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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Sound, Language, Community and Place

    Nancy Menning and Mary Hufford both spoke to the cultural sustainability symposium in Craftsbury Common, Vermont last August about the relation between language, place, and community. Conversational narratives enact a collective commitment to the land and its inhabitants. Putting this into my frame of reference, I’d want to add that the medium of story is sound (even in so-called silent reading, a story is sounded in the mind’s ear). And sound draws beings into co-presence.
    Both Menning and Hufford are working on civic engagement projects exploring place-knowledge and land commitments. Menning is a professor of religious studies at Ithaca College in New York. Her project is located in the state’s Finger Lakes Region. She explained that she planned to engage the public with a project involving blogging, mapping, and storytelling that would explore the history of the landscape and weave personal narratives into the spirit of the place, especially as informed by the religious imagination. For Menning, the religious imagination here does not represent religious doctrine, but rather a spiritual inclination that becomes a humanities resource and includes multiple ways of conceiving of relationships among beings and the land: those of the Native Americans that inhabited the region, the revivalists in the burned-over district, Mormons, and contemporary spiritual practices of many kinds, some no doubt to be discovered in that place. At the conference, Menning referenced a book by Deborah Tall, From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place, in which Tall found her bearings and made a home in the Finger Lakes Region through the interactions of her personal story with the larger, spiritual narratives of that place that were inscribed there over time. In that sense, for Menning, cultural sustainability is about imagining and building a home and feeling at home in a particular place and community. She showed intriguing pages from a website that she is building to house this project. To date I haven’t been able to find it on the Internet, and I am uncertain if it has gone live yet; but when I do find it, I will post a link here.
    Menning’s insight itself forms a part of a larger narrative about topophilia, or love of place, which becomes a cultural imaginary. The first time I encountered this concept was in 1974, in Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Topophila. Tuan, a cultural geographer, drew on his experiences of Chinese and Euro-American love of place, and in that book he mapped the territory, so to speak, for spiritual attachments to place, spirit being broadly conceived in all its possible meanings. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is plain that topophilia figures prominently: for the “promised land,” for the land of Canaan, and indeed for God’s creation itself (not merely the land but all its creatures). Tuan shows how topophilia animates other spiritual traditions as well as secular ones. I have written about topophilia myself from time to time, particularly in terms of the way sound binds people to places and to one another. For me, the exemplary moment of topophilia occurs in an old-time string band jam session when a fiddle tune is played and either before or afterward a story is told about the tune (which often evokes a particular geographic location by name, and a reference to a story surrounding it) and the generations of fiddlers who have played it.
    Hufford’s presentation is part of her ongoing project in understanding, valuing, and utilizing local knowledge of the land and natural environment in partnering with local groups to formulate a land stewardship strategy for particular places. She did much of her research in eastern forest areas, where she has examined such local uses of the land as ginseng and mushroom hunting, fox hunting and hound training, and the health of forests in the southern Appalachian mountains. This local knowledge is manifestly not the same as the “expert” knowledge of the forest conservationists, often working for the corporations or the government, who guide land and resource policy, usually taking into account the interests of those persons and corporations engaged in extracting coal, timber, and other resources from the land and region. Often the local and expert knowledge is at odds; but inevitably the government exercises its power to regulate land use through law, sometimes at the expense of traditional, local interactions with the land and environment. It is a fraught issue, and it has a history going back, in the United States, to the days in the 19th century when the government began enacting laws restricting hunting in the name of conservation. One result was that locals who hunted game chiefly to feed their families became poachers and outlaws when hunting out of season. James Fenimore Cooper was one of the first Americans to write about this (in his Leatherstocking Tales).
