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where and what is home?

February 14, 2012

I’ve lived in five different US states. But I think I’ve seen the most of Maryland, possibly because it’s one of the smallest. And yet it still has more or less distinct regions. Where I live in northern Baltimore County is not very similar to the Eastern shore, nor to the mountains of western Maryland. It doesn’t look like Annapolis, or the Beltway.

For years I’ve been looking for a larger region that I could belong to. A state seems like it’s a good size for that, but state boundaries are usually kind of arbitrary. When do the mountains of western Maryland become the mountains of West Virginia? When do the rolling hills of northern Maryland become the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania? When do the marshes and lowlands of Maryland’s Eastern shore become Virginia’s Eastern shore? For all of these boundaries, only a highway or street sign tells you.

My HUC 10 watershed is the Gunpowder-Patapsco Rivers, but it’s only the Gunpowder River whose drainage I know, at least somewhat.

My home state is Illinois, but I never saw more than a fraction of it. I never had a sense of Illinois having a congruent identity. What I knew was northern Illinois, specifically the portion of it that is Chicagoland. I’ve been to Starved Rock State Park, and Rockford, a few times, but that’s about it. I always wondered what Iowa was like, but I never got over there. The only parts of central Illinois I’ve seen are the ones we used to drive through to avoid I-80/I-94. I’ve never once visited the state capital of Illinois, Springfield. One of my grandfathers spent part of his childhood in southernmost Illinois, a farm near Cairo and the Ohio River. I’ve been amongst the floodplains of the Ohio River, but not in Illinois; only in Indiana (Evansville), and Kentucky (Paducah).

In Chicagoland proper, I’ve lived in five areas: Blue Island (Cook County), Glen Ellyn (DuPage County), Naperville (DuPage County), Evergreen Park (Cook County), and Bloomingdale (DuPage County). I don’t remember Blue Island — I lived there only as a baby and toddler. I do remember Glen Ellyn, where we lived for eight years, but the area we lived in was unincorporated, so Glen Ellyn was just our mailing address. The town itself was a place we didn’t go very often. But I did spend a lot of time at the Morton Arboretum, in Lisle, which was right across Route 53 from our neighborhood. When I was a kid, my grandparents lived in Evergreen Park; for a few months as an adult, I lived with my grandmother there. My attachment was to her neighborhood: the train tracks to the north and at the top of the hill, the park and schoolgrounds at the bottom of the hill, and the houses and streets in between. Sometimes I still dream about it, and the house that was partially built by my grandfather. The detached garage and the vegetable garden behind it. The big tree in the backyard, and the clothesline.

Bloomingdale to me didn’t seem like its own place — it wasn’t quite Roselle (Cook County), although that was our nearest train station. It was too far north to be the DuPage River; I think our local river was the Fox, but I never saw it up near us. It was too far north for me to have become familiar with the area when I lived in Naperville. Spouse worked in Hoffman Estates, and sometimes took the train downtown from Schaumburg. We spent a lot of time in Geneva, which was along the Fox. Our apartment complex did have a small pond where I often saw great blue herons, and the occasional turtle. On the grassy areas surrounding the nearby mall, we frequently saw woodchucks. But unlike Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis, or our woods here, in Bloomingdale there was nowhere that I could walk to and immerse myself in trees and critters and running water. Everything was landscaped, and rigidly controlled. I always felt uneasy and on edge. I never felt at home there.

I think that’s why I have never warmed to the area my in-laws moved to when they left Lexington (KY). Like here, the terrain is rolling hills; and there are farms scattered about. But my in-laws’ neighborhood is an isolated area hugging the cliffs above a reservoir. There are no woods, fields, or meadows that you can walk in. The only common area is a golf course, so it’s landscaped. Not only are everyone’s yards aggressively landscaped, but my father-in-law dislikes animals, even songbirds, so whenever he sees them in his yard, he wants to get rid of them as soon as possible. He doesn’t even like to see (or hear) pets in his neighbors’ yards. It is a very unwelcoming place to be nonhuman, or wild. I’ve gone for walks in the neighborhood, just to get out of the house, but there’s no place to see the water below, or trees and plants that aren’t cowed.  So afterward, I always feel depressed and even more alienated.

If there aren’t woods nearby — and there often haven’t been in places that I’ve lived — then I need a ‘disturbed area’, like an empty lot, a meadow, or even a park, where I can interact with trees and plants and fungi, mammals and birds and invertebrates and the occasional reptile and/or amphibian. Running water is always good. Rocks are always good.

Human beings are taxing to be around. There are lots of nuances to social interactions that I have never been able to figure out. And a lot of the stuff I have figured out seems pointless. There are not that many human beings whose company I actually enjoy. But I’m always happy talking to trees or squirrels or cardinals or turkey vultures or rocks, clouds, and stars. I’m always happy sitting near a stream watching the water and whoever swims by.

I’m not really myself unless I’m attached to, and attuned with, my land.

So there are places that I have lived that I never felt like myself, because I didn’t belong to the land. And there are places that I have only visited, where the land and I attached to each other, and therefore I was myself.

I can’t really say that places I have only visited are ‘home’, because humans don’t use the word that way. If I say, “I felt ‘at home’ there”, that could work but it would take some explaining to convey what I meant by those words. And I don’t know that nuances here are of interest to other humans.

When I travel now, I am conscious of bringing with me part of my home watershed, a little piece of Maryland. And the places I visit have to be welcoming to the part of my home watershed that I embody for me to feel comfortable. So that includes wild places, disturbed places, and millions more nonhumans than humans.

What human beings see when they look at me is just another human being, but that’s so incomplete and misleading. Saying I’m part of my landscape is also misleading because to most humans ‘landscape’ is inanimate, and of little interest. Same thing with ‘environment’. That’s why I always talk about neighborhoods and neighbors, because then human beings know I’m talking about people. It’s just that for me ‘people’ includes nonhumans.

‘Home’ for me has to include nonhumans, and they have to be reasonably free to live their lives in the ways that suit them best. So when I visit a place that is all humans, their gardens and landscaped yards, and their pets, but no one else, I know that I’m not welcome there. That my little corner of Maryland, the drainage of the Gunpowder River, will not fit comfortably in the company of these humans. Our values and aesthetics will not overlap. There will be few topics we can agree on. And I will never be able to relax. Because if they could really see me, all of me, what they would see is vermin and weeds, nonhumans that are not being controlled by humans. They would see an abomination, that they would want to control or destroy.

My worldview is changing because I’m finally starting to understand who and what I am, and the obligations and responsibilities of being a good neighbor. So in some ways my world has expanded exponentially (nonhuman concerns) and in other ways my world has shrunk considerably (humans). I foresee conflicts as I try to strike a balance.

I have found home.

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