What is it that makes a place resonate in our hearts? What draws us to a place? What is the belonging made up of, and does the place belong to us, or do we belong to it?
Perhaps it was because I was a transplant to the midwest, that I felt "place" so acutely. I pined for the dense virgin hardwood forests of my home state of Pennsylvania. Both sides of my family had come from Europe to settle in NY and PA, and the forests, rivers, and rounded peaks of the ancient Appalachians were part of my lived experience and part of my history. On long car rides through Pennsylvania to visit relatives, my mother would murmur mountain names, as if they were friends from her youth--Blue Mountain, Shenandoah Valley, Tuscarora Mountain. For me, place was so tied up with family, with memories, and with narrative.
My graduate work in Madison gradually came to focus on the power of a connection to place and how environmental art and literature has used that emotional connection to create change. So many thoughts percolated as I investigated this process--how did the artists influence political and legislative action? What assumptions did they rely on about our sense of place and home? I remember Vera and I frequently sharing our ideas about these subjects with each other.
What I came to understand is that it is part narrative--personal and ancestral and historical--and part familiarity--knowing the details and features and names of a place--that contribute to a feeling of home. This is what give us a sense of tenderness towards a place, and it's that tender feeling that could make us take action in defense of a place. Familiarity with place, for me, was often a sensual familiarity--a certain hazy light in the sky that reminded me of the ocean, the smells of a thawing lake, the feel of the air, the rich scent of a forest, the way a thick band of clouds on the horizon could trick me into thinking I was looking at Lake Erie, spread high and wide in front of me.
Of course, it made sense to me that an emotional connection to place could come from familiarity, from the laying down of experiences and memories, the establishment of community and a sense of belonging. That part makes sense.
But what still puzzles me is this--there is some other, more elusive and unpredictable component. One that made me choke up when I first saw the umbrella pines of Italy and felt "home" after wandering the globe for months. Something that welcomed me in that bright golden meadow in the mountains of New Zealand. The tears that surprised me when I stepped off a plane in New England and inhaled the scent of pines.
What is it that causes a body to respond to a place? Why do some places, familiar or not, sing to us and call us home? Do you know what I mean? Have you ever been rocked in the cradle of a place, so that it felt like a refuge to you? Have you arrived at a place for the firrst time, only to feel you were coming home?
Can a place be in our blood?
Part of me still thinks so. When I became pregnant, still living in Madison, I was strangely concerned about giving birth to the first native Midwesterners in either of our families. Honestly, I had fleeting thoughts of frantic drives back to the northeast once labor started, desperate to at least make it to the Pennsylvania border before the baby came! What would it be like not to have that geographical connection with my children? Would they be called by the rolling farmland and oak groves of Wisconsin and not by the northeast? I felt, then, that they would somehow be disconnected from their heritage, from all of their family who called those places home.
I have now lived longer in Madison than I have lived any other place. My memories, my community, my experiences, and my familiarity with the place have made it home. A place where I belong. The town that thrills my heart when I come home to it after having been away. But thus far, I still do not "recognize" it elsewhere--in a certain slant of light or scent on the air or view on the horizon. I'm not sure, yet, whether it has gotten into my blood. But my eager anticipation of the sandhill cranes, the honeysuckle lining every trail in late spring, and that intense blue of the sky at harvest time suggests that perhaps it has been making its way there all along.