Ethnography of Spirit

Ethnography, used loosely, is a “description of the habits and customs of a people.” In this article, ethnography is described as a visitor  describing things from an insider’s viewpoint: “The ethnographer goes beyond reporting events and details of experience. Specifically, he or she attempts to explain how these represent what we might call “webs of meaning” (Geertz again), the cultural constructions, in which we live.

Ethnographers generate understandings of culture through representation of what we call an emic perspective, or what might be described as the “‘insider’s point of view.” The emphasis in this representation is thus on allowing critical categories and meanings to emerge from the ethnographic encounter rather than imposing these from existing models.”

On this Memorial Day, I think on those who have returned from wars with heaviness in my heart. I appreciate all that they went through as a sacrifice for our country. And although I do not have an insider’s view, I know the warrior culture within our military is very much a strong, necessary force, and that it carries its own set of wounds within its community.

But I know that for me, I never had to leave home to experience a war, a war on a family, a war on me as a human being, a war against my existence, a war on my psyche, a war marked by shame and a force against my becoming who I am. This war raged on for years, and stood as a contrast to the prevailing social mores around family. The customary picture of family is one of togetherness, support, unconditional regard, time spent together as a communal river, washing and moving and  waving and splashing over a bedrock of love. In my family, there was no solid bedrock, only the turbulence of harm caused, of abuse. There was a history of pain upon pain, and holding on together in atavistic impulses to revoke the destruction.

Having my own “ethnographic encounter” with my family of origin requires the perspective of years. Only through living years out of the experience can I do the requisite remodeling to come to my past with curiosity. Any study of one’s self, of becoming aware of why you have developed these struggles or lack thereof, begins in childhood. It begins before one’s own childhood and it most certainly found in the childhoods of one’s parents and grandparents. Then one can begin to create the meaning of these shared experiences, and mine them for their value in your life.

For me, coming firmly from Appalachia on all sides, I widen my spirit beyond the data of how my story and the stories of my family are strung together. To do complete justice to my personal ethnography, I must consider the customs of the environment in which I was raised, and the geography. Appalachia clings to me, a mountain in the background of my mental  pictures, a church with a gravel parking lot on a steep hillside, kudzu crowding the side of a mountain, a rebellious uprising of flowers among stultifying grey rocks. I express a lot about the abuse that has threaded my life, of the themes of personal mining and exploitation, but making meaning is about widening even further beyond that narrow theme of oppressor/oppressed. It is about taking that and setting it among the mountains, those mountains where natural beauty and coal-greed ugliness coexisted and no one even thought about it. Those mountains that at once embraced, gave, nourished, and terrified. “Mountain mama” was real. And she will live, despite the ravagings and cripplings at the hands of lesser men.

The existing model of Appalachia, in my mind, is one of exploitation and colonization. The existing models of my family contains those of personal greed and lack of remorse, mirroring the plundering of the mountains and its people. For me, the new model involves how “place” never quite leaves you, how the qualities of Appalachia are embedded in turns of my phrases, how I view people, how I respond to life, how I set up my relationships. It recently occurred to me that this is absolutely where I am from. I had focused on where I had moved, the places I’d lived, not considering that the propensity to adapt to place is a strength of character prevalent in Appalachia. Trauma had taken away my sense of home. Yet Appalachia was in me, whatever that meant, and that is my home, my place to be “from”.

If you look at Appalachia, or my family, you will also see the make-do spiritedness set among the openness to being plundered. I swear, it is the giving nature of this land and its people that causes trouble. There are two kinds of people that exist in this world in varying degrees, but they come together in stark contrast in Appalachia. Those people are at heart those who give and those who take. Living so attuned to a mountain and its people gives you a sense of abundance, and that abundance is freely shared. Take away that abundance, and you cripple a people’s natural pleasure in sharing and giving. You break them down just a little.

Then the narrative of overcoming can emerge. This is the meaning, for me, to take the grace of these mountains, their ever-imposing benevolence, there unassuming generosity, and use that part of myself to face the takers and put them in context. The parts of me that were exploited, and mined, and broken, can be healed through this grace, through this understanding that I am more than a string of hurtful incidents. I am more than a taker’s depersonalization.

I am the strength of the mother mountain.

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