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In The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith, Walter Brueggemann writes: “A symbolic sense of the term affirms that land is never simply physical dirt but is always physical dirt freighted with social meanings derived from historical experience. A literal sense of the term will protect us from excessive spiritualization, so that we recognize that the yearning for land is always a serious historical enterprise concerned with historical power and belonging. Such a dimension is clearly played upon by the suburban and exurban real estate ads that appeal to that rapacious hunger. Land is always fully historical but always bearer of over-pluses of meaning known only to those who lose and yearn for it. The current loss of and hunger for place participate in those plus dimensions – at once a concern for actual historical placement, but at the same time a hunger for an over-plus of place meaning. This dialectic belongs to our humanness. Our humanness is always about historical placement in the earth, but that historical placement always includes excess meanings both rooted in and moving beyond literalism.”

Yesterday I cycled past this estate agent’s sign. Its confused message beautifully illustrates Brueggemann’s words.

On one hand, it presents us with the possibility of buying a “piece of Devon”, which, even though it applies to one of many large properties in the street in the middle of Exeter, conjures up images of England’s green and pleasant land, a piece of bucolic, rural, real and rooted heaven, your own cosy and snuggly-safe place.

On the other hand, the instruction is to “Buy this”, and not “Own this”. It is merely a financial transaction, an unloved impermanent investment which can be sold on tomorrow. The appeal to purchase power is set against the promise of belonging, and so our “rapacious hunger” goes ever unsated. After all, this “piece of Devon” turns out to be a second floor maisonette!

Brueggemann continues: “Most of all, it has been the failure of an urban promise that has reopened the question. That promise concerned human persons who could lead detached, unrooted lives of endless choice and no commitment. It was glamorized around the virtues of mobility and anonymity that seemed so full of promise for freedom and self-actualization. But it has failed… It is now clear that a sense of place is a human hunger that the urban promise has not met.”

This leads me to the question: “Is it possible to develop a sense of place in ‘my piece’ of suburban Exeter?”, or more optimistically “How can I develop a sense of place?”, or even “Are this blog and the activities it describes helping me to develop a sense of place, and can I extend that to my neighbours?”

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