We've been told to shelter at home, avoid non-essential travel, and plan staycations for the summer. It seems Covid-19 is conspiring to wind us down a notch, nudging us to take note of what's all around us when we aren't travelling highway speed. It's been an occasion to notice how spring unfolds at home, who in the community produces the things we need, and which local spots are best for reflection or picnicking. Amid all the uncertainty, we've been offered the chance to reacquaint ourselves with "place" - the environment of which we are a product and that is, in turn, shaped by our presence.
It takes time to begin to discern the patterns of a place, to absorb its information. It's true, we may pick up on the feel of a locale through a quick visit as a tourist, but we can't grasp the profound interplay of people, politics, climate, ecology, commerce and all the rest of it the way a local does. In fact, from Italian provinces to quaint towns the world over, the places that most capture our hearts tend to be those where the citizens are proudly rooted in their natural and cultural habitat. Many First Nations have identified themselves through their landscape with names like "Great Hill People", "People of the Beautiful River", and "Geese Flood Upriver Tribe" - revealing a deep belonging to and relationship with place.
The pandemic has invited us to swap travel in search of excitement elsewhere for a renewed inhabitance of our own place in the world. Certainly it's worthwhile to venture beyond our borders, but just as constant busyness allows us to dodge sitting still with ourselves, the assumption that we can transplant ourselves at the drop of a hat may get in the way of us being truly present at home. Those who are less-travelled are sometimes accused of being myopic or living small. But I think it's just as possible for our worlds to paradoxically become more full the more we connect with what's closest-by. Isn't this at least partially what William Blake was getting at in his oft-quoted lines "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour"?
But there are practical implications to cultivating our relationship to "place", too. Less travel by air or road means less noise, pollution, and time spent in transit. If we're tuned in to our locale we'll notice if a watercourse is disrupted or polluted, understand the gravity of losing a favourite natural space to development, or value the products of sustainable local food producers caring for the land where industry giants would not. When we know the names of plants, we can greet them like friends as we pass by. When we know who has a sourdough starter, we can seek them out (yes, that's a nod to the flurry of Covid bread making!). When we know the seasonal levels of the local stream or river, we can plan to fish them at the right time. It all adds up to a more successful way of living wherever it is we've planted ourselves, a more satisfying way of inhabiting our home. And I'd wager that as soon as we show interest the earth will offer a warm welcome!