Tuesday, July 12, 2011


     What happens when people lose their place? I often think about the permanent pain that refugees carry with them. We read about the displaced thousands from Libya who have fled to Tunisia, Egypt, Malta, the internally displaced in Japan whose summer harvest won't happen this year because their soil and water are radioactive. According to the World Bank, there were 15,200,000 refugees in the world in 2009, 27,100,000 internally displaced persons and 1,000,000 asylum seekers whose cases had not yet been adjudicated. And these are only the people displaced by war. The numbers don't include the Haitians, Chileans, Chinese, Pakistanis and Australians whose houses are no longer standing or liveable because of massive earthquakes, floods or fires.

     Even though I've been something of a vagabond all my adult life, I think of home as a stable place, the place where everything is familiar--the scent of the local dirt, freshly cut lawns and native plants, the quality of light and the color of the sky, the native birds singing, the roads and houses and corner stores that you carry like an ancient blueprint in your brain. I like familiarity and I assume that most of the 43,300,000 external and internal refugees in the world do, too. So what are their lives like, when they know that they cannot go home, either because they would be imprisoned, tortured and killed, or because the place they called home isn't there anymore, isn't a place that is stable, secure or viable?

    According to a well-known celebrity who works with refugees, "In countries where people have to flee their homes because of persecution and violence, political solutions must be found, peace and tolerance restored, so that refugees can return home. In my experience, going home is the deepest wish of most refugees." (Italics added).

     The displaced remember. Their loss is not erased when the plane lands in their new country or the truck pulls into the refugee camp or the detention center. Forcible removal doesn't include memory loss. And even if the memories are compromised by terror and trauma, there are still those whispers, the longing for a certain scent of wildflowers or bread baking in the communal oven, jungle earth or sea salt. Grief for one's native place is a permanent scar. "The refugee life is very challenging. It's like pulling a tree out of the ground and trying to replant it" (Rosalind Rivera, refugee worker).

    What does this mean for Americans, with the roots of so many families ripped from other homelands, by choice in some cases, forcibly in many others?  We are all replanted--is ours a culture cobbled together by the displaced? Is that why we have such trouble staying in one place, why the pioneers restlessly kept pushing west, displacing native people, depriving others of their homes? Why must there always be a frontier, and when there is none, why we must go and make wars over oil and the lands that lie over it, pretend we can happily colonize other planets, fight over ideologies, continually live dissatisfied lives, longing for whatever we don't possess? Does the consumerism that feeds rampant corporate capitalism somehow prey on our need for home, on the primal longing for familiar places? Unless we are indigenous people, our roots are usually not more than 200 years deep in the American soil, but that's long enough to make a place home. Even a decade can create a sense of belonging.

     Jobs, school, marriage, military service--so many necessary parts of our lives as Americans, particularly the economic parts, pull us away from the families, the communities and the familiar environments we were born into. What do we lose when we move from the places where we were born or raised or bore our own children? Is this why we forget to value the natural world around us, to value the neighborhood, to pretend that we don't need community to raise our children or care for our old ones? Is this why cyber-place seems as real as the solid world around so many young people today?

     I remember a place that was my home once upon a time. A place that had been in our family for five generations. Not long at all in the reckoning of the native Kumeyaay, but very long for white people in southern California.Thousands of acres of heavy gray soil, bunch grass and non-native wild oats, dodecatheons and brodeia in the springtime, fog banks and the warm scent of ripe oranges in summer. The familiar sank into my bones--sounds of horses grinding hay with their big teeth in the stalls below us as we sat on top of oat hay bale towers in my grandfather's barn, the millions of stars that we watched swing overhead as we slept outdoors, listening to coyotes chatter and sing at the edge of the orange grove. As a child, I had no sense of this land belonging to me--I belonged to it. And I still feel that way as I push through middle age, though the land is long buried under subdivisions and semiconductor factories.

    Event though I've been back, have seen it--in James Taylor's words--"all spec house and plywood...all torn up, tore up good," that's not how I see it in my mind. I see the land intact: the arroyos and hills; the dirt road I walked on with burning bare feet; the old ranch house and barn; a herd of half-wild horses grazing on the mesa. My native place is as intact in my memory as first love. I have to remind myself that it isn't really there, because, in some time-out-of-time way, it is.

   Next entry, I'll try to talk about how I think this endemic placelessness has made us undervalue nature and overvalue individualism. I'd also like to begin formulating what might be a useful and palliative response, one that might help us learn to locate ourselves, care for the places we live in, and be better neighbors and citizens. If you have any ideas, please share them.

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