Recognizing Land Trauma

Is there space in outdoor travel to grapple with our ancestral connection -- and disconnection -- with land?

By: Amanda E. Machado + Save to a List

“I sat once in a graduate writing workshop on relationships to the land. The students all demonstrated a deep respect and affection for nature. They said that nature was the place where they experienced the greatest sense of belonging and well being. They professed without reservation that they loved the earth. And then I asked them: 

'Do you think that the earth loves you back?' 

No one was willing to answer that.”

-Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass 

***

When I was twenty-four years old, I spent more than a month backpacking around my father’s country of Ecuador. On one of my last days before crossing the border into Peru, I visited the ancient ruins of Pumopungo in Cuenca. As I strolled through the lawn alone, overlooking the foggy hills surrounding the city, a feeling enveloped me so intensely that I suddenly started to cry. I had no name for this feeling at the time, but it felt something close to grief, and also indignation: something in my body did not want to leave. 

As I stood there alone, the feeling kept getting bigger and bigger, growing to an extent that made me feel embarrassed.  

Why am I feeling this so intensely? I’ll be back here someday. What’s the problem? 

After writing my last piece for the Outbound Collective on my own difficulties with “homeland,” Mat -- a friend and fellow writer -- reached out and told me they had just created a new online course called Intro to Land Trauma. I had never heard the term “Land Trauma” before, but it instantly resonated, as if I had needed that phrase my whole life. Mat defines land trauma like this: 

“A severed connection from the land that nurtured a person and/or their ancestors; the lost messages and ways of living communicated by the earth to indigenous peoples, especially due to histories of, and current, systemic oppression; and the physical trauma inflicted by humans onto the land.”

Like me, Mat is a child of immigrant parents who also spent much of their twenties traveling from place to place. Throughout our respective adventures, we grappled with a similar discomfort: a tension between the consumption-oriented ways we had been conditioned to travel (i.e., checking off the Lonely Planet bucket-list), and the much deeper, ancestral feelings we both experienced as descendants of immigrants now free to travel out of want, rather than need. 

During that moment in Ecuador, my life had not yet made space or language for these kinds of feelings. Mourning my sense of disconnection from a place I could easily hop on a plane to return to -- and calling this kind of disconnection “trauma” -- would have felt utterly ridiculous. 

But as I wrote in my last piece, I’m starting to realize that all of this is intentional: under an extractive, hyper-capitalist, and colonialist system, it is detrimental for people to feel any kind of connection with land, or to notice the subtle change in their bodies that occurs when the memory of that connection resurfaces, even briefly, again. 

In the United States, the call to deepen our connection with land has often been popularized through mostly white “back to the land” movements, and through the growing psychological arena of “climate grief.” But as Indigenous scholars and psychologists have pointed out, reckoning with our land trauma requires a more expansive kind of reflection. This work asks that we discover where our individual feelings of disconnectedness intersect with immigration, colonization, capitalism, and ancestral heritage. It calls us to acknowledge, as Mat put it, that “this country's creation stories are based in conquest and erasing the history of the land and the people who've lived here.” And, perhaps healing this history begins with asking the question Kimmerer poses in her book:  

Do you think that the earth loves you back? 

Mat tells me much of the inspiration for their course also came from reading Braiding Sweetgrass, specifically the essay “Epiphany in the Beans,” where that question is posed. 

“I remember physically GASPING, while I read that essay, because I was flooded with my own memories of feeling the unconditional love from the land: I'd been going outside, running, bicycling, since I was young; I'd played in the backyard with my brothers, I'd tossed "helicopters" in the air and marveled at green inchworms hanging on invisible threads in the air,” they tell me, “And when I bicycled over a hundred miles across Wyoming, and I ended up in the middle of a desert and camped on the side of the road, that night, everything I needed to sustain myself came from the earth.” 

After reading “Epiphany in the Beans,” Mat then came to an epiphany of their own: 

“Everything that we consider to be loving behaviors are things that the earth does for us. From that realization, I felt like I had a new frame for my entire relationship to the land.” 

When I think back now on my twenty-four year old self, confused and crying near the foggy hills of Cuenca, maybe I could describe that feeling as my body noticing--for perhaps the first time--its own ancestral connection to land. My body felt nurtured and held, and something I didn’t quite understand was being healed. In other words, maybe my body was recognizing the earth loving me back. 

To be clear, I don’t want to over-romanticize the “return to the homeland” narrative. I’ve written before about moments in which Ecuador actually did not feel like home at all, but instead made me more concretely aware of my own, separate, cultural Americanness. 

What happened in Cuenca was not an encounter with the cultural context of my homeland, but with the land itself. It was the land in Ecuador that I felt most strongly connected to; it was those moments while hiking through it that I felt most at home. The grief-like feeling I felt, then, was not simply the grief of leaving a cultural homeland, or the fear of never coming back. It was the grief of disconnecting with land, land that, for the first time, I had begun to build a relationship with. 

After realizing we both seemed to be traveling along this serendipitous, parallel journey, I agreed to collaborate with Mat on the last section of their course. (Full disclosure: as a collaborator, I’m receiving 10% of any earnings from registrations). In the meantime, I’m trying to reflect more on all the feelings provoked by land that I may have previously disregarded. 

Mat recently heard a recent talk by Buddhist activist Lama Rod Owens where he argues that part of what makes it so hard for many people to feel the climate crisis is their lack of connection with their own bodies. 

“Our bodies are the earth. We can't actually address the climate crisis unless we're willing to FEEL what the land is saying to us,” Mat tells me, “And we can't actually heal our earth unless we're willing to heal our bodies. And that has everything to do with trauma and migration and indigenous genocide.” 

A big part of learning in my thirties has been about listening to my body in those rare moments it allows itself to feel something that wholeheartedly. That moment in Ecuador felt that way, and when I’m truly present, so many other moments in nature feel that way too. Maybe exploring land trauma is about exploring that kind of presence, taking it seriously, and finally traveling on land in a way that brings me closer to my ancestors, rather than farther away.

Cover photo: Patrick Hendry

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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