Sunday, September 11, 2011

Territories, Boundaries, Marks

The walk today
There's a game you can play in which you move through a word from its Latin root to its Latin-derived French cognate to its Anglo-Teutonic root. So: exit, portal, door.  You could do this for a long time with many words if you're sitting around in total goofy love without kids.  In the quiet of the morning walk created by Sawyer, the game came back to me when I rounded a bend in what had already been a walk full of surprises. On the week-ends, I try to go farther out with him and so here I am finding parts of our tiny town I've never seen before. This is a stretch called the People's Pathways: they seem to be either abandoned railroad tracks or otherwise unclaimed pieces of land.  This particular path blooms lushly between two housing developments so new there's not a tree to be had anywhere.  So there's this unexpected forest all around, really thick and wonderful, and Sawyer and I are elated (for different reasons - I'm fairly certain, his involve the tiny rabbit tushes scurrying in all directions as he approaches). I couldn't help but think of medieval forest law: a separate set of laws for the forest - who has the right to hunt, to live there, to use its resources, to claim it. Can you imagine?  Well, yes, we're even more territorial and territorially specific today.

The walk had already been surprising because of a ritual that Sawyer's making apparent. Today was the third time that he's left the house with a well-chewed rawhide in his mouth with great intention. The first day, he dropped it the block from our house that we always walk no matter where we go.  About five days later, he dropped it two blocks from our house in a direction we mostly go (these are long blocks).  And today, he dropped it another block further, this time in a different cardinal direction (the streets are laid out that way, but still).  And then, on the way home (which can be 30-45 minutes later), he picks it up again.  What's he doing?  Is he marking his territory somehow? Is he testing the boundary of his roaming with us?

And so today, I thought about those three words: territory (from the Latin territorium), and boundary (from the medieval French bodne, itself from a _medieval_ Latin word bodina, which is interesting), and then mark (from the Old English mearc).  We all probably have difference valences for each one.  I see territory as a more political, intellectual term. I think that perhaps it's no wonder that boundary is one of the most popular words of therapy. And I have that shudder (familiar now in realizing how Old English root words move in our psyche), of how physical a word like mark is.

What commemoration will we engage in today? I think of W.J.T. Mitchell's provocative play with what he calls the false etymology of territory and terror (this is from his article "Holy Landscape: Israel, Palestine, and the American Wilderness in Landscape and Power).  I wonder about the threatening of every boundary once a territory's center has been marked.  I think about the fine line between marking and claiming a territory, about the process of violating and shoring up boundaries, and, if you think about the site itself, about the marks left behind.  Boundaries don't fall away: even my dog needs to know where the space beyond him begins and ends. The question might become how we get from one familiar spot to the next. Or create them.

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