A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.
It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.
How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.
Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.
Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).
Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.
These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.
As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.
While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.
I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?
My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.
Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.
There was only one thing to do: we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.
© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)
Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).
Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.
Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.