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29 January 2024

ORFC24: Homelands: Belonging in the British Isles

SZ Shao reflects on ORFC 2024 session, Belonging to Places: the Language and Lore of our Wisdom Traditions. Watch along while you read.

To a packed room near Oxford city centre, Manchán Magan shares a story about a cow. This cow, the Glas Geibheann, is ubiquitous across Ireland’s folk traditions. She’s capable of providing endless milk and fertility to her landscape and the people who steward it. One day, a trickster comes to the homeland of the Glas Geibheann. He wagers that he has a vessel which can drain every last drop of her milk. The people shrug. They don’t believe him. The trickster pulls out a sieve. The Glas Geibheann (being a generous soul) allows her milk to flow. The sieve (being a sieve) takes all of it, is never full, and wastes every drop. The milk flows until it becomes blood, then the blood flows until it becomes gore and guts. As it turns out, even the Glas Geibheann couldn’t give forever. 

It’s not hard to see the wisdom in Manchán’s story. The Glas Geibheann embodies a fragile, reciprocal relationship between people and place. She was brought into being by folk who belonged: people who experienced their homelands not as banks of ‘natural resources’, but as living landscapes with mind and history – and vitally, with limits. 

Manchán is part of a diverse panel at ORFC 2024 sharing in the knowledge that rebuilding this sense of belonging within the British Isles is pivotal for healing our ecologies, and ourselves. For him, belonging lies in the profound sense of place coded into the Irish language. The wild success of his book Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape (Gill Books: 2020) speaks to a widespread hunger for connection to the land. Angharad Wynn talks with equal passion about the richness of the Welsh folk tradition, and how reconnecting to ritual and story can re-embed people in their landscapes. Iain McKinnon shares a quiet grief about the loss of intergenerational wisdom in the highlands and islands of Scotland. His grandparents had a lifetime of knowledge about the food of the foreshore which they did not pass down to him. 

Sandra Salazar of GoGrowWithLove approaches belonging from a more complex position. Manchán, Iain and Angharad represent rich land-and-lore traditions indigenous to the British Isles. Although Sandra is also very much part of that tapestry, she’s also part of a diaspora, like millions of people (myself included) who call these islands home. She speaks about how teaching children in Tottenham, London, to grow food has deepened her sense of rootedness in Britain. Sandra also shares how growing has helped her heal from childhood trauma. Her willingness to be vulnerable in a room full of note-scribbling strangers and a livestreaming camera is startling. It is wisdom in action, a demonstration of how ‘belonging’ is an ongoing process of shared vulnerability within an ecosystem.

For me, this discussion brings home the fact that it has only taken a few generations for us to lose our sense of place – and that maybe, with willingness, it can be rebuilt as quickly. We’re are aberrant within the history of the British Isles for not believing that we live in a deeply enchanted place, where the landscape has spirit and the Glas Geibheann roams. It’s true, this discussion about belonging comes with a sense of urgency. With every passing year, generational knowledge is lost with our elders. But Sandra’s experience of building an entirely new tradition of belonging, against the adversity of urban space and diaspora, is a profound source of hope for all of us. Learning how to belong to these landscapes is not just about reconnecting with the traditions of our ancestors. It’s about building new traditions which feel alive to us, here and today, on these damaged and beautiful islands.

SZ Shao is a British Chinese landworker and writer living just beyond the London clay. Her written work revolves around gender, land, neurodiversity, and entanglement with more-than-human life.

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