DSC02390I am not sure I will be able again to look at a cold frame without thinking about this wonderful picture by Nikolai Astrup (1880-1928) of his home and studio at Sandalstrand in Norway. It embodies a willingness to find a place, build a future and a hope within a certain landscape whose meaning and power sustains you. And such was Astrup’s life on the shores of a Norwegian fjord, amongst his gardening, painting, printing, ever-increasing family and his rhubarb, which he loved to cultivate and of which he bred new varietals.

He embodied, perhaps, the poet Gary Snyder’s advice, to

Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.

kitkitThis advice was borne out by Snyder himself, in the purchase and development of his property, Kitkitdizze, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, from 1967 until the present day, and which he developed in community with others, over the following 45 years. It was mirrored by Wendell Berry’s “place-finding” at Lane’s Landing in Port Royal, Kentucky, from 1965 (Mary Berry celebrates 50 years of her parents’ living there here). The correspondence between them, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and which is celebrated in this long conversation, is partly rooted in the fact that both men have their own place to tend to, their own agricultural, construction, familial and community concerns. This gives the correspondence between them an authority exactly matched by the authority that Astrup had as a painter.

I find this sense of place so important. As unsettled as we have found life in this particular city, the home place, the physical house where we live, has been a place of joy and growth, of development and of peace. I have learnt (better) to garden; I have learnt to improve a house and to regard its improvement as a proper and legitimate concern. How often, though, do we fail to articulate this, especially for children? I know I have mentioned this before as a vital part of our educating our children, to possess a deep sense of place that both informs their identity but also governs their actions and their responsibility to a particular community.

It is a commonplace to bemoan the rush and intensity of modern life, but we have the life we have as a result of the choices we make, and some of those choices are about speed and pace. In Snyder’s words:

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking, brings us close to the actually existing world and its wholeness.
For those who can, one of the things to do is not to move. To stay put. That doesn’t mean don’t travel; it means have a place and get involved in what can be done in that place. That’s the only way we’re going to have a representative democracy in America. Nobody stays anywhere long enough to take responsibility for a local community.
In the excellently reasoned defence of marriage as a contractual arrangement with societal and communal implications, Roger Scruton and Philip Blond argue that one of the reasons that marriage has fallen into some disrepute is because we have tipped the balance too far towards romantic love as the driver for marriage and, consequently, away from its vital role in securing the health of communities, of churches and of those groups in society that require a relational stability in order that they flourish.
Skape1This is what it means to take responsibility for a community. A married couple, in many traditions both historical and modern, is the anchor for a whole network of relationships under the broad term oikos or household. Most traditional households would have had close links with, or were near to, 3 or 4 generations of the same family. Historically, many had servants or retained persons who were linked to the household and for whom the married couple assumed a large measure of responsibility. I remember well my friends Fanie and Louna Kruger of the farm Kantien Pan near Kenhardt, South Africa – Afrikaans farmers functioning as the net beneficiaries (as opposed to architects) of apartheid, who would think nothing of taking their employees 80 km to a hospital in the middle of the night, or arranging training or work for them, or in a whole range or ways otherwise caring for them, even when ill, or drunk or workshy. This kind of behaviour, however paternalistic it might seem to us now, has an economic impact (such as that of the “excellent wife ” in Proverbs 31), a contribution to the land, and a rich and contributory impact to the wellbeing of a scattered farming community (Fanie’s farm was 80,000 ha in size, mostly sheep and goats, with some irrigated arable for feed in high summer when the drought conditions were at their worst).
Reggio_emilia_panorama_e_GhiaraSomehow, and I am not sure how, this is worth teaching our children and to their families: to find their place, to stay put and contribute to the community they find themselves in. Harder to do here, and now, than almost any place I have ever lived. Peter Moss, writing of Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia schooling system, says:
Like most Italians, Malaguzzi was deeply rooted in his territorio, in particular his beloved Reggio Emilia to which he devoted most of his life. He was a Reggiano and proud of it. Yet this intense local identification and loyalty did not make him parochial.  He may have been rooted in a particular culture, but the values and political orientation of that culture were shared with many other comuni and he was in constant and vigorous relationship with the wider world….This temporal and spatial context must have had a powerful effect on Malaguzzi and his approach to education…
There is much in this that Malaguzzi shares with Astrup, Snyder and Berry. All were men who were rooted in one place to the extent that this freed them to travel to, converse with and have deep relationships with friends in far flung places. What children need to know is that being rooted in a particular place and devoting themselves to it does not preclude a wide, interesting and intellectually and creatively vigorous life.

About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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  1. […] watershed conditions, and particular climate. It touches on the subject I began to explore two posts ago (and which I feel I have left quite unexplored) but also speaks through metaphor to the breadth, […]

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