I go out in the morning and stand barefoot on the rocky earth, place my palms upon a massive tree trunk, close my eyes, and breathe in the essence of the land. In exchange, I feel the breath of the land touching my skin with molecules of leaves its passed through, whispering in my ears of its travels near and far, dancing into my nasal cavities the scents of distant memories. The rough bark of the aged tree is like an old farmer’s hands, having toiled and stood firm through the cycles of life, nearing the end of its own but yearning to share its wisdom if only someone would listen.
My family has lived in the Missouri Ozarks for over 150 years, not in this exact location where I am now, but an hour or so further north on flatter land. I’ve been gone from this landscape for more than 40 years, only recently returned. Most of my ancestors arrived from every early colony up and down the eastern seaboard, and traveled across a wide swath of the eastern United States; we also have drops of indigenous blood, married into along the way. So, while I have often felt strong links to various landscapes in my country, connections that go beyond “an aesthetic appreciation” (despite American Indian scholar Vine Deloria arguing against this ability in non-Indians to have a spiritual resonance with this land), I am enjoying the ease with which I am becoming reacquainted with the Ozarks and her unique landscape, and I have no doubt that my ancestors’ spirits are assisting me in this journey.
Some of these ancestors came from Ireland, Scotland, and even Wales; places where their own roots had become inseparable from those of the land and I can imagine the pain they must have felt in being “exiled” (as the Irish say about those who for economic or other reasons felt forced to leave their homeland in order to survive), their roots to the land cut after hundreds, even thousands of years. The writer Patricia Monaghan says, in her book The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog: The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit, that, there in the Ireland of her roots, “human consciousness has met the land’s consciousness,” and this is my own current path of American exploration. Not just to know the landscape as, for instance, this is a Black Oak, and this is a wild Grape Vine; or that some plants here are new arrivals and non-natives, while others are ancient offspring. Rather, how all sink their roots into the same soil to be nurtured. As do I, seeking to to know the land as part of my blood and bones and soul.
These “mystic encounters with the land” are difficult to describe; Monaghan says that she has “heard elusive inaudible music singing forth from land that is wild but nevertheless deeply known by humanity” and I know what she means. What might be our inaudible conversation with the conscious land? How might our healing be mutual?