Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What is Home?

Yesterday on Twitter Astronaut Ron Garan retweeted a fancy script font image that read, "Home is where love resides, memories are created, friends always belong, and laughter never ends." What? No it's not.

I have seen platitudes like this my whole life and they never felt right to me. I thought maybe it was because I was a curmudgeon, a skeptic, non-spiritual. This month I finally figured it out. Maybe some people are connected to people, some people are connected to nature. Bruce Means asked me to read a manuscript for him that is the story of his recreation of John Muir's 1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf. Because it is easier for me to read things on my iPad I downloaded a PDF of the original and read that first. John Muir grew up in Wisconsin after moving from his birthplace in Scotland as a young boy. The south was very foreign to him and strange. Not home. Towards the end of the book he explains it all very eloquently.
In Kentucky...thousands of familiar flower faces looked from every hill and valley. I noted no difference in the sky, and the winds spoke the same things. I did not feel myself in a strange land.
In Tennessee my eyes rested upon the first mountain scenery I ever beheld. I was rising higher than ever before; strange trees were beginning to appear; alpine flowers and shrubs were meeting me at every step. But these Cumberland Mountains were timbered with oak, and were not unlike Wisconsin hills piled upon each other, and the strange plants were like those that were not strange. The sky was changed only a little, and the winds not by a single detectible note. Therefore, neither was Tennessee a strange land.
But soon came changes thick and fast. After passing the mountainous corner of North Carolina and a little way into Georgia, I beheld from one of the last ridge-summits of the Alleghanies that vast, smooth, sandy slope that reaches from the mountains to the sea. It is wooded with dark, branchy pines which were all strangers to me. Here the grasses, which are an earth-covering at the North, grow wide apart in tall clumps and tufts like saplings. My known flower companions were leaving me now, not one by one as in Kentucky and Tennessee, but in whole tribes and genera, and companies of shining strangers came trooping upon me in countless ranks. The sky, too, was changed, and I could detect strange sounds in the winds. Now I began to feel myself "a stranger in a strange land."
But in Florida came the greatest change of all, for here grows the palmetto, and here blow the winds so strangely toned by them. These palms and these winds severed the last strands of the cord that united me with home. Now I was a stranger, indeed. I was delighted, astonished, confounded, and gazed in wonderment blank and overwhelming as if I had fallen upon another star. But in all of this long, complex series of changes, one of the greatest, and the last of all, was the change I found in the tone and language of the winds. They no longer came with the old home music gathered from open prairies and waving fields of oak, but they passed over many a strange string. The leaves of magnolia, smooth like polished steel, the immense inverted forests of tillandsia banks, and the princely crowns of palms — upon these the winds made strange music, and at the coming-on of night had overwhelming power to present the distance from friends and home, and the completeness of my isolation from all things familiar.
Elsewhere I have already noted that when I was a day's journey from the Gulf, a wind blew upon me from the sea — the first sea breeze that had touched me in twenty years. I was plodding along with my satchel and plants, leaning wearily forward, a little sore from approaching fever, when suddenly I felt the salt air, and before I had time to thing, a whole flood of long-dormant associations rolled in upon me. The Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock, Dunbar Castle, and the winds and rocks and hills came upon the wings of that wind, and stood in as clear and sudden light as a landscape flashed upon the view by a blaze of lightning in a dark night.
As strange and unfamiliar as the south was to John Muir, it is my home. I get great comfort from those dark, branchy pines and the smell of their needles baking in the sun. The sound of a pileated woodpecker banging his giant head on a hollow trunk, and the rising, smooth white noise as the wind moves through the long needles — that is home to me. Here there are all the right animals, the right plants, the right light, the right water, the right soil, the right air. These are the things my grandmother taught me to identify, to study, to love. My grandmother died, but the piney woods will thrive as long as we let them. It is my responsibility to care for these woods and struggle against their aggressive fecundity to assert my own tiny bit of order on it. When it's not trying to destroy my civilization with humidity and mice, my home amuses me.

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