“Kith and Kin” by Terri Windling
Friday, April 05, 2019
Today, I’m thinking about the ways that some people’s lives are defined by attachment to the place they come from, whereas others (in increasing numbers) live uprooted from their original place, or un-rooted in any place at all. The world has always had its wanderers, of course—but the balance has shifted in modern times, with more of us in motion than staying put. As we move, and move, and move again, can we genuinely root ourselves in each new place, learn the
language of each land’s flora and fauna, its myths and folklore, its unique spirit? Or are we doomed to transient, restless lives in which the voices of the land, of the plant world and our animal neighbors, are ones we can no longer hear?
In discussing the Aboriginal culture of Australia, which, like most indigenous cultures, is deeply rooted in their sacred landscape from birth until death, Jay Griffiths writes:
“From song, from dream, from elements of earth and water, spirit-children are imminent in the land. They are left there by the Ancestors of the Dreaming, who sang their way across the land, leaving an imprint of music like an aural footstep. And sometimes a woman, who has already physically conceived a child, chances to step in that same footstep, and, if she does, part of the song and the spirit-child leap up into her, so she feels a quickening, sharp as an intake of breath at a kick within, sweet as a night surprised by song. Sometimes it is the father who, seeing something unusual—a particularly large fish or an animal behaving strangely—may know it as an indication of a spirit-child. Or a man walking by a lake may find a spirit-child jumping into his mind, which he will send in a dream to his wife, inseminating the spirit-child within her. Then the Lawmen, the knowers of the songline which the mother or father was on, can tell which stanzas of the song belong to that child, its conception totem and, in that sinuous reflexivity of belonging, its quintessential home.
“To be born,” notes Griffiths, “is, in Latin, nasci, and the word is related to natura, so birth, nature, the laws of nature and the idea of an essence are related. It is as if the language itself has embedded birth in the natural world. In the Amazon, people say childbirth should always take place in forest-gardens so that the condensed energy of the plants can nourish the child. In New Guinea, future generations are called ‘our children who are still in the soil’ and when I was in West Papua, the western half of the island, I was told that in the Dani language the expression for digging potatoes is the same as that for giving birth to a child. Women say they can sometimes hear the unearthed potatoes, which are always handled gently, calling out to them, the land singing things into being to be mothered into the world.
“Legends of childhood across the world suggest whole landscapes lit with incipience. Everywhere is potential, beginningness. It may be the inheld energy of an acorn or the liquid and endless possibilities of water; it may be the fattening of a potato in the secret earth or the leaping of a salmon that is the child Taliesin—in whatever form it takes, the land itself is kindling children.
“In indigenous Australian culture,” Griffiths continues, “there is a common idea that the land is a mentor, teacher, and parent to a child. People talk of being ‘grown up by’ their land, their country, as kin. So do English-speakers—without quite realizing it. A child may be looked after by its ‘kith and kin,’ we say, as if both terms meant family or relations. Not so. ‘Kith’ is from the Old English cydd, which can mean kinship but which in this phrase means native country— one’s home outside the house—but no one I have ever met has known that meaning. This sense of belonging has nothing whatsoever to do with a nation state or political homeland, but rather with one’s immediate locale, one’s square mile, the first landscape that we know as children. W.H. Auden wrote of this as ‘Amor Loci,’ the love of his childhood landscape. Kith kindles the kinship which children so easily feel for the natural world and without that kinship, nature also loses out, bereft of the children who grow up to protect it.”
Novelist Alan Garner’s “kith” is in Cheshire in north-west England, where Garners have lived for centuries. As a descendant of rural craftsmen, he was the first of his family to attend a private grammar school and then go on to Oxford University. “My family,” he writes (in The Voice That Thunders), “was, in the abstract, delighted that I was going to ‘get an education,’ just as I mighthave been going to get a car. For them it was a concrete object. None of us was prepared for its effect. That deep but narrow culture from which I came could not share my excitement over the wonders of the deponent verb. To them, it was an attack on their values, an attempt to make them feel inferior. A shocking alienation resulted, which we could not resolve.”
At the end of his education, Garner sits on a stump by an old stone wall (built by his great-great-grandfather, Robert Garner) and ponders his future. His education has made it impossible for him to live as his father and grandfather lived, but the strength of his kith-ties makes the life of an Oxford don, living far from the soil of Cheshire, impossible too. What is the answer?
“It was staring me in the face. It was Robert’s wall. On it was carved his banker mark, the rune Tyr, the boldest of the gods. When the Aesir went to bind Fenriswolf with the rope Gleipnir, which was made of the sound of a cat’s footsteps, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the longings of a bear, the voices of fishes, and the spittle of birds, Fenris would not allow himself to be bound unless one of the Aesir put his right hand in Fenris’ mouth as a token of goodwill. Only Tyr was willing to do so. And when Fenris was bound, and helpless, he bit Tyr’s hand off at the wrist, which is still called the wolf’s joint. But had Robert known this? Was it a part of the Craft and Mystery of his trade? Or was it simply that an arrow is easy to carve? Yet he had got the proportions of it right; and we are all left-handed.
