No room for displacement: the language of moving

Cardboard box with picture of house on it

They say that moving is one of the most stressful things you can do. It’s up there, in the research, after bereavement and divorce, as one of the great life-events that shake your world. The articles list the sources of stress with empathic relish: the buying and selling of houses, the packing of boxes, the misplaced possessions, the domestic disorder that stretches into months, even years … The way we describe and frame this experience says a lot about our priorities and concerns in twenty-first century Britain.

My move last year from London to the West Country got me
thinking about the language of moving and what it reveals, often through omission, about our relation to place. Its vocabulary demonstrates an overarching concern for the concrete, the financial, the organisation of possessions, the paramount importance of our (dis)comfort and (in)convenience.

Yet it omits the fundamental process of dis-placement and re-rooting that moving involves, how our surroundings imprint in us mental images of place that endure long beyond their physical presence, the way that geography and environment shape our daily routines. The dominant discourse about moving betrays a partial, atomistic way of looking at what is an important rite of passage in our relation to place – the ending of a relationship with one place, and the slow process of forging a new relationship with another.

Born in London but having grown up in a Gloucestershire village, I am topographically schizophrenic. The choices of my adult life represent an attempt to bring some sort of resolution to these two formative places. For almost a decade, I found a compromise in Crystal Palace, the Janus-faced hill-suburb that looks to the centre of London one way, the green of southern England the other. Its garden, bordering allotments and neighbouring gardens, was a haven for local wildlife.

My cottage in Bradford on Avon at the southernmost tip of the Cotswolds close to the Gloucestershire border represents a reversal of my previous compromise: instead of inhabiting a patch of (relative) wild in the city, I now live at the edge of a town set amid hills and fields. But the move to the other side of my topographical self has brought with it an uprooting, a displacing not acknowledged in the dominant discourse, especially not by those of my generation. Social talk about moving tends to focus relentlessly on the positive, with comments on the excitement that a new house and surroundings will bring.

Perhaps not surprisingly, since they come from a time when life was less atomised, it is older people who seem to understand the rupture involved in changing place. My eighty-something godmother enquires solicitously again and again as to how I am feeling: am I settling? Do I feel strange? A psychotherapist friend of similar age elides from talk of gardening to the planting of me:

‘Transplanting us is not so easy,’ she writes. ‘It is full of surprises, however well we prepare for it, and it is by definition unsettling! Everyone seems to experience it differently. When we moved I found myself going through an amazing range of feelings and moods. Our invisible roots need rest and the comfort of familiar, beloved books and music for several weeks before they can begin to find their way into new soil. You must be prepared for that and look after them.’ Psychology, with its focus on relationships between humans, doesn’t pay enough attention to place, she thinks.

I’m coming to think that this absence is part of a broader lack in our language about our relation to place. Standard English has just one word for feelings of longing for a particular place: ‘homesick’. The word implies a polarity: you are at home or away, and suggests the simple solution of going home; it carries no sense of the process of adapting to a new place or of mixed or complex feelings. Other languages of the British Isles do much better at capturing the range of feelings and experiences that make up the human attachment to place.

Welsh has ‘hiraeth’, a word that connotes a yearning for a place that is lost or may not exist, a feeling of longing to be ‘at home’ in the sense of achieving a sense of belonging, of finding your paradise. Its cognate ‘cynefin’ denotes ‘habitat’ or ‘customary abode’; the place which formed you, and with which you are most familiar. In a definition which encompasses cultural, social and geographical influences, Nicholas Sinclair describes it as ‘the place of your birth and of your upbringing, the environment in which you live and to which you are naturally acclimatised.’

The Scottish Gaelic ‘duthchas’ conveys the collective nature of a heritage that connects people to a particular place, historically also the tribal system of land rights accorded to the members of a clan. The fact that the Scottish Gaelic equivalent of homesickness, nostalgia or longing for home, cianalas has given rise to a genre of Gaelic poetry written by emigrees called ‘bàrdachd cianalais’ is perhaps testament to how a profound sense of rootedness finds linguistic expression.

I apologise to speakers of these languages if I’ve mangled the meanings of these terms, untranslatable as they are into Standard English. But my lack of fluency with this kind of language is part of my point: as someone who has always lived somewhere along a horizontal line of southern England, it’s not part of my natural vocabulary. If I want to describe the psycho-spiritual and experiential elements of my relation to place directly, rather than through the more oblique forms of fiction or poetry, I have to have recourse, clumsily, to a vocabulary outside native tongue.

This helps to explain why, despite the conscious choosing of my move westwards, I sometimes awake with an image of a Victorian streets imprinted on my mind, or catch myself wondering whether a particular plant is in bloom in south London. In these moments I’m aware that I haven’t quite hefted, that I’m in the midst of a transition, the in-between time that goes unacknowledged in the dominant discourse about moving. ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now,’ writes A E Housman, in a poem that is generally taken to be about the fleeting nature of human existence. Our culture is very good at talking about our relation to time, especially our varied and conflicting feelings about the past, but neglects the kindred feelings about place. And yet the blossoming cherry tree that Housman’s speaker resolves to see is a particular tree in a particular place: ‘the cherry’ (emphasis added) … ‘stands about the woodland ride’.

And so, as I cross the liminal territory between moving and settling during my first adult year in the West Country, I wonder how particular cherry trees in Crystal Palace are doing. I’m also charting the profess of my newly-planted apple trees which, grafted from local parent-trees and donated by neighbours, are uber-specific to my area. The element now needed to cement my relationship to my new habitat is the seasonal cycles that will bring the familiarity captured by the word ‘cynefin’.

This is an extract from an article published in issue 15 of Earthlines.