locate their moral system within the landscape. The place where a particular crime occurred, for example, becomes a perpetual reminder of right action and the consequences of bad choices. This is one of the reasons that indigenous peoples cannot simply be relocated to a new piece of land: that new landscape does not hold their cultural and moral memory as a people.

The house in the woods
Over the last few weeks, I have traveled home to Arkansas for a research project involving family history and traveled to western New York with my mother-in-law for a funeral. As I learned more about my family history, I realized how deeply it is located in the landscape around Nashville, Arkansas. There is the oak tree that my mother’s grandmother planted out on the Hope Highway, there is the old house where my father’s mother was adopted out of an orphanage and into a family, there are the woods where my father once dreamed of building a house and eventually did. I rode around the area with my father, who showed me the creek where Young family members were baptized, the peach shed where everyone used to work during the summer, the cedar trees that indicate the presence of lime in the soil. Our car rides always comfort him and spur memories in a brain that is becoming a little foggier each year.

The old family barn in Avon
In Rochester, New York, and the nearby village of Avon, I got to see house after house that belonged to my mother-in-law’s relatives, places she used to go after school or babysat on the weekend or visited with cousins. She could look at the urban landscape, now much changed, and still envision the Italian grocery that used to tie up her family’s meat purchases in brown paper and the fancy boutique where she was taken by her mother to shop for a dress, a rite of passage that signaled she was growing into a young woman. As she loses her elder family members, that landscape and its buildings remain important ties to her childhood years and her memories of who she used to be.

The landscape is important to us, whoever we are. It holds memories, morals, emotions, and culture. No wonder land can be so contentious: just think of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and what’s happening now in Standing Rock. Even as we move far away from the land where we grew up, we clearly remember the smell of the trees, the feeling of the wind, the way the hot sun burned our skin - sensory experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. We still see buildings and trees that are no longer there, or imagine a person walking down a lane or the picnic that occurred just over the hill.

It’s a beautiful, magical connection reminding me that, no matter how much our mobile lifestyles and technologies may seek to separate us from a particular place and its landscape, that attachment is too deeply-rooted, too meaningful to ever really go away.


  1. This is beautiful. You have found a moving way to organize information about how people feel about the places where they live and also that intangible sense of belonging. I hope you submit it as a stand alone essay somewhere!