Where Do You Belong?

In Newfoundland, instead of asking where you’re from, people will often say, “Where do you belong?” Explore this rich question with one photographer’s personal anecdotes about his own sense of place and how his travels have deepened his connection to home.
Birds in flight Cape Spear

© Dennis Minty

Cape Spear at dawn as seen from Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland

I was born in Twillingate, Newfoundland but my family left it for Toronto before I could develop any memories. The move was in 1949, the year Newfoundland and Labrador became a province of Canada. During my childhood in Toronto, the word home took on two meanings. It was the physical house in which I grew up and that sheltered my parents, siblings, and all the stuff of our living.

Conceptually, it extended to our neighbourhood, the corner store, the local park, school, and so on. But my family also talked about home as the place where we came from, Twillingate, and to which we hoped to return someday.

Landscape Twilingate Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Twilingate, Newfoundland

Our Toronto home was a happy place where aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends (almost all fellow Newfoundlanders) would visit for a simple home-cooked supper followed by a boisterous round of cards.

To this day, a dessert of tinned peaches reminds me of a Sunday evening, the Walt Disney castle on the black and white TV, and When You Wish Upon a Star sung by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards). Conversely, I cannot see the image of a castle without thinking of tinned peaches.

So, to me, home meant both the physical place in Toronto and the imagined place, Twillingate.

Dennis Minty family hauling wood historical photo

Dennis’s grandfather, Peter Troake, and his cousins. Photographer unknown.

In those early days, I drew meaning of Twillingate from our old black and white photo albums. I studied them so intensely that I felt I knew the people and places: the stages and simple wooden houses, Aunt Nina and Uncle Willie, Aunt Bess and Uncle Frank, Grandma and Grandpa Troake, cousins by the score, the farm and the rocky shoreline, Blow-me-down and Scratch Ass Pond. (Don’t ask!)

Dennis Minty family making ice cream historical photo

Dennis’s mother, brothers, aunt, and cousins are seen here with Dennis at eight years old, in front centre. Photographer unknown.

When I was eight years old, we returned to Twillingate for the summer. The meaning of home took on new life. It was probably the most joyous summer of my childhood, certainly the most memorable. It was when I knew, beyond any doubt, that we would return to Twillingate to live one day. In my mind, we had to. After that, we summered in Twillingate a few more times until my fifteenth year, when we returned for good.

Looking back now, with the perspective of a lifetime, I see the return to Twillingate as a pivotal point that helps define who I am today. My blood was connected to that rock. Toronto was a place where we lived until we could find the means to move back to Newfoundland. When we got home, I could get a bike, perhaps even a dog. We would operate a dairy farm again! These were huge ideas.

My ambition was to be a farmer. While in Toronto, we subscribed to the Family Herald: Canada's National Farm Magazine and I pored over it, soaking up the difference between Holsteins and Guernseys, red fescue and timothy grass, Ford tractors and International Harvester, loamy soil and clay.

Dennis Minty youth with cow

Dennis at fifteen, having returned from Toronto to Twillingate. Photographer unknown.

Clearly my idea of home included the physical place, but it also stirred something from deep within. It was my emotional bond combined with the physical world that created my sense of place. It was where I belonged.

In fact, when you first meet someone in Newfoundland, it is common to be asked, “Where do you belong?”

The question is similar to “Where are you from?” but it's deeper, rootier.

The Battery neighbourhood St Johns Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

The Battery, St. John's, Newfoundland

Travelling to a Place Unknown

Most of us draw meaning and identity from the place with which we have the strongest bond. Usually there is an ecological component to how we identify with a place. Some like the mountains, others the coastline, some like the enclosing feeling of a woodland, while others like the expansive sky of the prairie or the sea.

As we travel to new places, each of us interprets our experience through the lens of our own sense of place, which embodies our worldview, biases, culture, history, education, and so much more. For one person, the Arctic might be cold, forbidding, and hostile, while for many it is expansive, welcoming, and trusted.

A traveller from the city that visits a small Newfoundland outport can be enchanted by the slow pace and the quaint homes, but might wonder how people survive with so few services and job opportunities while living in such isolation. The person from the outport feels no isolation at all because her family extends to the community. When she visits the city, she is bedazzled by the pace and variety of services, but wonders how city-dwellers can survive in such an impersonal hubbub.

Port Rexton Newfoundland landscape

© Dennis Minty

Port Rexton, Newfoundland

Travel causes us to reflect on the difference between home, our familiar baseline, and the otherness of our destination. The difference can be disconcerting or joyous depending on the baggage we carry and the attitude we bring.

The attitude of a mindful, enlightened traveller finds value in new places just as they are, not by searching for a Starbucks in unlikely spots. She shows deep respect for the sites, people, animals, and ecosystems without wishing them to be otherwise.

It’s important to suspend our value judgements when we experience a new culture. We are generally incapable of understanding the environment, history, and traditions on which a culture is based. It’s better to be open, attentive, curious, accepting and respectful, but not judgemental. Judgement is based too much on our personal baseline, not on the other culture.

Mittimatalik driver

© Dennis Minty

Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut

A Sense of Place

Sense of place usually refers to the relationship between a person or group and a place—the emotional and physical connection, as well as the deep knowledge one has of a place. Consider the small boat fisher who knows every indentation of the coastline and the undulation of the seabed even though they cannot see it.

