Building Our Worlds Again: Part 2

This week I wanted to continue thinking about what it means to be from somewhere and its connection to genetic memory – memories that become coded in our DNA and get passed down through generations over time – in order to think about what it means and can look like to value and preserve rural stories and cultures. So, this piece will build on my previous post about the same topic.

I recently read a brilliant piece by Elif Shafak on belonging in many different places at once. In it she talks about how place becomes encoded in our ways of being, speaking, and moving about in the world. How these places and the cultural practices associated with them become a tangible part of who we are no matter if we stay in those places or not. She writes:

Adamant though we may be to abandon our motherlands, because God knows we have had enough of them, enough of their stupidities and absurdities and hostilities and cruelties, the truth is they will never abandon us. They are shadows that tag along with us to the four corners of the earth, sometimes they walk ahead of us, sometimes they fall behind, but they are never too far. That is why, even long after migrations and relocations, if you listen carefully, you can still detect traces of our motherlands in our broken accents, half smiles, uncomfortable silences. 

In this way the places we’re from, where our cultural and language practices originated, where our stories and identities begin, are forever with us in all of their complexity. Shafak characterizes the leaving as fraught and even violent:

Motherlands are castles made of glass. In order to leave them, you have to break something—a wall, a social convention, a cultural norm, a psychological barrier, a heart. 

In our leaving, something is severed, is broken, but even in that disconnection, still remains intact. It’s a strange paradox and even stranger to live it and feel it, for me, in both urban and rural places.

We build the world around us using various tools. Words, language, stories, people, landscape, and memory all create and carry a sense of who we are, where we’ve come from, and what those things mean. For most of us, the world already seems to be fully constructed by our ancestors and their culture when we get here, but every once in a while, something happens that necessitates us to build our world (and who we are in it) again.

For rural out-migrants, that rebuilding starts when we leave our rural motherlands, to use Shafak’s term, and begin the process of learning how to be who we are in non rural places or rural places that weren’t ours originally. But even in that rebuilding, where and who we’re from still remain with us – tangible to us like the shards of glass Shafak maintains remain after we break our castle made of glass.

Geographically speaking, my family is from the hills of Tennessee. Dad’s dad was born in West Virginia, but grew up in and around Knoxville. Dad’s mom was born in Celina. And my great-grandpa helped build the dam that created the lake that became my first memory. Family reunions were held there, I’ve camped there, seen pictures of it, driven through the mountains around it, and heard many stories about it. As a result, and understandably so, the landscape still beckons me, along with the rest of my family, who visit and vacation there whenever possible. It’s clear that to us, to me, it feels like Home. So much so, that as my grandparents and their siblings attempted to make homes in Indiana, they did so in places that in some ways replicated Tennessee. Both of the houses my grandparents owned in Hagerstown were secluded, surrounded by trees and pastures, and sat on probably the biggest hills one could reckon to find in that area.

Grandpa used to talk about how there were no natural landmarks in Indiana, that in Tennessee, mountains, rivers, and hollers had names, and it was by those that you’d give people directions or locate memories.  Here, everything you would use to orient someone is a manmade landmark—roads, curves, buildings, bridges, railroad tracks, restaurants, gas stations, etc. He also used to talk about how there are really no forests to speak of here. “Trees up here,” he’d say, “just grow in clumps.” I think he missed the isolation, the protection, and the natural connection of being surrounded by forest and mountain in the holler. 

Stories of tracking bees using flour, using grape vines to swing into natural springs, using small mules to mine their own coal, nightly hunting excursions, discovering moonshine stills, hooking a car battery up to a defunct radio and using the pine trees as antennae to listen to music from the Grand Ol’ Opry, and walking miles for school and water permeate my existence. An appreciation for watching the rain come in, listening to the wind pick up, listening to the music it makes, and watching wildlife in action seem like heritable traits—something we all love to do. When asked about his favorite thing about Tennessee, you’re liable to hear Leroy say,

I love just sittin’ on the back porch watchin’ the buzzards, just lazy, floatin’ in the air. And see a hawk come by ever’ once in a while. And at night… seein’ all the stars come out at night, like you could reach up and grab ‘hold of one of ’em. And the planes goin’ across. Hear the whippoorwills hollerin’ ever once in a while. I like the birds. I got a lot of birdhouses out there. Get to see the birds comin’ and goin’. Especially on the front porch. I get out there of a morning real early and sit in the swing and gettin’ daylight and everything the birds begin workin’, comin’ and goin’, and feedin’ they young ones. Seein’ squirrels. Got a lot of little bitty them squirrels down there in the yard. See a deer or two come acrosst every once’n a while. Seen a coyote one time with a rabbit goin’ up the road to the top of the hill. Just the wild life. Only human sound you hear is what you make yourself. Rest of it’s all nature, so you can just sit and listen. It just comes.

From our accents and particularly situated vocabulary, I don’t think it’s hard to tell (especially in the older generations) that we have Appalachian roots. I once asked Leroy what he’d say if someone asked him where he was from. With an air of matter-of-factness, he responded that he’s from Tennessee but has lived in Indiana for many years. I followed up with, “So you don’t identify as Midwestern?” He gave me his uneven, sideways grin, and said, “No. Hillbilly.”  

Even after living in Indiana for more years than they did Tennessee, Leroy still carries the holler with him. Though the place they settled in Indiana was rural, it wasn’t the same kind of rural that shaped who he was before they moved away. Working to find places and landscapes that replicated a place they recognized as theirs, and identities as people they recognized as themselves – Hillbillies and/not Hoosiers. Their experiences and stories have been passed down to me through stories and songs and genes. And it is on that foundation that I continue to build my own identity across Indiana and Texas.

Ultimately, my family’s experiences in Tennessee, the stories they tell about it, visiting the landscape, forming my own memories there, blood memory, and being invested in our history effectively built a world around me that largely contributed to feeling misplaced in the Midwest. The good news is that sifting through each of those and considering the complicated nature of my identity allowed me to come to understand that identity is dependent on context.

Just because home is something that society would say that we could only have one of, doesn’t mean that we’re forced into believing or feeling that way. Nor do we have to accept and believe that it must be the place where we were born or spent our childhoods. I feel Appalachian and have written here before about how I identify as hillbilly – Tennessee tugs at me. My sister feels like she isn’t from anywhere because she’s never taken to orienting herself spatially which is evidenced by her overwhelming propensity to be lost. And my brother feels a particular kinship with our Welsh/British heritage and tends to be a bit of an anglophile. Where we feel at Home is different and that’s just fine because we can belong to and across more than one place. And each of those places will be more and less salient in in different ways to each of us.

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