Heather McIlvaine-Newsad -- September 25
6:48 pm
Mon September 24, 2012

My Cousin Steve & The Importance of Place

My cousin Steve died earlier this month. He is the first of the cousins to pass, and although we haven’t seen each other in a really long time, he taught me a valuable lesson as he came to terms with a future we all face. His older brother Keim and I see each other more often, the last time being just a week or so before Steve died. 

Keim had just returned from visiting Steve. It was a good visit. And although I wasn’t there, I am sure that they talked about all the adventures they had together as boys on the farm. Our farm is nestled in the hills in southern Ohio and has been in our family for seven generations. All of the cousins, regardless of whether they grew up nearby or not, spent time as children wandering through the woods, playing in the creek, and helping my dad. Although I was just a little girl when they were teenagers, I remember the older cousins – Keim, Steve, and Chuck - sitting around the kitchen table after long, hot days baling hay sharing dinner mom and Grandma Mildred had cooked.

I think that Steve must have remembered this too, because as Keim was ready to fly back to Ohio he received a phone call from his brother asking him to help him go home to the farm to die. As Keim told me about this and the helpful conversations that followed with my folks about this possibility I cried. I cried in the car on the way back to Macomb, and I cried while writing this. After I finished crying I realized that Steve had words of wisdom for all of us about the importance of place.

I have always known that the place where I was born and raised was special. But I don’t think until now I really realized what it is that makes it so special. There are amazing views as the sun rises over the hills and the fog lifts off the fields. There are also memories of going to the slate banks in the creek near our house and being dumbfounded at how they rise to heights above the tree line.

My brother Chad and I recently shared these very wonders with our own children. And then are the countless Thanksgiving dinners where the dining room table is so big that there is barely any room to walk in order to accommodate the generations of McIlvaines sitting down to share a meal.

For me, the common thread that ties all of this together is that in this particular landscape there is a group of the people who claim me as one of their own.   

Essayist Scott Russell Sanders writes, "In belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, an at-homeness, a knitting of self and world. This condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christian contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down.” This is the importance of place.

I live in a new place now. And I feel at home here too. Last week I watched my freshmen come to life as they helped WIU preschoolers plant radishes in the new teaching garden on campus. My hope for this garden is that the act of being outside, digging in the dirt, planting things and being with people who are not family will lead to the creation of a new community and a new place that can be called home. As we returned to the classroom my students asked if they could work with “their little people” outside in the garden every week. I said yes. The garden is teaching more than how to grow things. It is teaching responsibility. As Gary Snyder said, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”

To my cousin Steve, thanks for your insight. Catch you later.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a Professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of WIU or Tri States Public Radio.