Another week in October, bringing a new opportunity to think about the idea of "place" in our walk through the universe. I gave myself an invitation to weigh in with my own thoughts and fairly recent revelations regarding place, so I'll start by giving you a bit of background.
In 2005, my husband and I decided to make the rather drastic move from Florida to South Dakota, with the acceptance of his appointment on the faculty at The University of South Dakota. We'd both been in the same location in Sarasota, Florida at the Ringling School of Art and Design (since renamed Ringling College of Art and Design) for quite some time...I'd gone to school there in the mid-70s and had remained working in the library ever since and my husband had come there to teach in the late 1980s. My father had passed away several years before and we were both ready for a change. For Johntimothy, it was a change, but not as drastic as it was for me, since he would actually be returning to his alma mater, having gotten his graduate degree in printmaking from USD many moons before. But...I digress. So, here's where my story really begins. We came out to look for houses in mid-May and I immediately felt at home in this landscape of the mid-west. I'd only lived my 40+ years up and down the east coast, so this was a pretty new experience for me. I attributed my new found sense of place to a kind of connection to the town in eastern Montana where my parents had both grown up. It was a much different landscape there, situated on the edge of the badlands, but still it was my only explanation. As we settled into our life in this very small university town, in a terrain of rolling farmland, I not only felt an affinity for the land, but the sense of history coming from the land itself. All of this was new to me. I'd lived in Florida for thirty years and as much as I loved it there, I never felt connected to the land and only knew of the "sense of place" as an intellectual idea. Here I felt it in my bones, in a sort of uncanny way. I began to read more about the history of this part of the country--the Native Americans who spent countless generations here, the white settlers who came west, changing the lives and the land forever. The land is a palimpsest and contains a rich history in its layers.
While I was reading about the history of the west (I realize that we are firmly placed in the mid-west, but generations ago, this was very much the west), I also began to delve more into family history and genealogy, as there were tales of my ancestors having come from Canada and clearly they had to have come through this area. I come mostly from French Canadian stock and I started with my mother's side, but found very little that I didn't already know, except that my great-grandfather had truly come through these parts, through Omaha,to the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold rush there. He apparently had a stagecoach operation (information is quite sketchy), traveling supplies (and people?) between Bismark, ND and Deadwood, SD (at that time all of it known as Dakota Territory) and then followed the railway out to Glendive, Montana. However, what was most astonishing was the genealogy I uncovered on the RootsWeb site that traced my father's ancestry all the way back to France in the early 1600s. There I learned that my ancestors were indeed in the mid-west, along the Mississippi River by the 1740s...before St. Louis was in existence, just as the territory was being juggled back and forth between the French, the Spanish and the English. I learned that since that time, all of my paternal ancestors have been in Missouri, Minnesota and Montana, always on locations with a river and until a couple of generations ago, farming the land. As I noted all the locations in this extremely thorough genealogy and made the connections with locations of ancestors on my mother's side, I understood something about this land and why I feel a sense of place....I am sitting, literally, in the middle of the circle of my ancestors.
The artwork that came forth during this period is called Bloodlines, which refers to my own bloodline, that I have now found, is clearly part of the bittersweet history of this part of the country. My own blood runs in the layers of this landscape and I am part of the history of this place.