“What is your ancestral story and where was it in your line that you got displaced from living close to the land?” ~Ella Noah Bancroft interview. For the Wild episode, March 3, 2021.
Our family just returned from a brief, wonderful road trip to Virginia where we stayed at a charming AirBnb on a working farm. We delighted in our access to a friendly Great Pyrenees dog named George, with his loyal duck friend, Lloyd, who followed him around like a shadow. We loved the cheeky goats and curious looking Hereford cattle and views of the horses from our window at morning light. On our final waking there, we discovered that a sheep had lambed two babies in the night. In the midst of all this gorgeous closeness to livestock and to the earth, we found ourselves experiencing a common tug at our hearts to live closer to the earth, perhaps, impractically, to even be farmers. Any time we visit a farm (and we seek them out often), we daydream “What if? What if we owned a farm? What if we lived closer to the land?” My husband’s grandfather in England owned a tree farm and orchards, and my husband feels he has horticulture in his veins. He taps our suburban trees for syrup but would love to keep bees, and I don’t think it would take much convincing to get him on board with keeping chickens. My mother grew up on a farm in Madbury, New Hampshire before it burned down and always looked back upon those farm days of her childhood with warm nostalgia. Farming runs in the blood on both sides in our family.
When I came across Ella Noah Bancroft’s multi-layered, two-part question from the “for the wild” podcast, I lingered, stunned, by its power: ““What is your ancestral story and where was it in your line that you got displaced from living close to the land?” Asking and answering this question is an invitation not only to uncover personal and familial history but to trace where, for each of us, a great turning took place. In our own histories, where did we shift into the anthropocene, transitioning from a more agricultural existence into one of greater commodification, consumerism, technology and industry? When did we stop living in sync with the rhythms of the earth, honoring the land and recognizing its sacredness to becoming disconnected from it, alien to it, and cut off from intimacy? Unless we currently homestead or otherwise make our living directly from the land, I would argue it has happened to all of us. We all have been displaced from the land somewhere along the line.
Of course, Bancroft’s question most significantly calls to mind the forced displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands. Being an Bundjalung woman, born in Australia herself, Bancroft deeply feels and understands the displacement of indigenous peoples like her own Aboriginal ancestors. Yet, Bancroft argues that we need to come to understand “that we’ve all been colonized, and some have been colonized…earlier than others…How can we return to a place where we feel like we belong to this Earth?” Bancroft’s meaning has to do with capitalist ideologies encroaching upon our powers to choose and severing our birthright bonds with nature. The vast majority of people have been displaced, in varying degrees, from a lifeblood connection to nature that nourished and sustained our ancestors. If we can trace our way back to where it shifted for each of us, within our own family histories, we will comprehend that our ancestors all enjoyed ties to the earth and probably not so long ago. This seems a vital first step in re-identifying with the earth and in understanding how we might again be its stewards, living in harmony with its creatures. It is easy to forget that there is, for each of us, a narrative of displacement. We didn’t get to this lonely place of disconnection by accident, and we weren’t always here. Something went wrong. We need to find where that was, why that was, and how we can move towards a reconnection with that earth-honoring life our ancestors knew and that, most likely, we crave somewhere within our souls.
We experience it as a universal need for time in nature as balm for our minds and spirits, as a place of healing and renewal. It’s why so many who live along the coast head to the ocean whenever they need to decompress or raise their spirits. It’s why a hike in the woods tends to bring perspective and renewed gratitude. We are not meant to be detached from the earth and its forces; we are meant to daily interact with and respect its beauty, mystery, and power.
Unraveling my way back to where my own family lost many of its threads of connection to the earth, I can see that the displacement largely happened around the same time on both my mother’s and father’s side. As children, both my mother and father left a more rural home to settle instead in Haverhill, Massachusetts and later Merrimac, Massachusetts. My mother’s family moved from their Madbury, New Hampshire farm to the much more industrial city of Haverhill, Massachusetts. While I do not know much about the reasons for this move, I imagine that there likely was some financial motivation. Jobs, no doubt, were more plentiful in and around Haverhill. There also were relatives already living in Haverhill, so family ties pulled the Hoyt family back to the city.
