In reading through comments in my journal regarding French wine-making and agriculture, I came across the French word, terroir. This word is not etymologically related to our word, terror, but it suddenly struck me that there is a less-than-obvious relationship between these two words, as unrelated as they might normally seem, especially since they're vocabulary in two different languages.
In French terroir is vaguely related to our word “territory,” the closest single-word translation to English being “region.” But in French, the meaning is wider and more complicated than that: it's often applied to agricultural regions, especially in relation to vineyards. It refers to the "tang" of the soil, to rural-ness and to the countryside. There's connection to family history and to tradition. One apt definition I found in Wikipedia is "a sense of place."
It strikes me that in the population of the United States of America, one source of anxiety, fear, terror certainly has to do with loss of terroir, sense of place, contact with the soil and related work. In the early part of the 20th century 95% of the economy was directly or indirectly related to agriculture. (40 percent of the work force in 1940 were farmers.) Nowadays the figure is under five percent. This is not to romanticize the hard work of farming, but simply to point out that at one time in our history our major devotion was to a fundamental aspect of physical reality, namely feeding ourselves.
In bringing up the idea of terroir, most usefully translated as "a sense of place," I'm suggesting that much of our ennui (another French-derived word that means, variously, unhappiness, anxiety, angst, etc) has to do with literally losing touch with reality. After all, we float in what I like to think of as a thin tissue of lies. Our lives are saturated with advertising, which amounts mostly to lies and fantasies about what buying things will do for us. Our government and the corporations who structure our lives lie to us about their intentions. The “American dream,” which we’ve been sold as an ideal for decades is just that, a dream, a fabrication, which nowadays is increasingly impossible for most Americans to attain.
Furthermore, unlike in earlier decades, the hardware and software “tools” that dominate our work and recreation rapidly grow obsolete and must be replaced at relatively short intervals. Any skill we acquire in connection to using those tools needs to be endlessly relearned.
Old buildings, often beautifully built, are torn down and replaced with new ones, more in style with the times. Farmland and woodland morphs into housing developments. Basically, we have no firm ground to stand on. On top of that, whatever news or other information you read on the Internet is of questionable truth. Photos and even video are easily manipulated. We can no longer even count on the climate to remain constant.We live on screens, immersed for hours per day in this virtual world of questionable verity.
Is there any doubt that this constant flux afflicts us with anxiety, ennui, or whatever brand of unhappiness you care to mention? We truly no longer are blessed with a sense of place, since even the places we live change so rapidly that they’re unrecognizable in a few short years. When I first moved to this town of Bellingham thirty-eight years ago, you could drive from one end to the other during rush hour in about ten minutes. There’s not a chance of doing that now.
How do we cope with this groundlessness I’m describing? It affects us in all domains: physical place, work, climate, social custom. Some change is exciting and desirable, but with total absence of firm ground to stand on, how do we know where to go?
One way I've discovered to cope with this loss of a sense of place is to withdraw from such distractions as social networking, many of the internet news sources, and any situation that exposes me to advertising. Stay away from malls, in other words. Limit exposure to the news, especially that of the “mainstream” variety. Gardening is one good way to recover a sense of place. Being outside, preferably on a regular basis in some relatively wild place is another one. Lacking a patch of ground to cultivate a few tomatoes (I once grew them in an alley), I’ve found that there’s great satisfaction and a sense of groundedness that accrues in nurturing vegetables or flowers in pots, either indoors or out.
Oddly enough, I've found a certain reassuring sense of grounding in watching films made in the years before TV was widespread. Some of these films seem laughably quaint, but it's interesting and comforting to see portrayals of life as it was before we became completely lost in a world of electronic gadgetry. It helps that I was born in 1944, so actually lived during a pre micro-elecronic era.
Of course this piece is written from the point of view of someone who mostly grew up as a middle-class citizen of the USA. However, I’ve done enough international traveling, including 3 years of residence in Belgium as a high-school student, to understand that many people who can now read such material on the Internet live in unimaginably different circumstances, perhaps with more “grounded reality”in their lives than they welcome. Still, from my own reading, it’s apparent to me that conditions in most of the world have changed radically enough, often for the worse, that the challenge of coping with loss of firm ground and a sense of place is a challenge for a good proportion of citizens anywhere in the world.