    Hufford’s presentation began with Aldo Leopold’s statement (introducing his A Sand County Almanac) that we habitually view land as a commodity, whereas we should view it instead as a community. She went on to ask how do people come to know land as a community? This is a question similar to the one I have been asking in my work with Thoreau's writings, namely, how does one come to respect the natural world and enter into a relationship with it of stewardship instead of ownership? Hufford’s talk tacked between the high theory of Bakhtin, Dewey, and Merleau-Ponty, and the vernacular conversations among rural inhabitants about the land they’re intimately acquainted with, as a way of explicating a dialogical relationship between humans and the land. Hufford finds in common conversational metaphors, such as “robbing the land,” the idea that the land itself has rights of possession in the sense that its inhabitants belong to the land.
    She went on to link this idea to Bakhtin’s notion of dialogic communication (something that has been important for me in my ethnographic work ever since Dennis Tedlock introduced it to me in the late 1970s), and to Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “common ground” (no pun intended) in dialogue, a relationship of reciprocity. This is similar to the concept of co-presence, Erving Goffman’s formulation from the 1950s, which I’ve been updating and working with in my recent public lectures and publications—particularly in the context of sound and its ability to enact co-presence. I also see a link to my earlier work in the way sound sacralizes space, especially uncommon sound (song, chant, and shifts from speech to one or the other). Hufford points out that this “communication” also exists in the land itself, in the soil, as organisms cooperate with one another; and she suggests (along with Merleau-Ponty) that this cooperation, both in the soil and in human conversation, creates a “third party” and brings “self and other into an identity-completing relationship.”
    Hufford describes the discourse of conservation experts in policy planning as top-down and monologic, whereas the discourse of local knowledge expressed in conversation among inhabitants of the land is dialogical, invoking community through place-names and ancestors. One person told her, “I don’t know where Williams come from, but I know where their grandma come from, cause she was my grandpa’s sister. Her name was Pliney. I’ve got a hollow up there that’s named for her: Pline’s Hollow.”
    As I wrote above, this kind of thing happens when a fiddler begins or ends a performance of a fiddle tune at a jam by saying something like, “That came from Shade Slone, who brought it back from Pike County," then names the tune: "The Brushy Fork of John’s Creek.” Then  another musician adds that this place marked the last battle of the Civil War in Kentucky, and references the oral tradition that the tune commemorated the battle and the war dead. Even though the musicians already know this, it must be enacted through conversation to animate for that moment of performance the links between the tune, its name, persons, places, events, and names on the land. Without those dialogical associations, the tune is just a series of sounds; with them, the tune invokes family (some in the region are named Slone and descend from Shade [nickname for Shadrack] Slone), place, and binds all in a community of musicians to land and family in that space. Hufford links these dialogues phenomenologically to organs of perception, sensation and embodiment, the living bodies of humans and the natural world. The monological pronouncements of the corporate state deny human being to those who know the land and the natural world in that region through hands-on experience. As one remarked, “A. T. Massey [the coal mining corporation] came in here and said, ‘You don’t exist.’” But Hufford insists that not only do those who inhabit the land exist, the land solicits the inhabitants’ attention and arouses their conversations about it, the kind of participatory dialogue that characterizes grass-roots democracy.
    It’s not entirely surprising how much Hufford’s work has in common with my own, although my emphasis is in music and sound as a bridge to community and the natural world, while her bridges involve dialogue and material culture with community and place. I’ve valued and learned from her work for more than two decades. Back in the late 1980s when she was working at the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress, and before I knew about her research, she took me aside to ask me about mine into the Appalachian forest ecology and economy that I’d been doing in connection with the Powerhouse for God project, which I had been presenting at conferences since the late 1970s and which in 1988 I finally published as chapter 2 of the Powerhouse book. I had titled that chapter “Land and Life,” with apologies to the cultural geographer Carl Sauer, who with Yi-Fu Tuan had strongly influenced my approach to the connections between the two; another debt, my idea that “husbandry” unified the realms of farming, family, and worldview, was the partly the result of my reading Wendell Berry’s fiction and essays about his home place in Henry County, Kentucky. Probably Hufford also was aware of the research of Chuck and Nan Perdue into the same forest area in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge, in connection with the population removals that took place in the 1920s to form the Shenandoah National Park.
