There are lines of thought that stick with us, nudge our readings and explorations, influence our lives and choices and livelihoods. For a decade or more, I’ve been contemplating the relationship between movement and sense of place. It has been an intense and personal dialogue, resulting in temporary answers that demonstrate the fallacy of simple polarity: we are never truly static, and we can all work to better nourish our roots. The traveler would do well to seek real contact with the earth, while the rooted person can learn from the traveler how to see the world fresh, anew, daily.
What follows is a years-old meditation, written during a more migratory time. Revisiting it has been like walking a favorite path: it sparks the perpetual questions.
“Journeys are the midwives of thought.”—Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
I’m sitting in a liminal corner of the Greater Rochester International Airport, tickets in my pocket and a stiff new journal in my lap. One short flight is all that separates me from a second Georgia winter, a second season of fire.
In the months since I left the South I’ve made pilgrimages to many of my homes: to my parents, here in western New York; to love, in Italy; and to Yellowstone, where that scruffy work-family welcomed me back for a fourth summer season.
I hadn’t intended to go back, had sworn to myself that I wouldn’t. For all the breathless beauty of the place, all the adventure and adrenaline of the flames, I couldn’t imagine putting my body or fragile confidence back on the fireline. I was—am—so wary of parts of the life: road food, sleep deprivation, aching hands, over-socialized evenings, dangerous mistakes.
But I needed a winter job, and by the end of the summer, time and sun had so effectively dulled my qualms that I began to consider a return. To quit now, I reasoned, would be to throw away everything I had struggled so painfully to learn. And Georgia, I knew, had plenty more to teach me.
All morning I’ve been thinking about the roundness of things: migration, the life of the seasonal worker. I’ve been living this way for four years: changing homes and jobs every three to six months, moving with the seasons from one family to the next.
It’s a phase. She’ll find her roots, my loved ones whisper. I hear them, recognize in their whisperings the words of Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver and others.
I don’t answer them, but if I did, I would say this: that we are all evolved from people who hunted and gathered, who moved with the seasons with their children and houses on their backs. We know that they worked fewer hours than we do, and that their wild, scattered, hard-scrabbled diet was more balanced than our modern, monocultured one.
I would tell them that the migratory life is the purest way I know how to live. I am in touch with the soil every day, in every season. The scenery changes often enough that my sense of place is always fresh, curious, engaged. I carry little. My pay is low, and my heart is humble.
How, with their homes full of stuff and their static lives, I wonder, can they match the eagerness with which I approach the more-than-human world on a daily basis?
And how can we register growth and change, in ourselves and in the world, if we do not pass through space as we pass so inevitably through time?
I think about pilgrimage: the act of returning to a place again and again, to feel in one’s soul and muscles the time and distance traversed, to note changes in self and land that have occurred in one’s absence from the other.
And I think about home. Most of us think of home as a single point, a dot on the map, that place where we feel most comfortable and loved and where all the stuff of life resides.
My home is not a point, but a triangle, a web connecting the high desert of northern Yellowstone with the Old-World cities of northern Europe, with the hills, lakes and forests of western New York. How much love, how much reverence I harbor within this intercontinental polygon of home!
What if we could all expand our empathy, our sense of belonging, and consider not the depth, but also the breadth of our roots? What if we could love and protect not just one home, but many?
They’re calling my flight. I pack my journal and pen and glance around the terminal, searching for any last glimmer of uniqueness, of place. There isn’t much to grasp onto. Slinging my bag over my shoulder, I hand over my ticket and step onto the jetbridge. I’m getting the sense that my polygon of home is about to gain another vertex.
I’m going to Georgia. I’m going home.