The Importance of Place

I spent some time on my parents’ land yesterday. I try to walk the land regularly, but in the past few years it’s been harder as I’ve been working more. I found myself in my grandparents backyard. I was next to Pawpaw’s old truck. The tires are now flat and it’s grown over with vines, but it’s there.

I navigated the rows of daffodils. Most of their blossoms are now dead, but the tradition is that we don’t cut them down until Memorial Day, that way the come back healthy. Irises bloom around the white oak, poison ivy is growing up it’s side. The magnolia tree, which never really recovered it’s shape after Hurricane Hugo looms large, spreading its evergreen branches.

These are all part of my memories. I have stories for all of these artifacts. But yesterday, I felt the most impact from the huge water oak tree (featured image). I walked under it as the wind blew, and I felt relief. I remember this tree being tiny. I remember thinking, for a while, that it was sassafras. My parents told me it was pin oak, which is a different tree, but what most people I grew around with call water oak and willow oak.

Michael Corbett, rural education scholar, names one rural virtue as deep place sensitive knowledge. Often we will connect this with plant identification, community history, or cultural knowledge. However, this is a limited understanding of knowledge. I think of the sense of knowing, on a spiritual/emotional level. Of knowing how experiences, places, and relationships shape our ways of knowing.

Stepping under this tree, my memories went back to mowing grass under it on a Snapper mower, of misnaming it, of the small acorns. Then it went to my tree identification unit in agriculture education class in high, and to coming back during college and after moving away and going for long walks to clear my mind and work out my thoughts.

Knowledge like this, while not unique to rural communities often finds itself connected to nature, artifacts, and experiences in these places. The spirit of generations lives in these places, and connection to place connects to roots, and helps guide us toward a future. Of course, trauma, grief, and hauntedness could can find their home in these places, and there are ways to work with and through this (to be covered later).

What this knowledge does is ground me in the world that has guided my growth and experience. However, it never does it in a constricting way. It does it in ways that allows for me to grow toward new futures. Just like the vines growing over the old truck, the roots nurture them and ground them so they can spread over time in new directions in search of new live and possibilities.

What I think is most important, is, just as this tree has grown, my relationship with the tree has grown and it still teaches me. The lesson I learned was that I am still here, I am alive, and my roots are strong. As parts of my life are strained and parts are growing, I know I am nourished by the ground on which I walk.

This, of course, leads me Christian formation, we often forget these deep relationships and connections when we offer Christ. We teach as if people are not interwoven into their community. The sort of individualized faith we often promote, fails to acknowledge connections to place a virtue, and perhaps a Christian virtue. In some cases, it is intentionally otherworldly and seeks to escape the world leaving it behind. This is harmful and does a disservice to the people, place, and faith.

Instead, a rural place based faith formation roots experiences, stories, and traditions is an excellent ecology for the Holy Spirit and the church to sow new seeds and build new futures.

There is more on this to come. I am actually doing some writing and perhaps creating useful resources for this in the future. Look for them in the future in the form of posts here, classes, and church resources.

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