By Susan Beal
There’s a word in Old English that describes a quality of relationship with place that I believe many of us love or long for but don’t know how to describe. The word is cyþþ, pronounced kith, like the modern English word that descended from it. Kith is basically a lost word, existing only as part of the phrase, “kith and kin,” meaning close friends and family. Kith originally meant native land or country, not just in the sense of one’s place of birth or ancestry, but in the sense of a loving, intimate, friendly relationship with the landscape of home, the place you come from and the people and things that share it with you. Kith is not only the place you know and love, but the place that knows and loves you back.
My own kith is where I live now, on a piece of land that has been in my father’s side of the family since 1899. There are layers of family history here, which is the kin part, but the kith part is equally layered and deep. It is the sound of the brook running past the front of the house, and the smell of hay on summer days, and the tap tap tap of maple sap dripping into buckets in early spring. It’s the familiar silhouette of Mount Anthony in the evening sky, and the yip yapping of coyotes who sometimes come down into the fields from the woods. It’s also the walk into town to our favorite diner for breakfast, where the waitresses know to give me a glass of water without ice and raise their eyebrows in surprise if I don’t order Huevos Rancheros with black beans. It’s Fed Ex having me sign for packages for my neighbors if they’re not home. It’s knowing the sources of gossip and the facts behind hearsay soon enough. It’s being a Justice of the Peace and marrying people in their living rooms or mine, or in the town hall where the town clerk asks me how my dog is doing because she knows he’s getting old.
Words are the incarnations of thoughts and ideas, giving substance and meaning to feelings and experiences. In the same way our bodies anchor us in the physical world, words anchor ideas and energies into our everyday reality. The power of words to evoke and invoke is a kind of magic. Words describe, but they also conjure, so when we lose a word, we lose much more than a definition, we also lose an ability. We need all the words we can find to help us describe, create and anchor wholeness, friendship and connectedness in our lives and in the wider world. Kith is such a word, and as such, I think it is time to revive it.
You could say kith is a kind of terroir of people. The concept of terroir, usually associated with wine, is about recognizing the connection between whole and part, honoring how the nuances and influences of place—the sunlight, the weather and seasons, the quality of the soil and water, the flora and fauna—affect what is grown there.
To me, kith is akin to David Spangler’s description of Grail Space, the exercise in which you settle into your heart and expand your awareness and love outward to recognize, honor and embrace everything in the space around you. It’s the recognition that there is more to the story of the world and our place in it than the human relationships we usually focus on. I think that is the ultimate goal of Incarnational Spirituality: to cultivate kithship, if you will, with the whole Earth, physical and non-physical, human and non-human.
We are more accustomed to cultivating and honoring the value of kin than kith. The word kin descended from the Old English word cynn, which meant family or race. It is the ancestor of many familiar words, such as kind, kindness, kindred, king, and kingdom. All these words describe relationships that have to do with blood ties and relatives, the vertical connections of ancestors and descendants. We have a much more meager vocabulary for our “horizontal” relationships. There are no equivalent forms of kith—no kithness, no kithdred, no kithdom.
When the word kith was in common use, our daily lives were more connected to the soil and the stars, to the language of trees, weeds and wildflowers, to the cyclical movements of weather and wildlife through the land and the seasons. We knew how the water flowed and where the moon was going to be in the sky each night and what herbs would ease which illness or pain. The food we ate and the things we used were grown and made from right there, where we lived—where we belonged.
But most people no longer live in the same place for generations. Our careers and our relationships uproot us from places, requiring us to move for their sake more often than the other way around. Our world of social media, virtual community, and ease of travel have erased the boundaries of physical locale. There are many benefits that come from that, but there is also loss.
Behind the upsurge of farmers’ markets, artisanal crafts, and the popularity of antiques and all things vintage, I suspect there is a longing for genuine connection to people and to place. Hand-made, hand-grown or handed-down things connect us to the people who made them and the places they’re from. Kith is about physical connection to physical spaces like a country, a landscape, a back yard, or a building. Essentially, kith describes an expanded sense of self, one that includes one’s home and community and all the bonds and affinities that are incorporated into a sense of identity and belonging.
Rather than becoming obsolete, the concept of kith needs to evolve along with Humanity and Earth. While it may once have meant the intimacy and familiarity with one’s native landscape, and while there is an undeniable value in having ties to a particular locale and knowing it well, the definition of kith can become more inclusive. It can encompass a more enlightened and inclusive sense of identity, not defined by birthplace, proximity or shared traits or values, but by our common humanity, and even further, by our kinship to all who call Earth home. It can be a kith born and cultivated in the unbounded landscape of the heart and anchored in our bodies.
Incarnational Spirituality is about using the power and magic of our incarnate status, our physicality, to bring wholeness and light to Earth. Being incarnated means we are part of the substance of the planet, not as “spiritual beings having a physical experience,” not as unfortunate prisoners of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden, not as randomly mutated life forms that cease to exist after death, but as powerful, full-spectrum human beings with access to and wise use of all the benefits of our physical and spiritual inheritance.
That inner radiance of incarnational power, the light generated from the union of a fiery spirit married to a material body, is our terroir, so to speak, qualities blended from the cosmic and earthly environments that give us our unique characteristics as human beings on planet Earth.
Late in his life, the English poet, W. H. Auden, wrote a poem called Amor Loci, Love of Place, about his love for his childhood landscape and all the memories and magic it held for him. When we cultivate that magic and honor that love of place, we fulfill the promise of our incarnation, and we transform Earth into Loci Amor, a place, or landscape, of Love.
"Creating Grail Space is one of the fundamental practices of Incarnational Spirituality", writes David Spangler in David's Desk #59: "Grail Space". Click here to read his essay.