My paternal grandfather, George Henry Dupree, grew up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, but he married my grandmother, Bernice Stevens, who was from isolated, rural, Baldwin, Maine. As a young wife living in Haverhill, Bernice missed her Baldwin upbringing, and Bernice and George moved their three children back to Baldwin for a few years. During most of this time, my grandfather traveled down to Haverhill for work, as he was unable to find suitable work in Baldwin, and they struggled to make ends meet. Ultimately, the economic strain was too great as well as the stress of my grandfather staying to work in Haverhill, only traveling home to Baldwin sporadically. The family moved back to Haverhill.
Once back in Haverhill, Bernice wrote a popular column for the city paper which she entitled, “Down Nostalgia Lane,” where she explored her memories of life in Baldwin as a child and during those brief years there as an adult. Her stories are infused with the characters who populated her life: a feisty and protective school teacher, superstitious neighbors regaling her with ghost stories, madcap men creating havoc on horseback. Her stories also are alive with the sights and sounds of Baldwin’s landscape. Through these articles, I am offered the opportunity to get to know my grandmother, though she died before I was born. Her writing reveals a striking kinship between the two of us. She noticed and delighted in many of the same things that I do, and we both have felt an indelible appreciation for a simpler life that honors the seasons and glories in the natural world.
In one article, she recalls returning to Baldwin on Memorial Day, as became a family tradition, and her senses immediately thrill to the beauty of the place, remembering it in every season:
After getting out of the car, I stand drinking in all I see for literally miles around. Across the
road, a narrow, dirt road, is the big apple orchard. I have seen it in full flower; its trees heavy
with fruit; I have watched, enchanted while October touched it and set it ablaze, and I’ve
seen those same trees bare against a hillside of white. I turn my eyes and I see wide,
flowering fields sloping to meet crumbling stonewall boundaries. To the east the dear hills of
Sebago rear and I remember the times I’ve wished for Cleo’s talent to put them on canvas.”
(Cleo was the painter in the family, and her paintings still hang in many of our family homes).
Years after moving back to busy Haverhill and having just transitioned into yet another modest apartment there, Bernice Stevens Dupree derived nourishment from the pine trees within the field of vision outside one of her bedroom windows. She exulted, “I can see a pine tree when I open my eyes each morning! Not since I said goodbye to my beloved room in our old home in the Maine hills have I been blessed by the sight of a pine’s waving branches from my bedroom window!” These wistful articles suggest that my grandmother never quite got over leaving her connection with the land behind for a more urban life. I don’t think I would ever quite get over such a move either.
If I feel this longing that will not quit to live closer to the land, what can be done? If any of us feel this pull and sense its urgency, what can we do? A return to the land is such an obvious antidote to the great damage humans have been wreaking across our world over these past one hundred and fifty and more years, yet few see a way to even consider it. Not everything is reversible, but we certainly could massively reduce the rate of harm we are perpetrating if we made a decision to return to a more agricultural society on a massive scale. If we’re being honest, the primary obstacle, most of the time, is monetary. How could we support ourselves and our families? We feel trapped in an economic system that seems to offer very little support for those who want to live a rural lifestyle. There is also perhaps, for some, an element of status that keeps us back from making a return to the land. It asks, “How could I give up my successful career that gives me some cultural capital for a humble job working with the earth?” There are so many factors that make it challenging for us to live closer to the land and to detach from the giant economic and cultural machine that is modern, industrial life. I do not know how successful I will be in trying to return to greater synchronicity and reciprocity with the earth, but I’d like to try.
To return to Ella Noah Bancroft’s question: “What is your ancestral story and where was it in your line that you got displaced from living close to the land?” Do you know where and when in your line your family moved from being in sync with the earth and its seasons to becoming more industrialized and less connected with nature? What do you do to try to ensure some connection and intimacy between you and nature remains? What can you do to cultivate a deeper relationship?