According to Barry Lopez, “querencia” is a term that “refers to a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn”. La querencia is where one is familiar and comfortable with the sights, sounds and beings around them. For me, this place is rural Vermont. My transition from rainy, green Vermont to the dry, beige desert was shocking. Having never before encountered such an arid and seemingly barren environment, I could hardly understand how anyone could call such a place “home.” Since my initial arrival to the desert, I have learned to love the towering canyon walls, the smell of sage and the rainbow of the desert: brown, purple, red, orange, tan and yellow. I have begun to understand, and even admire, those who reside here. For many of these people, this land is sacred. Over the past few days we have had the opportunity to spend time with some of these people whose ancestors have been living on the Colorado Plateau for thousands of years.
During our visit to the Navajo reservation, we spent time with the Begay family. Here, the grassy hills shape the landscape with ponderosa pines dotting the fields. In the morning, sheep can be seen rushing into the valley, trailed by energetic sheep dogs. To Richard Begay, this place has always been home. Though it may have been easier for them to pick up and leave, Richard’s parents suffered through poverty and discrimination in order to remain on this sacred land and raise their children. For Richard, his extensive knowledge of the plants, animals and geology of the region allow him to feel a greater connection with the land. Richard states; “because I know this place, I can survive here.”
During our last night on the Navajo reservation, Richard organized a cookout and invited his nieces and nephews to join us. After enjoying our meal together, we all settled around a campfire and talked. I was struck by the way in which Rachel Begay, Richard’s niece, spoke about her attachment to the land. Though many young Navajo go to school off of the reservation and end up moving away permanently, Rachel feels as though she “just can’t leave.” Her connection to the land is too strong. Rachel’s brother, Dylan, recognized that Navajo “tradition is based around the land.” To the Begay family, as well as many other members of the Navajo tribe, the land is far more than a resource. It is what sustains them, physically and spiritually. The land on which they live is their querencia.
From the Navajo reservation, we traveled west to spend time with someone whose ancestors have been living on the Colorado Plateau even longer than those of the Navajo. Dorothy Denet is a member of the Hopi tribe and continues to live on the reservation. In Hopi culture, this land is considered their “promised land: a place where there is not too much green, where it is not too comfortable: a land that [they] would find barren, and where, to survive, [they] would be able to develop [their] strengths and [their] souls,” (Hopi writer, Michael Kabotie). Though there is not too much green on the Hopi reservation, Dorothy has a small piece of what little green exists. As we approached Dorothy’s gardens I felt as though we were entering into a hidden desert oasis. Fruit trees, a tent, tables and chairs scatter the landscape.
Though she is 78 years old, Dorothy continues to visit her gardens once a week – pulling weeds, planting seeds and harvesting organic fruits and vegetables. Dorothy claims that when she is working in the garden she can “almost hear the women and children” who once gardened the same plots of land that she now works in. These women and children that Dorothy hears may well be her own ancestors, since many of them have historically occupied the land. In fact, Dorothy’s father was born in a small house, a couple hundred feet above Dorothy’s gardens. Dorothy has deep roots on the Hopi reservation. When speaking of the Hopi people, she states, “I know that this is where we were meant to be, and this is where we will stay.” When I asked her if this land felt like her querencia, Dorothy responded “yes” without a second of hesitation.
As we have visited with the Navajo and Hopi we have learned about the many ways in which their sacred lands have been taken from them. The logging, mining, poisoning, stealing and selling of these sacred places has had significant negative impacts on Navajo and Hopi cultures. The spiritual and physical health of many Native Americans has been degraded by these exploitive practices. Despite the long history of natural degradation on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, tribe members continue to love and care for their sacred lands.
Perhaps the answer to our environmental crisis is for each of us to develop a sense of place that is as strong as that of the Navajo and Hopi. If everyone took the time to truly get to know a landscape, I predict that we would all begin to feel a deep love for these places. With this love would come a sense of responsibility to care for and protect the land. Perhaps we would all be so busy caring for our own sacred places that we would not have the desire to exploit those that do not belong to us. So let us stop pulling up the roots of others and, instead, plant our own.