At a time when we are all confined to our homes, the question arises of what gives a place, home or abroad, its ‘draw’? This was the topic of conversation between Mary and I as we set out on our virtual walk from Walberswick to Blythburgh. We were linked via facetime and shared Google maps and were able to complete the journey from the comfort our respective studies. Anyone who feels somehow more grounded or secure in this or that town or house or farm, or even a particular hostelry, can understand the powerful and seemingly irrational pull of place. Equally, our ancient nomadic origins seem still imprinted in our DNA and the seasonal instinct to strike out for green pastures calls many of us to the road, particularly in spring. This then is the bi-metallic strip that tick-tocks between the urge to roam and the pull of home.
Over the years, Mary has walked from Canterbury to Rome, across Sicily and along many of the routes to Santiago, sometimes travelling alone on foot for weeks on end. She is a truly intrepid individual but tells me that despite the continuing urge to go on pilgrimage, once she is on the road, each hour is pricked by the desire to see the smoke rising from her home hearth.
This sentiment, also expressed by Homer, is inevitably a subject for academic inquiry. Professor Hendrik Viviers of the University of Johannesburg confirms that the handily termed ‘psychology of place attachment’ (PPA thereafter) between person and a specific place, has been with us since earliest times and that “A material place is not only shaped physically and psychologically/spiritually by its inhabitants, but it in turn also shapes them.” Apparently this is something that humans share with other animals. If we know a place well and in effect defend it through occupation and shaping, we improve our chances of survival. The theory of PPA also suggests that humans go further, and that as we vest a place with significance the bond becomes emotional as well as material. The concept of ‘land of my ancestors’ makes the boundary between our sense of identity and sense of belonging yet more fluid with ‘place and self’ merging into one.
Not only has this phenomenon shaped how and where we live but it has informed the evolution of organised religion and not least the practice of pilgrimage. By vesting certain places, for example Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Prayagraj with our sense of origin, or spiritual home, we are inevitably drawn to them and willing to expend considerable energy and emotion to journey there. The sense of family, or community many pilgrims experience when they reach their destination is well documented, and in particular, many of the personal accounts recorded by the British Museum’s Hajj Project speak of the joy of being part of a greater humanity.
The virtual pilgrimage with Mary was the highlight of a week in which we were all confined to our homes, like it or no. However, one of the great joys of this lockdown has been to see, in the background of endless conference calls, the homes of colleagues. People we would normally only encounter ‘out on the road’ are now people we encounter at home and this has brought a more personal dimension to otherwise formal interactions. Perhaps through these encounters we can imagine ourselves to be in that shared home-space found at great pilgrimage sites, and in so doing experience the joy and solace of being part of a greater humanity.
Victoria Preston is the author of We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves – published by Hurst April 9th