Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2011) wonders if we have become so accustomed in a visual culture to encountering environment through books, film, photographs, and so on, that we are “inclined to forget that the environment is, in the first place, a world we live in, and not a world we look at.” (95) This clip from my conversation with Shirley demonstrates that, while we might not always be consciously thinking of how we live in an environment, we are intimately aware of its presence as a force in our lives. Shirley recognizes that the environments of Manitoba and Ireland both require particular responses. Mosquitoes in Manitoba are combated with bug spray, harsh winters in the prairies are battled with layers, and constant rain is faced with a good rain coat. We cannot become completely unaware of the environment as “a world we live in” because we have to change our behaviour in order to move through it (as Shirley explains, “You just have to. […] If you don’t, like, okay, lay down and die.”)
These everyday responses to our environment and regular movements through place build a familiarity with a landscape and its elements. Shirley’s discussion gestures to the process of dealing with the emotions of migration related to old and new environments. Identity and feelings of belonging are connected to the ways in which we respond to the landscapes and weathers we find ourselves inhabiting.
Photo: Manitoba. Courtesy of Suzie Fisher.
The relationship Brian has to water is deeply connected to emotion. He found considerable significance in being able to be close to the water of Lake Winnipeg because “it’s almost like being at the sea.” At another point in our conversation, he spoke of a friend in Winnipeg who was going through an extremely difficult time. They would walk together to the Red River, stroll along the bank, and grab an ice cream on their way back. He explained that this experience of seeking out the water together was healing in many ways, and contributed to the strengthening of their friendship.
Christopher Tilley (1994), archeologist and theorist, suggests that landscape is conceptually shaped by the actions people take within it and, alternatively, our activities are shaped by the landscape we inhabit. We move through places in a certain way because of the characteristics of the land and as we seek out particular spaces for particular goals (searching out the water for peace of mind, for example) they become invested with meaning.
Tilley argues that “The human experience of encountering a new place or knowing how to act or go on in a familiar place is intimately bound up with previous experiences. Places are always ‘read’ or understood in relation to others.” (27) As Brian explains here, he has drawn on his knowledge and experience of the ocean to make sense of the vast open spaces of the prairies. He was not the only interviewee to make this comparison between the flat stretches of the prairies and the expanse of the ocean, which further demonstrates Tilley’s point. The kinds of parallels interviewees draw between the two landscapes (or, in this case, the landscape and seascape) shows how changes of space are processed and incorporated into individual’s environmental repertoire.
Brian’s comments show how environment comes to play an important role in biography and in migration. Certain kinds of places and environmental characteristics took on meaning because of the role they had played throughout his life.
Photo: The Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare.
In this story, Greg’s first experience of Winnipeg is characterized by the feeling of being in a completely unfamiliar environment. The wind, smells, sights, and sounds made him feel uncomfortably out of place. Geographer Paul Rodaway (1994) notes how inter-related senses provide information about the world around us and mediate our experience of a place. Our bodies orient us, mediating between us and the environment we inhabit.
At other points in the interview, Greg spoke in detail about his childhood memories of Belfast, navigating the streets, attempting to avoid getting into trouble (not always successfully), and bonding with friends. Urban theorists Alvin K. Lukashock and Kevin Lynch (1956) were some of the first scholars to draw attention to children’s experiences of cities and the kinds of emotional connections that are forged between an individual and a place through their childhood interactions with their environment.
In both his book, Through the Eyes of a Belfast Child: Life. Personal Reflections. Poems (2014), and our conversation, Greg expressed a deep love for his childhood home and the landscape and environment of Ireland. The stark contrast of Winnipeg’s environment strongly contributed to his emotional disconnection from the prairie city.
Photo: Just outside Belfast.
In our second interview, I asked Joe and Mary what feels most like home to them. Joe responded that he feels a certain sense of proprietorship in Ireland and feels comfortable there in his interactions with the locals and navigating the societal and cultural ways. He explains that Canada, on the other hand, is home because of friends and family and the place itself has come to feel familiar over time. Mary’s response, featured in this clip, is fairly similar, particularly in the emotional connection she feels with Ireland and the freedom she experienced when moving around Dublin.
Her moving description of preparing to leave Ireland after her visit and looking over the Dublin Mountains illustrates an idea expressed by many geographers: that landscapes are tied to identities and emotionally charged memories. In addition, her discussion of the places she visited in Dublin and how she made her way around the city fits with social anthropologist Tim Ingold’s (2011) concept of place. Ingold argues that human lives unfold along paths. Using the metaphor of a trail of thread, he explains that as people move, they leave a trail. The spaces they pass through regularly and meet with others become knots and these knots become places of significance which bind people in some way. Mary’s choice of words, her description of her connection to Ireland as a “string,” is particularly fitting then, as it conveys a sense of an attachment that spans an ocean, a thread that connects the knots of Manitoba and Ireland.
Photo: O’Connell Bridge, Dublin.
Eileen’s compelling comparison of her relationship to Ireland and Canada with that of her husband illustrates how people forge and maintain different emotional ties in the process of migration. Her description of her gradual adjustment and growing affection for the host country and Ralph’s continued longing for and attachment to the homeland are framed by activities that both stimulate and express these varied emotions.
In this clip, Eileen mentions that “I guess there’s no place that fills [Ralph] like the way Ireland does.” Visits to Ireland are homecoming experiences for Ralph, more than for Eileen. Migration scholar Paul Basu (2007) examines the Scottish diaspora and is interested in how roots-tourists dwell on and travel in places connected to their heritage. He explains that within diasporic cultures there is a persistent sense of displacement and trips taken to the homeland enable people to “reterritorialize their identity, become more bound by place, develop more authentic sense of continuity with their ancestral past, and recover a degree of cultural distinctiveness.” (28) Being in a space can connect us to a sense of self and a past; it can fill us.
Using a phenomenological approach (the study of experience and consciousness), environmental scholar Mick Smith and his colleagues (2009) argue that the world we experience is not an abstract and vacant space, but a “lived world perceived and produced through our emotionally laden activities.” (11) In this case, visits to Ireland, painting, and driving become emotionally laden when they are connected to a sense of home. Migration intensifies these feelings as ideas of where home is located are challenged and shift over time. Distances, borders, and landscapes are felt, and the places that fill us become central to how we understand and identify ourselves.
Photo: Just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba.