In the following passage from Storming the Gates of Paradise, American cultural philosopher Rebecca Solnit says what I've so often wanted to say when conversations here in England turn to the country of my birth:
"I was at a dinner in Amsterdam when the question came up of whether each of us loved his or her country. The German shuddered, the Dutch were equivocal, the Brit said he was 'comfortable' with Britain, the expatriate American said no. And I said yes. Driving now across the arid lands, the red lands, I wondered what it was I loved. The places, the sagebrush basins, the rivers digging themselves deep canyons through arid lands, the incomparable cloud formations of summer monsoons, the way the underside of clouds turns the same blue as the underside of a great blue heron's wings when the storm is about to break.
"Beyond that, for anything you can say about the United States, you can also say the opposite: we're rootless except we're also the Hopi, who haven't moved in several centuries; we're violent except we're also the Franciscans nonviolently resisting nucelar weapons out here; we're consumers except the West is studded with visionary environmentalists...and the landscape of the West seems like the stage on which such dramas are played out, a space without boundaries, in which anything can be realized, a moral ground, out here where your shadow can stretch hundreds of feet just before sunset, where you loom large, and lonely.”
That's it exactly. It's why I still love America, even though Dartmoor has claimed my heart. I've never been more aware of how fundamentally North American I am than now, living an ocean away. It is my home. And Dartmoor is home. And the very word home is fraught with contradictions.
"All of us," wrote the late English naturalist Roger Deakin, "carry about in our heads places and landscapes we shall never forget because we have experienced such intensity of life there: places where, like the child that 'feels its life in every limb' in Wordsworth's poem We Are Seven, our eyes have opened wider, and all our senses have somehow heightened. By way of returning the compliment, we accord these places that have given us such joy a special place in our memories and imaginations. They live on in us, wherever we may be, however far from them."
I feel the truth of this deep in my bones. I am rooted here on Dartmoor now: in a village nestled between two hills; in a tumbledown house on one hill's slope; in a tapestry stitched of oak and stream, wild ponies and grazing sheep. But other landscapes haunt my dreams. They haunt my waking hours too, sometimes so real that I can almost smell the smoke of an Arizona desert campfire, the tang of cafe con leche in a New York cafe, or the salt sea air of the Boston docks. Past and present blend together, and at the midnight hour, I hear coyotes howl in the Devon hills.
"The desire to go home," says Rebecca Solnit, "[is] a desire to be whole, to know where you are, to be the point of intersection of all the lines drawn through all the stars, to be the constellation-maker and the center of the world, that center called love. To awaken from sleep, to rest from awakening, to tame the animal, to let the soul go wild, to shelter in darkness and blaze with light, to cease to speak and be perfectly understood."
But where exactly is home? It is there and then. It is here and now. It is lost in the precious or painful past, and it is somewhere in the future we're walking toward. It is in the words I'm writing and the images I'm painting. It's in solitude, and in family life. It's a feeling as elusive as memory and as solid as this hound beside me. It's in the closing of the book, the rising from the moss, the whistle for Tilly: Come girl, let's go. It is waiting for us at the end of the path. At the kitchen door. At the resolution of the story. It is this: the hill. The wind. The center of the world, that center called love.
Words: The passages about are from Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit (University of California Press, 2007) and Notes from Walnut Tree Farm by Roger Deakin (Hamish Hamilton, 2008). The poem in the picture captions is from Collected Poems by Helen Cruickshank (Reprographia, 1971). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates. Pictures: Winter coffee break beneath a favourite oak in a nearby field. Three related posts: A hunger for place, Knowing our place, and Kith & kin.