08/25/2011 06:07 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2011

The Power of the Land

Nearly sixty years ago, the last twenty-two residents of the Blasket Islands left their homes for the mainland, forced there by poor fishing and the harsh climate, not by choice. The nearest of the islands, off the westernmost tip of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, is but two miles from shore, but it may as well have been two thousand given the difficulty of traversing this chasm through rainstorms, sea fog, and wintry gales. The young islanders had already left for a brighter future, but the parents and grandparents stayed as long as fate would permit. Some who have died since could not even be buried there, given the difficulty of maintaining graves on the islands. Instead they lie in the earth on a little hillside facing their ancestral homes, as if being able to view their cherished land through eternity could somehow compensate for its loss.

What compelled generations to make their homes there, on the leeward sides of these treeless islands, the only spot that offered any protection from the open ocean to the west? What drove them to hang on so long, through one bad fishing season after another, when harvesting the sea was their livelihood as well as their lifeblood? Why did they not leave, as their children did, for what must surely have been described as a better life?

These questions beg answers that seem just out of reach. Perhaps it was the power of the land that held them in place. This seems strange for so many of us for whom our homes are a financial investment, the place we come to for the small part of the day left us after work and commuting, or just the spot on the vast planet we happen to occupy at this particular moment in our careers. Unlike the Blasket Islanders, our roots are shallow in the earth, fed by neither love nor memories that cannot be overcome by the chance and allure of moving on. And so we do. Our lives may be richer in some ways for our rootlessness, but we may also have stunted the legacies we leave to ourselves, our communities and our children in ways we cannot measure.

If we let the land enter our hearts and surround us with its smells, sounds and scenes, it becomes more than a surveyor's plat, more than a mortgage, more than an address to showcase our tastes and talents. The land, experienced emotionally, has a hold on us, and it gives us a respect for nature -- and for things that last -- that seems so badly missing in the moving masses that flow over our globe. For the islanders, perhaps it was also their shared stories, struggles, and triumphs that kept them planted where they were. Our anchors in the earth can be exhilarating and enrich our lives. Or maybe it was more than that, something beyond reason or words to capture.

Of course, an anchor has a chain, and so it can cement us in place when we ought to move on -- psychologically as well as physically. In the end, for the Blasket Islanders, they risked their survival by staying. And, as we know too well from history and contemporary wars, love of the land can lead to tribalism and terror, when we forget that, in the end, the role of the land is to succor not to separate us.

Viewed from the mainland, the Blasket Islands look majestic and serene, a safe harbor in a troubled world. For the millions of us who have never lived there, or even seen them, they offer a useful message and metaphor. In this sense, their long-departed residents may have left their land behind but they have left it in us as well.