“Sure, cried the tenant men, but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we killed on it, died on it…That’s what makes it ours – being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.” – from John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939, p38
People move. In the 20th Century, with the invention of the aeroplane, people began to move faster and further than they ever could before. But moving place is something that people have always done. From nomadic cultures and tribes to those who have moved out of necessity (due to famine or crisis), people have always crossed borders and scrambled into unexplored areas in search of a place that they can be born in, work in, and eventually die in.
People also “blow in”: the dismissive term blow-in is regularly bandied about in Ireland and other countries to describe people who have moved into and settled in a town or village. Interestingly the phrase is thought to have originated in Australia and referred to Irish immigrants. The time-span for acceptance of blow-ins by locals can be as long as several generations: For example, a housing estate built in my home-town Sligo in the 1930s was settled by families who remained in that area, and my ordinarily accepting grandfather still referred to these people as blow-ins even after they had lived there for over sixty years. In some cases there had been two or even three generations of these people living in this area, who presumably all considered the place “home”, but older locals still felt the sense of attachment to their past sense of place.
Many theorists develop different points of view on what a sense of place is. Yi Fu Tuan wrote about place as something that was opposed to “space”. In essence Tuan believed that space was something without a relationship to people, memory or culture in any significant way, while place was somewhere that a person was fully familiar with, understood, and had significant memories of or experiences in. But he also noted how a space to one person can be a place to another; for example in how a farmer can look out on his/her own land and see their place, but look at the expanse of valleys outside of their own land and only see space.
This concept of ownership is one key characteristic that makes a place. Ownership doesn’t necessarily mean owning the deeds to a piece of property; As John Steinbeck continuously recounts in The Grapes of Wrath, people feel they own a place when they have worked on it, or lived in it for long enough to understand the lay of the land fully. Steinbeck’s fictional account of the mass emigration from the mid-west in America, as hundreds of thousands of people were pushed off their land and scrambled to California for work, highlights questions of ownership of land in nomadic culture. As these people settled in shanty towns in California, they gained a new sense of place, albeit fleeting, as they travelled around looking for work and a safe place to live.
This novel draws comparison with the 19th Century scramble for land in America, where settler families on the east coast tumbled over one another to stretch west across the vast country in search of new land. In The Significance of the Frontier in American History, author Frederick Jackson Turner described this scramble as one necessitated by a type of fear of loss of something that the people moving west had not even gained yet. Settlers would explore west and claim a piece of land, but as soon as they did someone would move further west and claim a more significant chunk. The movement west was rapid and could not be governed by the American authorities despite their best efforts.
Some people seem naturally inclined to move constantly. Nomadic cultures, such as the Polynesians, expanded across vast distances, constantly in search of new places despite their fertile homeland. However, even the Polynesians held a sense of home. In the 14th-18th Century sailors used to hire Polynesians to work as navigators. One account told of how Tupaia, Captain Cook’s navigator, could always point out the exact direction of his home island without a compass or map, wherever they were in the world. Nomadic cultures are always blow-ins wherever they go, but yet can still experience a sense of place and a sense of home. In past centuries, with travel by ship the only way for such explorers to reach many distant lands, it was highly possible for explorers to set out without any chance of ever laying eyes on their homeland again.
With the aeroplane, people could begin to move further and further, but could always potentially return home. Georges Perec referred to movement in his essay Species of Spaces where he writes that we “should long ago have got into the habit of moving about…But we haven’t done so, we’ve stayed where we were…We haven’t asked ourselves why it was there and not somewhere else…” Perec is referring to cities, neighbourhoods, and the idea of becoming settled in places. In this beautiful essay Perec refers constantly to modern urban ideas on movement and stasis, on how we see places and on how we become accustomed to the identity of places.
Michel de Certeau’s essay Walking In The City describes a different method of experiencing places that is more relevant to modern urban areas than to past nomadic exploration. This essay considers how moving through a city creates a rhythm and a path that shows how a person walking, although they may not own the places that they move through, can create a sense of place through gaining a broader understanding of the intricacies of a familiar path or route. Things may constantly change (i.e. the movement of traffic or new shop-fronts replacing old ones), but the path becomes a type of place that the urban flaneur can experience and understand in a unique and engaging way. Ownership is ruled out in de Certeau’s observations. It simply boils down to where you are at any given time, and what you understand of the spaces that you move through, until they are familiar and part of you.
Movement is something that people have always done. Our ancestors crept up from the African deserts into the tundras of continents still reeling from the ice age. My own ancestors in Ireland moves across modern-day France and Spain, and sailed to this island thousands of years ago. Some thousands of years later the Norse came to Ireland and, after years of war, eventually settled too, alongside the Irish.
And I still wonder, a millennium after the Norse came to Ireland, whether the Norse connotations in my own name (my name means “fair-haired” and was a derogatory nickname given to Norse settlers), continues to give my family the status blow-ins by some early Irish settlers. Even when they have been born on this land, worked on it, and died on it for generation after generation.
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