Notes on the Landscape of Home
THIS BOOK IS ABOUT living in one place, with its bay and woods and wildlife. A number of the chapters I wrote during the pandemic, and they reflect aspects of the time. Others are about the inheritance of a deep human culture we hold in Maine, and still others are about native wildlife, altered habitats, climate change, and the virtues of building a managed commons. Some lead away from this Down East coast, but they come back.
I have taken the epigraph for the book from Eliot’s great poem, “Burnt Norton:”
At the still point of the turning world . . .
there the dance is . . .
This is a still point for me, a small neighborhood in a small town. The dance, I believe, is between the individual lives of the many species that live here, the community we make together, and time.
ON A CLEAR NIGHT the sky is black, and the constellations burn brightly here. No lights from a nearby town, no headlights from a stream of cars obscure Orion, the great hunter who pledged to rid the world of wild animals and was felled by the sting of a single scorpion. As I write this it’s the heart of winter. Orion with his belted sword moves slowly to the west during the long hours of darkness. If the air is drifting onshore, up the ledges, across the fields, and into the woods, you can stand outside in the breathtaking cold and smell the salt from the bay.
My first home was my parents’ apartment on Bleeker Street in New York City. Later, we moved to an old colonial in Connecticut with woods and fields and a little stream, and later still we spent a few enchanted years in Mallorca. But the truth is I grew up in a cabin on a 65-acre woodlot half a mile from a working harbor in Down East Maine, if growing up means learning something about how to live in the world. I moved there with my husband and first child. I was 29 years old. The life I had lived before, all that was tender, funny, painful and loving, frightening or deeply beautiful, was preface and preparation for the years I spent learning how to manage a life that was both practical and good for the spirit, and exploring what was left of the wild in this cutover land.
The natural world and my exposure to it grew into a solid thing. I was a part of something bigger than I was, that was subtle and complicated, and I paid attention. If you pay attention to the land where you live, as many of us already know, you enter into conversation with it, until it becomes a voice inside you and some of the boundaries between you and it dissolve. That woodlot and the village around it were teaching places for me, as home places all over the world have gifts to teach when we are alert to the pieces that fit together to make them whole, or when we note the pieces that are missing that indicate, in some ways, big or small, that they’re broken.
My experience is not unusual. People bond to where they live. Over time, they witness change and notice what endures. More often now, I worry that these places may not last in a recognizable way beyond our own lives, which means that they will not be teaching others the things we know and the things we still hope to learn. On the other hand, the work to save land and water and air and the species that have evolved along with them—on a large scale, and in our own backyards—changes how people relate to what’s left of the wild and what they teach their children. That’s a start.
After ten years, my family and I moved from the village to a small town half an hour to the west, where I live today. The bay here is shallow, and the tide sweeps in over mud, and the stone at the shore is ancient schist, a metamorphic rock, older than the pink and gray granite, melted by heat and formed in a slow cooling, that faces the water at the village shore we left. They are both part of the story of this coast.
When I began to learn about the place where I’d arrived, a friend had left us his binoculars and my father gave me his old, scuffed Peterson’s bird guide. If I was free, I’d grab the binoculars and the guide and go to the harbor shore, or walk along the skidder trails in the woods, or out to the ponds or the nearby marsh. Each was different. I didn’t know a fir from a spruce, a black duck from a mallard, but I was patient. I kept at it, and I depended on what our neighbors told me about this land and water, and on books I ordered from the local library, and what I saw and heard and smelled and touched on my own.
Our neighbors, whose families had lived here for a long, long time, told us that out on the village’s Grand Marsh farmers had cut salt hay for winter feed for horses and cattle in August a hundred years before we arrived. When we hiked it, it wasn’t farmers or the ghosts of farmers and their horses we saw, but short-eared owls. The birds would pop up out of the marsh grass and flap away, low over the worn dikes and slick channels.
One of my favorite Henry David Thoreau quotes is “I have travelled a good deal in Concord.” Although he’d walked Cape Cod three times, canoed the Concord River, and come to Maine to climb Katahdin, canoe the East Branch of the Penobscot, and go up the Allagash, what he’s getting at is that if you want to learn from the land you live on and the life it supports, including human life, you have to do what he taught himself to do at Walden, which was to settle in, go deep. Watch how your neighbors respond to and work with the land. Walk into its corners and its broad stretches at different times of day, in all seasons, and you will begin to read it with a proficiency that may surprise you.
There are people who have learned a lot about their home places in the world: when the ramps growing under the white pines down by the river are ready to pick, for instance, or when the black-capped chickadee first sings its spring song, and the relief a person can feel when that initial heavy snow of the year pulls a curtain down on all unfinished autumn chores. These are the people who also notice the first small changes of a warming world on their own patch of ground.
I think of my neighbors looking out their windows this time of night. And my mind wanders to places far away, and people I have never met, who love where they live: The Amazon River villages that aren’t damaged yet, and the people in their homes by the river at night listening to the swish of the moving water, and the young kids looking up at the night sky. Or the tundra in Alaska, barren except for ptarmigan, Arctic foxes, and snowy owls, the owls drifting over the deep white landscape under brilliant pinpricks of shining stars, past the homes of people sleeping. Or sometimes I remember the little fishing village in Mallorca, where the fishermen took their boats out on the water into the night. Standing onshore, we watched the strings of small lights tied to the gunnels moving away from the harbor in their own tight constellations beneath the stars and listened to the soft purr of the motors.
I look up into the sky at night now and think of people all over the world in the comfort of their homes, and the land and water stretching out around them, dark and full of living things.
We’re nourished by what’s left of wildness, by the knowledge that we belong among other species—both animal and plant—and to lose them would be to lose something we honor in ourselves. When the stars wake me up on especially clear cold winter nights—it’s their silence, I think, and their needle-sharp points of light that disturb my sleep—he’s there, the hunter who thought we’d be better off all by ourselves on this Earth.
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