I was fascinated by Scott Laumann’s recent post about space and place and American identity. I think a lot about place, write a lot about place. In fact, I’ve just moved back to my native mountains after a decade’s absence, and daily I make the commute to my university, winding through the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains where my family settled some 220 years ago. My people have been a people of place, mostly a Scots-Irish lot who left Ulster and took up in these hazy mountains for good.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if my return here was predestined all along—those Scots-Irish ancestors were Presbyterian, after all. My coming home has me thinking about the hold landscape has on us, how landscape shapes us. The writer Ron Rash talks often about “landscape as destiny.” In his novel The World Made Straight, he explores the idea that people growing up in these mountains tend to live in the passive voice.
The mountains are imposing, limiting. They remind us constantly of our smallness. I’m surely someone who feels most comfortable, most wrapped up in these mountains of my people. I lived in Iowa for a few years, and I always felt exposed in that stark flatness. In many ways, I loved that landscape—loved the near oceanic feel to it, the sense of seeing everything coming. But I also couldn’t get over that there was nowhere to hide, nothing to cover me up or hold me in.
I’ve heard of people coming to Appalachia from other places and having the opposite reaction—growing claustrophobic and itchy. Needing to break free and find something flat. Recently, I re-read Gretel Ehrlich’s striking essay, “The Solace of Open Spaces” (from the collection by the same name). Upon re-reading, I found a section I’d underlined years ago when I first approached her work:
A person’s life is not a series of dramatic events for which he or she is applauded or exiled but a slow accumulation of days, seasons, years, fleshed out by the generational weight of one’s family and anchored by a land-bound sense of place.
Ehrlich’s essays explore the harsh beauty of Wyoming. My homeland is plainly different from that of the wide-open world, but the last half of that quote punched me: fleshed out by generational weight…anchored by a land-bound sense of place. This felt true in my bones. I did, however, find myself wondering about the nomads among us—the military brats, perpetual wanderers, children of broken homes. Is their land-bound sense of place fluid or ever-moving? I
s this attachment to place always rushing along as if on fast-forward? Are they bound by transience? I found myself, too, thinking of Kathleen Norris’ gorgeous book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. In it, she certainly explores both the generational weight and land-bound place in order to meditate upon and make sense of her relationship to the Divine. It is precisely this attachment to the land and family that shapes her faith.
As a man pulled back by generational weight and the near gravitational pull of this place, I have been wondering about the mountains’ influence on my understanding of God. What Ron Rash often explores in his fiction is the fatalism that these mountains can produce—a sense that one can’t escape them. While I try to avoid what one of my religious studies professors once described as “worm theology”—I’m not good enough and can’t do anything, Oh God—I hope these mountains give me some perspective of my tininess within the great spinning of the world.
However, since I returned, I am forever in awe of them: in their perpetual presence, their seemingly shifting form within clouds and storms, their expansive yet comforting hold on me. I hope that they forever remain mysterious, drawing me into them to seek out this awe over and over. I pray that they open up my eyes to the magnitude of the Divine while pushing me to trust that, together, we can move them.
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