In parts of rural Britain, sheep are said to be “hefted to the land.” After hundreds of years of being herded on common land, the sheep have learned their place. Hefted ewes pass on to their lambs the knowledge of boundaries, choice grazing sites, sheltered folds, the round of seasonal return to their farm for hoof-care or birthing. Hefted beings understand the riches and the difficulties of the intricate system of life which they inhabit. It’s not an intellectual idea, but a knowing carried in the body.
When I first came to the Kootenays, I was struck by a kind of at-home-ness, a deep calm, in some of the people I met. I wanted that. I thought that moving out of the city would do it, but as anyone could have told me, it’s way more than that. It has to do with making compost; it has to do with following deer trails; it has to do with waking in half-light to the dawn chorus. It’s about the breath in your lungs as you climb to the alpine; it’s about standing in silence before a boulder hung with moss. Most of all, it’s about letting the land own you, letting yourself become hefted.
We humans don’t heft to the land much these days. Of all the creatures, we are the least likely to know the swales where the only this plant grows, the places to shelter in the landscape, the sheer feel of space. Instead, we domesticate, which is sometimes another word for hiding.
I don’t want to knock homes! Every being needs a place of shelter, a nest, a safe space. But as we prepare—consciously or unconsciously—for whatever is coming next, there’s a temptation to move more deeply into protected space, be it physical space (cut all the trees!) or mental space (avoid all those idiots!).
The hemlock and black bear and flickers and wild ginger with whom we live and breathe have no such option. They’re hefted. A certain bear or flicker may expand their range; a stand of hemlock and wild ginger may shrink theirs. But they live or die as the land lives and dies, while we Western humans seem to think we’ve got other options.
Maybe we do; I don’t pretend to know all the technological fixes possible. What I do know, however, is that true solutions to our current dilemma require us to step more deeply into life, rather than step out of it.
It’s time to start paying exquisite attention to what’s here. See if you can do it without cataloging your likes and dislikes! Then the corner where Queen’s Cup blooms, that neon orange fungus, the sound of kids yelling, these dying birches, the iridescence of a stink bug, those motorcycles racing, that clunk of creek rocks, this glimpse of an aging hand, these letters about dogs and vaccines—maybe you’ll see these as expressions of the beautiful, difficult, intricate system in which we live. As a cause for gratitude. As a reason to cherish—to heft to—this lovely, messy world.