    In the early 1990s, Hufford asked me to write an entry on this work in cultural geography and human ecology in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, for a section that she was editing; and she also asked me whether the people I’d gotten to know in Appalachia had observed a decline in forest health. In truth, by the mid-1970s when I began that research, most of the Powerhouse people were no longer living off the land, and the minority who were, were farmers of a more modern sort, no longer living in the mountains. A few still hunted but, as I recall, their discourse about the good old days when they were growing up on mountain farms expressed general nostalgia, not stories of specific incidents showing forest decline. That decline had occurred fairly abruptly from about 1890-1910, when the combination of commercial timber cutting and the chestnut blight had made it no longer possible for the mountain farm economy to continue utilizing forest resources, particularly summer pasture and chestnuts for their pigs. The final blow was the Shenandoah Park removals, in which much of that population of mountain farmers were thrown off their land, by the federal government, against their will, to make room for the Park. They were resettled in modern tract homes, where they languished. My research into land and life in that chapter was chiefly historical. Hufford was interested in what she, along with forest activist John Flynn, was calling “the falling forest”: an increase in the number of trees falling to the forest floor as a result of ecosystem changes and declining forest health. I did not have much information for her.
    But if the Powerhouse people were no longer living close to the land, many in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky were. For the Old Regular Baptists of that region, whom I began getting to know in 1990 when I started teaching at Berea College, a couple of hours by car to the west, the mountains remained a resource for hunting and gathering, as well as a kind of spiritual resource. They expressed a strong topophilia for the area, saying that the land (and their singing) had a “drawing power” that caused many of them to stay, despite worsening economic conditions; and to return later in life, if they had migrated out in order to earn more money for their families. They spoke often about the ways the sounds of their singing echoed in the coal mines, and up and down the hills and hollows of the mountains. I tape recorded many of these statements about sound and the land (and the built environment), and some were published on the two CDs that I produced of Old Regular Baptist singing, for Smithsonian Folkways, in 1997 and 2003. It is unusual to include such spoken statements in the grooves of music albums; but these were a kind of testimony to sound and its meaning, and were so important to them (and so strikingly articulate) that I was compelled to add them to the music. Here, for instance, is a statement about affecting sound and the natural world, from Charles Shepherd: “One time when I was about six years old we had a meeting at a cemetery and, hearing these songs ever since I’ve been born, we was setting up in a cemetery, and I heard my daddy singing “Amazing Grace.” I never heard a more beautiful sound in my life. Seemed like the trees was just carrying that sound up and down the valleys, and it did something to my heart.”    
Cemetery, s.e. KY. Photo by Jeff Titon. Creative Commons License
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     I did speak to Hufford in the early 1990s about the Lilley Cornett Woods, which I'd learned about while visiting with the Old Regulars. This is the only old-growth, original growth forest in the state of Kentucky; and currently it is managed for sustainability by the University of Kentucky. It was set aside in the 1920s by Lilley Cornett, an eccentric and cantankerous mountain man who lived in the same part of southeastern Kentucky as the Old Regulars that I visited. Cornett stubbornly refused to sell the timber or mining rights to his land, as everyone else was doing, to the corporations who were coming in and paying good money for the privilege of damaging the mountain ecosystem. I’ve mentioned Mr. Cornett and his Woods in this blog before, saying that they deserve a separate entry; and they do. I will get to it in due course. It is not a stretch to link the Lilley Cornett Woods to our cultural sustainability symposium’s field trip, to the farm and woods of a former dairyman who had decided only the year before that dairy farming as he was practicing it was unsustainable. As the last scheduled event of the symposium, we heard him talk about this and explain his circumstances and his reasoning as we walked over what once had been his farm's cow pasture. Soon we were in the farm's woods. Now the conversation was led by a local forester who was helping the farmer manage his land and whose passion turned out to be for Thoreau. More about this soon.