I am reminded of a story my Aunt once told me. She was traveling by boat through a passage near Twillingate called Dildo Run. (Again, don’t ask!) It is strewn with small islets, skerries, and sunkers (unseen rocks just beneath the surface).

She said to the captain, “It’s remarkable how well you know where all these obstacles are and how you can navigate through here even in the fog.”

He responded, “Well m’dear, I don’t know exactly where they be, but I know where they bain’t!!”

Change Islands Newfoundland at sunset

© Dennis Minty

Change Islands, Newfoundland

Long before GPS, small boat fishers could find the fishing grounds with a deftness that would surprise a modern fish hunter who depends on electronics to find their way. That’s why when the cod moratorium of 1992 began and 30,000 families had to stop fishing, it was much more than a job loss—it was a life loss, the end of a centuries-old tradition, and a deep wound to their sense of place.

Sense of place can also describe a location. The destinations that evoke the strongest sense of place are those that are most distinctive. Think Vancouver, Hong Kong, an African savannah, Fiji, and yes, my home, Newfoundland. Images immediately spring to mind.

A strong sense of place arises where location and culture are closely entwined. In contrast, the suburban strip—neon lights ablaze, car dealerships, fast food outlets, nondescript hotels—could be on the edge of almost any city in the world. It is devoid of a sense of place.

Wooden dock and houses Newfoundland

© Dennis Minty

Tilting, Fogo Island, Newfoundland

Finding Where You Belong

People can lack a sense of place as well. Sadly, they are placeless. Although they live somewhere, they lack roots and a sense of belonging. I cannot help but wonder, when they travel, is their level of appreciation diminished by not having a baseline?

Walking in Nachvak Fjord Labrador

© Dennis Minty

Nachvak Fjord, Labrador

Some people never leave the place where they were born and raised and have no desire to do so. I know a highly intelligent, well-read woman in northern Newfoundland who has only left her small home community for essential medical reasons. I have also met people on Adventure Canada expeditions that have a wanderlust that cannot be quenched.

A sense of place gives our lives stability, but it is not necessarily static. It can change with time and circumstances. We have all heard of the urbanite who after years of city life, swaps it for a rural environment. The reverse is also true.

Trout River Newfoundland laundry hanging on the line

© Dennis Minty

Trout River, Newfoundland

Travel can sometimes cause our sense of place to flip-flop. After being away for an extended period, home can feel strange upon returning. I distinctly remember a flight home after being in the Arctic for many weeks. As we descended through the thin cloud, the September green of southern Canada became evident with its lush treetops, farmers’ fields at season's end, networks of busy roads, and colour galore.

Normal suddenly felt topsy-turvy. The wide-open, scaleless landscapes of the Arctic; the simple, austere beauty; the eye-watering clip of a glacial wind; the unlit dark of night—all these attributes had become the new normal, in contrast to the now-strange movement, green, warmth, and neon of the south.

Aerial photo farmland

© Dennis Minty

Farmlands of southern Canada

When we experience a place long enough and apply ourselves to understanding it well, our sense of that place deepens. When herbal remedies were more common than they are now, people learned the specific benefits of certain plants, where to find them, when the season was right, what parts were most beneficial, and more. Their sense of place was finely tuned.

The same applies to the Inuk hunter in the Arctic who knows where and when to find animals and how to read the ice on which he must travel. A deep knowing can grow as we learn the plants and animals, the daily cycles, the weather patterns, the distances from one site to another. We learn from direct experience and from those who already possess a deep understanding of a place.

As we grow our own knowledge and appreciation of both our travel destinations and our home ground, we hone our sense of place and broaden our ecological understanding. Should a place that we know become threatened—as is the Arctic—then our care and advocacy for it is stimulated. This is one of the vital roles of regenerative travel.

Bearded seal on ice floe Greenland

© Dennis Minty

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus) on an ice floe, Greenland

Telling the Stories of a Place

The best storytelling and music usually embodies this deep knowing that is part of a profound sense of place. I think of our own Dave Paddon and our fine musicians like Alan Doyle and Gerry Strong. And, of course, Tony Oxford—he is sense of place personified! If you were to somehow peel away their root attachment to place, their authenticity would disappear like your breath on a frosty day.

Dave Paddon portrait

© Dennis Minty

Dave Paddon

Another photographer with whom I was travelling once asked me, “How do you bring authenticity to your work?” He wanted help in making his own work feel more authentic. His question surprised and stumped me at first because I had never considered it before. As far as I could tell, I didn’t do anything to embed authenticity. What did that even mean?

Then I did a quick but deep dive into my own heart and brain. There was a mental flicker of the old family albums that I loved so much. I said that perhaps it all had to do with having a strong sense of place.

Newfoundland cove with iceberg

© Dennis Minty

Old Bonaventure, Newfoundland

So where do you belong and what places do you care about? Next time you are in a new place, open yourself and listen to the people and the land. You’ll be better for it.

About the Author

Dennis Minty

Dennis Minty

Photographer, Wildlife Biologist

Dennis has been working with Adventure Canada since 2002. Dennis’s path—from his small island roots in Twillingate, Newfoundland to his current career as a photographer and eco-tour leader—has taken him through more than three decades of local and international work.

For him, nature and photography are inseparable. Dennis immerses himself in nature through photography and seeks to inspire in the viewer a deeper connection with the natural world. Dennis has authored nine books on subjects such as environmental science, his home province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and his photography.

To see more of Dennis' work, visit his website.