“I loved Oxford, but it was not the wall. The wall was mine. Oxford was not mine. The rune was mine. It claimed me. Whatever it was that I was going to do with my life, it would have to be done here. This was my unique place. I owned it, and it owned me. There is no word in English to express the relationship. In Russian, the word is rodina; in German, Heimat. And there, on the tree stump, by my great-great-grandfather’s rune and wall, I saw my rodina, my Heimat. This is what I must serve, as no one else could. This is the integration of my divided selves…. So, after a period of reflection, at three minutes past four o’clock on the afternoon of Tuesday, 4 September 1956, I began to write a novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and I have been writing ever since.”
For writers like Garner, with a deep sense of belonging to an ancestral landscape, the creation of art rooted in and expressive of that landscape can be an almost sacred calling … but what about the rest of us in this fast-paced, foot-loose, transient world: immigrants, exiles, travelers, nomads, incomers of one form or another?
Katherine Paterson addressed this question in her essay “Where is Terabithia?”:
“Flannery O’Connor, whose words about writing have meant a great deal to me, has said that writing is incarnational. By incarnational we mean that somehow the word or the idea has taken on flesh, has become physical, actual, real. We mean that the abstract idea can be perceived by the way of the senses. This immediately makes fiction different from other kinds of stories. The fairy tale begins, ‘Once upon a time,’ thus clearly signaling its intent to escape the actual and the everyday, but a novel takes its life from the petty details of its geography, history, and culture.
“This is one of the reasons that writers like Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty and William Faulkner move us so powerfully. Their roots are planted very deep in a particular soil, and they grow up and reach out from that place with a strength unknown to most writers. It is also the reason why a writer like Pasternak would refuse the Nobel Prize rather than leave Russia. For Russia, despite her terror and oppression, was the soil from which his genius sprang, and he feared that if he left her, he would leave behind his ability to write.
“What happens, then,” asks Paterson, “to a writer without roots—who is not grounded in a particular place? When I was four years old, we left ‘home,’ and I’ve never been back since. Indeed, I couldn’t go back if I wanted to because the house in which we lived was torn down so that a bus station could be built on the site. Since I was four, I’ve lived in three different countries and seven states at about thirty different addresses. I was once asked as part of an imaginative exercise to remember in detail the house I had grown up in. I nearly had a mental breakdown on the spot. But the fact that I have no one place to call home does not make me feel that place in fiction is unimportant. On the contrary, it convinces me that I must work harder than any, almost any, writer I know to create or re-create the world in which a story is set and grows if I want to make a reader believe it.”
Many of us today have no kith, no rodina, no alia (to use the Islandian term), no ancestral place. Or we had one once but lost it long ago. Or we’ve been transplanted into new soil, our roots still shallow, our claim still tenuous. Or we are homesick for a home we never actually had; for the idea of home, and of truly belonging.
That’s how it was for me for many years, until I crossed the ocean to Devon, and, to my eternal surprise, its rain-drenched hills whispered in my ears: Welcome home. You’ve come at last. We’ve been waiting and waiting, and now you’re here. Until then, I’d found my home in the world only in the pages of certain books, and in the earth-colored tones of certain works of art: in Earthsea and Islandia, Rhyhope Wood and the farmyards of Hed, among Burne-Jones’ briar roses, and Arthur Rackham trees with goblins stirring at their roots. Those imaginary lands are as precious to me now as they were in my kithless, unmoored youth, and they formed me as much as any “real” place. They are real places. Or rather, I should say that they are true places, which is even better; and which, of course, is precisely why I am able to take shelter inside them. Some kiths exist in the physical world and some only in the imagination. But all of them are real. All of them matter. All of them place us, nourish us, and give us the stories we most need.
Now, as a writer and artist myself, my aim is to fashion, as Anais Nin once put it, “a world in which one can live”… out of words and paint, out of myth and life, out of rain, wind, earth, and flame. I want to tell stories born of my love for Devon, but also for the Arizona desert and the lands I wandered during the homeless years: Narnia, Gramarye, Dorimare, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, the Earthsea Archipelago, Vandarei, Tredana, the Old Kingdom, Dorn Island, and so many others. Most of all I, too, want to create landscapes and storyscapes so real, so vivid, so true that they might whisper in a weary traveler’s ear:
Welcome home. You’ve come at last. We’ve been waiting and waiting, and now you’re here.