Ecotone Topic—On Coming to Write about Place: How I Started Thinking about Place and Why I Started Writing about It
We moved around when I was growing up, from Indiana to Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. I had a home in all these places, but never a hometown, never any roots growing. My parents both had hometowns, mom in Indiana, dad in Virginia, so I felt at home through them, on vacations and holidays, but I never got to stay long. I dont regret moving. I think it was a blessing. It helped me become more open-minded, more diverse in experience and thought. Moving around made me less frightened of change, and may have even made me a change junky.
Still, moving around had an opportunity cost. It left me slightly rootless. For roots I have memories, each home a different flavor, each its own lovely tone. I have rare visits with old friends left behind. I have my parents and my family, the strongest and deepest roots I know. Yet, I am native to nowhere really, and I cant return home. So, Ive always dreamed of far away places, places that could perhaps be mine. First it was the ocean. Wed go to the beach on family vacations, and Id feel such a pull from the waves, their constancy and vastness. I belonged there. Then I became a reader and fell in love with the British Isles. I just knew Id be at home on the moors, or on the cliffs by the sea, with the witty Brits. In college, I spent a semester in Wales. I fell for the cliffs on the Gower Peninsula and for just about every person I met. I swooned for that place. I told a Welshman the Gower was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. He said I should see my own country before making my mind up about things like that. So then I had visions of traveling west, to the pacific coast, to the desert. I had only crossed the Mississippi once, yet the Appalachians, where I had lived a good portion of my life, didnt even cross my mind.
Lately though, theyve been crossing my mind a lot. A little over two years ago, my husband David and I went to San Diego on our honeymoon. It was March. Spring was barely springing here in East Tennessee, but San Diego was in blossom. The colors amazed us. I dreamed about what it would be like to live that close to the ocean. Yet when we came back to Knoxville, I felt comfort at seeing the trees. Here were my trees, so many and so striking in their late winter starkness. They washed over me, like coming home must feel. I dont think I realized before right then that I had formed such an attachment to this place. I even like bluegrass now, and fried squash, and I feel a little bristled by big cities that host large numbers of people perfectly comfortable being rude to each other. (Of course, Knoxville is a small city, with its fair share of rudeness.)
Now, even though I still dream of other places, of making changes and traveling, the pull to stay and live in this region grows in me. I can think of many reasons why Ive finally felt a profound connection. Ive lived here longest. I spent my childhood (or at least the part of childhood during which I went outside) in West Virginia, another piece of Appalachia, so many of my happiest memories contain the same imagery by which Im now surrounded. Ive married a man who could never really seriously think of leaving this place. Whatever the reasons may be, a new sense is emerging in me, and I want to hold it, to know it better. Sometimes, I write it downsee that tree there, that hill, they look like this, feel like this. I want to remember each time the sense of home tiptoes up on me, each time I know that I am kin to this beauty all around me. I claim this place with my words. I am making claims now, tiny claims of nativity.