Where are you from?
For many, this is an easy question to answer. Instinctively, people follow this question up with the place they grew up, whether it be a town, state, or country. Therein lies the problem. Saying “I’m from Keene” is much different than saying “I’m from New Hampshire” which is different than saying“ I’m from the United States’. So, how do you answer this question?
In his 1990 collection of essays The Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder tackles the ambiguity of the word “place” in relation to where one plants their roots. Specifically in “The Place, the Region, and the Commons”, Snyder explores both the emotional and physical connection humans have to the land around them. To achieve clarity in the question “Where are you from?”Snyder informs readers on the difference between place and region and introduces them to the concept of commons, all of which play an important role in determining their relationship to their land.
“I want to talk about place as an experience and propose a model of what it meant to ‘live in place’” (25).
According to Snyder, “Our place is a part of who we are” (27). He uses “place” as an all-encompassing word to represent one’s beginnings, or in other words, where they were born and how they were raised. For Snyder, “place” is the blueprint for all human beings. It’s where we learn to talk, picking up on the specific dialect and vernacular of our house. A sense of community is built in our places, as it’s where we grow up and go to school. Because of this, Snyder argues that place is where the heart is.
Easy. Your “place” is how you answer “Where are you from?”, right? Not exactly. Snyder recognizes the importance of place, but also finds it crucial to explore outside of home, which “we find ease and comfort in” (154). In order to understand this concept, Snyder uses the analogy of a baby learning how to walk. When a baby first begins walking, they start in their home. From there, they go outside to their yard, and then perhaps the sidewalk on the other side of the fence, until they’re able to explore anywhere they want to. First learning to walk in your home is important, because it’s safe and comfortable. However, home isn’t the only place in the world. Although there is a sense of love and comfort in “place” there is so much more to explore. Nonetheless, “place” as defined by Snyder is more of a feeling rather than land.
Where Snyder’s “place” is more emotionally described, his “region” stems from what can physically be seen. While describing different types of lands such as deserts and grasslands, it’s clear that Snyder defines region as the literal land humans walk on. All regions are separated by boundaries. Whether it be county lines or the continental divide, there are physical boundaries that separate regions. Because of this “every group is territorial”, wanting no outsiders to come and change what they find comfortable. This shows that human beings garner such pride and bias toward their “region” as defined by Snyder.
There’s your answer then. I’m “from” wherever I consider my “region” because I hold such strong dignity to it. But what happens when you leave that region? Does your pride move with you or does it stay in the place you were born? Just like place, there is ambiguity in region. Although it is something that can be seen, unlike Snyder’s place, region can change, adding confusion to where you say you’re from.
Unlike “place” and “region”, “commons” are not so personal. Snyder offers a brief history lesson on commons, a shared piece of self-government land, usable by all. Although commons are still used in certain countries, the practice is slightly outdated, perhaps due to the territorial attitude regions gave humans. A greater sense of community is established in commons, but so is a respect for the land. Instead fighting over made-up boundaries, humans come together to cultivate the land that serves them all.
Although “commons” are land, they also represent culture and the human beings that make them up. By exploring commons in England, China, and Japan, Snyder paints a picture of different cultures and how they operate. Readers learn about the strong relationship these groups of people have toward their animals, plants, and land in general.
How does this help answer where we’re from though? The purpose of including the discussion of commons in this essay is to show readers how they should feel connected to the land around them. Yes, we can look at land through the lens of “place” (where we became who we are) or “region” (the physical land we walk on), but ultimately, the natural world is one. To those participating in commons, love of land takes precedence to pride or emotional connection. By taking on this mindset, a clear answer rises to the top.
Where Are You From?
According to Snyder, we’re all from the world. It shouldn’t matter where our houses literally are or which country line we fall within. The natural world serves as a home for all human beings, a place that provides refuge and the necessary tools for survival. Snyder urges his readers to view the world as their home, treating it with the respect and love you would your place and protecting it with the strength and pride you would in your region.
Snyder, Gary. Practice of the Wild with a New Preface by the Author. Counterpoint, 2010.