Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Place: The Human Need for Home

I used to own a home. It was a small wild place, made of red fir and adobe mud, set on five remote acres of piňon above New Mexico’s Rio Grande gorge. Off the power grid, lonely and really only half-built when I moved in, the house and land became mine over the ten years I held the deed. I knew the redshafted flicker that nested in the eave above my bedroom window, the cottontail rabbit that crouched outside my fenced garden, eyeing the squash leaves and carrot tops with obvious longing. I knew the color of morning there, summer and winter, the scent of the mountain lion that lived somewhere out among the rocks. I walked in the glittering snow by starlight. I harvested my own piňon nuts. I knew the wildflowers’ names.

Now, I’m homeless. Not without a roof sheltering me, but without a place that’s mine by deed, that feels like home. It’s unsettling, to be part of a middle-aged, quasi-middle-class couple who both grew up in family homes, mine passed down through three generations, and yet have nowhere to call our own.

A few generations ago, for the San people of southern Africa or the Lakota of the North American plains, this need for one’s own place would have made no sense. Every place in their homelands was their place, every waterhole, every camping ground, every sacred rock and tree. The whole beloved landscape was their home. For the Australian (aborigine—get the tribal name) geography is holy—the watering holes and ancient paths mark the routes of the old ones, the physical connection between past and present, spirit and body.

The idea of a home place isn’t entirely foreign to Americans. We are the ultimate mobile people, scattering coast to coast for livelihood. And yet we carry with use an idea of place, one that transcends our ownership of a particular patch of land or condominium. That allegiance may be to a geographical region—the South, New England, New York City, the vast West—usually the part of America where we grew up. We too hold on to a geography of collective memory—Grand Canyon, Indiana woodlands, the Sierra Nevada.

When I was small, my grandfather ran a ranch north of San Diego. Although it had been divided among the descendents of my great-great grandfather, Grandpa’s share of the ranch was still, to a child’s mind, immense territory. Sometime between mid-February and the end of March, my mother would take us on long wildflower identification walks. Dodecatheon, brodeia, monkey flower, winecup. Not knowing that these flowers would one day vanish under housing tracts and computer factories, we picked bucketsful. Their fragile beauty and mysterious sweet and pungent scents would fill our house in the city for a week or so.

As we walked, the particular salt and clay scent of the soil rose around us. We kept a look out for rattlesnakes, watched coyotes loping across the greening hills and red tail hawks rising on air currents into the hazy sky. We marveled at the smooth dark red skin of the Manzanita, the wild spice of feathery “old man,” the dangerous spines of yellow-flowered nopales, the prickly pear cactus.

In summer, the ranch seemed to exhale a pervasive seduction of the senses that became embedded in memory—still embodying after 100 years something of the old Californio genteel and slow-moving lifestyle. It bordered Highway 101 on the coastal side and spread inland as far as San Marcos. Its original 25,000 acres comprise d two of the many shelves that rose in the Pleistocene as the vast inland sea retreated. We found shells everywhere. Not just from the coastal Digueño midden piles, but mixed into the heavy clodded dirt of the orange grove, the sandy road that snaked around the eucalyptus forest, the upper layers of huge clay pits that pockmarked the mesa. These pits had once yielded quantities of the green clay prized by florists and turn of the century Arts and Crafts potters. Later, they were found to conceal the massive bones of a mammoth and deeper, fossil dinosaur bones as well.

I identify each of these soils with a particular scent—dust and salt, an odor of decaying vegetation and sulfur. The Spanish land grantees, whose family name was Marron, had named the ranch for its sulfur springs, Agua Hedionda. When I was little, the springs still bubbled up behind my grandfather’s apple orchard and across El Camino Real, near the original hacienda. In summer, a faint but perceptible rotten egg scent, mingled with the sweet odors of sun-burned grass, ripe oranges and eucalyptus flowers, building a complex identity that imprinted itself in my brain. I can still conjure the smell of the place. If I actually inhaled its fragrance again, all the memories would rise up like  holograms.

Scent is memory, as science has discovered and anyone who has ever rubbed cocoa butter on sunburned skin or eaten barbequed ribs can attest. It brings us back to places in a particularly vivid way. Orange blossoms, eucalyptus method, the odor of cut hay and ripe apricots are all evocative of the place that I can scarcely hope to convey on paper. The ranch was mine in an emotional ownership that has long outlived my grandfather and his generation, the warm hazy days of summers forty years gone, and—it was in Southern California, after all—the place itself.

Most people could conjure equally rich memories of their favorite childhood places— a park in Brooklyn where a patch of grass stayed wet year-round, giving off rich chlorophyll fragrances, the Santana heat of Los Angeles in October, when the piercing dry wind carries mingled odors of smog and pine, the rich sorghum scent of east Texas in summer, the pinon and cedar smoke of New Mexico in winter. And scent is only part of memory. Color, texture, the particular quality of light unique to places, the angle of the stars and the way humid or dry air feels on skin. I always thought that the European painters stylized their landscapes according to the mode of the day until I went there and compared the haze of the Netherlands with Rembrandt’s landscapes or the golden wash of light on the Tuscan hills with Leonardo da Vinci’s backgrounds. Each painted what he saw, and beneath that, what he felt about his earthly home place, which made it divine and lovely.

Why does place have such a grip on our souls? Because we are creatures of the familiar. With the madly rapid change of the last few decades, it’s easy for us to deny that this is so. We are in love with the new and cast off the old—old clothes, old electronics, old news—almost daily. It’s only within the last century that any but the most adventuresome could travel to distant places. Only since World War II has mobility for work become a requirement of the labor force, as if we were all suddenly labeled “migrant workers.” Only since the 1960s has urban renewal and suburban development remade cityscapes and landscapes to such a degree that they become unrecognizable and un-navigable to those who return after a few years’ absence.

Several years ago, my mother and I visited San Diego and decided to see what had become of the ranch. The last parcel of property had been sold by my grandfather, my uncle and my mother about ten years earlier. We drove up old El Camino Real, now a four-lane highway occasionally marked by stoplights. On the north side of the road, some of the old family property was still intact. We could see the massive eucalyptus that overhang one of the original haciendas, which now belongs to a cousin of ours who has redone the adobe structure, maintaining the jacal and courtyard and cool dark interiors.

But to the south, where my grandfather’s ranch had stretched toward the Pacific coast, there were rows upon rows of high-tech manufacturing plants, boulevards lined with tropical landscaping trees, parking lots, Starbucks, office buildings. Where we had once turned up a dirt lane past our corrals and ancient barn with its roof like a pair of half-folded wings, another boulevard ran into a maze of subdivision houses, neatly lawned and walled, one abutting another. The barn was long vanished, its wood carried away by makers of bird houses and who knows what. The ranch house, swimming pool, orchard, even the surrounding hills were gone as if they had never existed.

We drove through the subdivision in a kind of shock, I think. I have no memory of the houses. They were like a stage set imposed on and crowding out the world I knew. In a strange twist, we drove down a dead end street where the subdividers had been unable to change the topography enough to continue building. At the guardrail, I stopped the car and got out.

Beyond the railing lay the old world as I knew it, a steep canyon that once had led to my grandfather’s hay fields. Even a stretch of the sandy dirt road was there. I could almost imagine a tractor overturned and rusting alongside. It was as if the old place lay hidden and waiting underneath the asphalt and sidewalks. I have felt few things as eerie and sad. 

And when I think about the ranch, I only see it as it was; I cannot grasp the superimposition of this new world on its back. The world as it is is one dream; the world as it was is another, deeper, engraved on the heart.

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