Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Belonging to this Land (and a Welsh Word about Longing)

A few weeks back there were hazard reduction burns taking place in the mountains, controlled fires eating up fuel which could have become next summer’s disaster, so for a few days, the air was filled with smoke. Helicopters whirred in the distance, and blackened leaves and pearl-grey flakes of ash fell from the sky.

This got me thinking: Was it like this in my ancestral lands? Did a similar smokiness fill the air in autumn as the field stubble was burnt? Were there bonfires to celebrate Samhain, with dancing in the flickering, orange light?

Fire is often considered a comfort in the northern lands, a warm light in the long, cold dark of winter. A life-giving and life-sustaining presence. 

In Australia, on the other hand, fire can be a destroyer, a frightening and unwanted visitant in the hot months, when the smell of smoke is worrisome, to say the least.  

Yet, as the fires burned in these days of autumn, I almost welcomed the sharp, familiar scent, for I could imagine myself back there, back in the northern lands, in time’s past, when fire was a friend.

The smoke hanging in the air gave the sunshine a golden cast, and the autumn leaves on the trees blazed in sympathy. This autumnal change—the bright burgundies, ambers and lemon-yellows—is not seen in the bush. The valley across the road looks the same. Olive green. Eternally muted. There is no leaf-change on the native trees and bushes (but for the burnt-looking, reddish tinge of new growth on the gumtrees in spring), and no fruitings that I can see (though plenty of seeds around). 

Am I blind? Do I know the land so little?


I feel like a fraud sometimes, or an intruder, living here. It is and is not my home. My ancestry is from elsewhere (as it is for most Australians)—Poland, Ireland and England—and there is an indescribable longing for those places that I come from, yet do not know, ghosting in my cells. My bloodline came from the northern hemisphere, yet here I am, far south of the equator—a northern soul in a southern body.

Is it possible to mingle these northern and southern parts of myself? I know it is necessary, for the soul fits inside the body as a hand fits inside a glove. The glove has no purpose if it is not worn, if the hand does not move within it. 

This is the place of my birth, the soil from which I was made, so I must get the hand to fit, my soul to belong. 

It is in learning about this land, in naming the other beings around me and knowing them better, and in observing and being present to the seasonal changes, that I may achieve better integration of north with south. Though the north will always be there. Blood is strong, and I must respect the past, the old ways that would have been my ways. Once. Long ago.

My task, I think, is to try to fuse old and new, north and south, soul and body. To find belonging here whilst honouring the lands I dream of and yearn for. Those lands of my heart. But to find heart-land here too.

This Earth is so full of diversity, a profusion of life and places, landscapes and climates, all different, but all connected. In rooting myself more deeply here, in knowing my mountain homeland better, perhaps I will bring the multiplicity of the rest of the world closer, and then I can be more truly myself. Then, possibly, I will belong.

*    *    *
After writing this I came across a four-part series of pieces by Jay Griffiths on the subject of ‘home’, which you can find here; and the beautiful Welsh word hiraeth:

There is a Welsh word for homesickness – hiraeth – which is famously untranslatable into English.  It is a past-haunted word which leans backwards in time and can hold the sense of an impossible longing for a home, a person, or a land that may never have existed, with a yearning sense of one’s incompleteness without it, it is wistful for the unattainable. (Part 2: A Beggarly Account of Empty Boxes)

Perhaps that is what I am feeling. Hiraeth. A longing for something that is, essentially, unobtainable. All the more reason to seek, to home in on, a sense of belonging, a sense of home, right here. 

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