They say “You can’t go back.” It’s true that life is a one-way journey. But after last week’s rain, I’ll bet a lot of us have been going back, in memory anyway, over previous rainy spells and ephemeral streams running beyond bank-full stage. Remembering is one of the beauties of storms: it connects us to our land.
“Go back!” is another thing they say, sometimes meaning “go back where you came from.” In this case, “they” is some group who feels they belong where they are, and also that “you” are somehow foreign. Language and skin color are often used as markers of foreignness; behaviors also can give you away. The truth is we all belong somewhere. Unfortunately many of us are not where we belong because we were pulled or pushed off our land by people who didn’t belong there—“foreigners”—who wanted our labor, our land, or both.
For the last few days I’ve been going back mentally to where I’ve never been: the outer Hebrides, an island chain 50 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. I’m reading a book written by a man who grew up on one of those islands: “Soil and Soul: People Versus Corporate Power” by Alastair McIntosh (2001). The book’s main purpose is to describe how the people of one nearby Hebridean island, Eigg, buy back the land—in the 1990s—from their absentee landlord in order to own the place in which they were born and continue to live. That story is what made me buy the book, and if you’ve been following this column, you understand why.
But the way McIntosh tells the story, from his own internal process of discovering their land history, I’m discovering the Gaelic/Celtic roots of my own nature. McIntosh is only a few years younger than I am, so the story seems contemporary for me. Like so many of us, for him the history of the place he knew most intimately was the history he knew least because, for propriety’s sake, that history was not told or taught.
Or perhaps I could say, for property’s sake. The land history of the Hebrides is the same as the Scottish Highlands, which I barely know despite the McCallister clan’s blood running through my veins. “Clearances” they were called, the euphemism for taking the land of the residents (called “peasants” to justify the stealing) by the more powerful urbanized English-speaking tribes from the big islands to the south. The land was “improved” by running sheep all over it (causing major ecological destruction) to make wool for the industrial looms of London. The formerly landowning residents became tenant farmers, fishermen and shepherds, plus land-managing labor for the “estates.” That’s a major oversimplification, but not unwarranted. The pattern spread easily to America.
From the first paragraph onward, however, I found myself going back home. It wasn’t just the geography McIntosh described, but also many of the ways of being in the world that feel native to me now. His description of being taught English in school in order to “get on” in the world—and being forbidden to use Gaelic there as well—made me realize that English was a second language for every single one of my ancestors. That was an epiphany. As McIntosh narrated his awakening to this history, I was awakened. I think that makes us woke.
One important point he makes is that the nation of Great Britain came into being and became powerful through a process of internal colonization prior to setting off on its mission to dominate the globe. The process includes what psychiatrist Frantz Fanon described as “inferiorisation” of native peoples who stand (or just sit) in the way of industrial progress. Becoming “inferior” makes people obeisant, then complicitous. When McIntosh confronted a beloved teacher why he hadn’t taught about the clearances in school, the teacher replied that “well, it wasn’t in the curriculum, and besides, we were ashamed of it.”
“They say a lot of things,” my mother often says, and perhaps that’s a cultural remnant of skepticism about people “above.” It’s what they don’t say that might matter most. May we find some way to unpack all our ethnic land histories—become fully woke—and find ourselves joining arms before we take up more arms against each other.
Trudy Wischemann is a natural-born poet warrior who writes. You can send her your own providential historical discoveries c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.