“The trees and the grass have spirits. Whatever one of such growth may be destroyed by some good Indian, his act is done in sadness and with a prayer for forgiveness because of his necessities…” – Wooden Leg
We speak and write constantly about connecting to place: to the natural features of a place, the energies of place, the various gods and spirits that inhabit a place. Whether you approach it in a humanistic or archetypal fashion, or whether your relationships to spirits of place are literal and reciprocal, interactions with and concepts of ‘place’ hold a notable importance for the vast majority of us. Some connect by tuning into the seasons, taking nature-walks and learning plant identification, trying to incorporate local foods into their diets, or taking up gardening and otherwise tending to the land. Others interpret messages from the flights of birds, forge connections with the rivers, lakes, and mountains, and make offerings to the spirits of the land.
But what we generally regard as the ‘natural’ world does not encompass the entirety of place, and as valuable as that knowledge is, it only tells part of the story. Especially in developed or urbanized areas, inherent in the spirit and essence of place are the histories, events, structures, and people who have shaped and altered a place over time. While forming relationships to the gods, spirits, and energies of a place is important and critical work, that work is somewhat incomplete without an understanding of the relationships that the spirits have to that place itself, and the way that our species and our influence has altered, interfered with, and sometimes destroyed that relationship over time.We tend to pay attention to how place affects us, and how gods and spirits affect us, and how development affects us, but we often overlook how human settlement has in itself affected place and the spirits that reside there. For those of us who live on recently colonized and/or conquered land, such an overlooking not only has implications for our relationship to place itself, but it also furthers our denial and dulls our recognition of the sustaining damages and consequences of war, colonialism, and industrialization, and how the land and its spirits have been affected by these forces.
Most would not question the importance of the mythologies, the histories, and the other various stories of the ancient gods as a crucial piece of our understanding of those gods. Yet the gods and spirits that surround us locally have similar histories, similar traumas, similar stories that are deeply intertwined with the history of American settlement and the colonization and removal of the indigenous people of this land. An integral part of knowing where we stand as settlers in relation to the land and its spirits is understanding the history and the trauma of the places in which we inhabit.
In the United States, our defined geographic places, whether they be neighborhoods, towns, or cities, are very recent framings placed around networks of spirit and matter that existed long before white settlers ever stepped foot on this continent. The typical American town is quite young compared to the world’s urban places as a whole, and the age of any given town often correlates to the patterns of westward expansion. One can find towns in New England and Virginia that date from the late 1600s and early 1700s, and yet there isn’t a single town in Oregon that dates prior to 1811. The era in which a town was founded greatly influences both its physical and industrial features, and cycles and trends in urban planning often impose the new upon the old in a myriad of ways that range from obvious to seamless.
The number of generations or years notwithstanding, in America we still remain as settlers on stolen land; land which was traumatized and accumulated through theft and violence. The scars and consequences of that violence remain, both seen and unseen, and little has been done to heal or even acknowledge the traumas that both the land and its creatures have withstood.
As someone who engages in deep interactions with place, the more I integrate that work the more I have come to understand the importance of cultivating a well-rounded understanding of what any given place has been through, so to speak. Over time, I’ve come to understand such work as part of my obligation; part of my duty as one who walks between the worlds. Only in engaging with the entirety of a place to the best of my ability do I reap the full benefit as the recipient of its lessons and stories.
This is not a direct appeal to action nor a homework assignment, but I offer the following questions and thoughts to ponder as they relate to the place beneath your feet or places that you frequent, especially if you frequent towns and urban areas. Obviously not all these questions are relevant to all places, and some are not relevant at all to those who do live on their ancestral lands.
Even if you don’t know the answers or care to search for them, the implications of the questions themselves will hopefully shift the way you perceive and experience your relationship with place, and create an awareness of how the histories of specific places and the impacts of capitalism and colonial settlements affect nature, spirit, and egregore in the present day.
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What is the name of your town?
What’s the history behind that name?
When was the town founded?
Who founded it?
What kind of life did that person lead? Where were they from?
What did they leave behind; what were they escaping; what did they hope to build?
Who were the original settlers; the original landowners? What were their names?
What brought them there? What was their history?
How are their names reflected in the modern landscape? Are there streets named after them?
If not the founders, who/what are the streets named after?
On which precise spot of land was the town founded?
What were the first buildings?
Where is the oldest building in town?
What was the significance of that location when the structure was built?
How does that location relate to the town today?
Where was the original center of town?
Is it in a different place from the current center of town?
If so, why? How and why did the layout develop and shift?
How was the land acquired over time? Whose land was it before the town was founded?
What laws or regulations governed the settling of that land?
Who was excluded from settling under those laws?
Which indigenous groups lived there before the area was settled?
Where did they live? Were they migratory or stationary?
What did they eat? What are the basic foods that are native to your area?
Do those plants still grow wild?
Is there anywhere where they are purposefully cultivated?
Who was driven off the land when the town was first settled? When?
Were they removed by force?
Where were they removed to?
Are their descendants still living nearby?
If so, what are their current living conditions like compared to yours?
Are there minority neighborhoods in your town?
If so, why?
If not, why not?
When did those neighborhoods spring up and/or disappear?
What is the local history behind those shifts?
What is the national history behind those shifts?
Who was historically excluded from your town?
Were their laws that targeted Asians, Blacks, or Native Americans?
Was your town a sundown town?
If so, how was that enforced? Who enforced it?
Why did the town initially grow? What attracted people to the area?
What were the primary industries?
Are the names of the streets connected to those industries?
Is there a ‘Mill Street’? Does it lead to the river?
If so, where exactly was the mill? Who owned that mill? Who worked there?
Is there a ‘Water Street’?
If so, is it actually next to the water?
If not, what does that tell you about the shaping of the landscape?
Is there an ‘Indian Trail’? If so, what was it a trail to, and whose trail was it originally?
Do you live near a river? What is its name? What is the history of that name?
What did those who lived there before you call that river?
Where are the headwaters of that river? Where does it spill out?
What kind of industry exists along that journey?
How does that industry affect the health of the river?
Is there a bridge in your town?
When was it built? Who designed it? Who built it?
Did any of the workers die during the construction of that bridge?
Who were their families? Where were they buried?
Are there railroad tracks nearby? If so, when were they built?
What originally brought the railroad through?
Who was responsible for the building of that railroad?
What else were they responsible for?
Who lived on the land prior to the building of the railroad? How were they removed?
Is the railroad currently in operation?
If so, what kind of cargo is being carried on the rails?
If not, why did service shut down in the area?
Are there sidewalks under your feet? Roads?
Where did the gravel come from? Is there a quarry nearby?
If so, how has the mining affected the land and those of all species who live nearby?
Where does your tap water come from? How does it travel?
How old is that system, and who built it?
How reliable is your water supply? How safe is it?
Where are the dead?
Where are the first settler cemeteries, the pioneer cemeteries?
Are they still standing? What kind of condition are they in? Who are the caretakers?
Do they need caretakers? Don’t just look, listen.
If the early cemeteries are not currently standing, what stands there now?
Where are those early remains buried today?
Where and how did the indigenous of the area bury their dead?
Have those sites been respected or have they been developed?
If they have been developed, are they acknowledged as sacred ground?
Is there even a plaque, a marker?
If there isn’t, what can you do right now to change that?
And how would that immediately affect your connection with those who lie beneath?
This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.