The year I turned 40, I found my way home. That year, in Utah's red rock desert for the first time, I wept as I climbed across the slickrock, wound along canyon floors, balanced my way up and over canyon walls. This wildly unfamiliar place moved me more than I'd expected. I'd thought it would be beautiful and that the challenge of backpacking there would be energizing — but I hadn't expected my heart to break open. My visit to Utah awakened me to a passionate love, born in my childhood, that I'd forgotten, or never consciously acknowledged: love for a spacious, uncluttered horizon, love for dirt, rock, and sage, for heat and dust and stars, for open sky. In the red rock desert, I felt a hunger for place that I hadn't recognized until it began to be sated by the vast sky and expansive rock.
I grew up in arid eastern Washington, near Idaho, and spent my childhood outdoors, digging tunnels into the sage-scrub gully across from my house, running across the open fields to flush pheasants and quail from the tall grass, piling pine needles into nests and curling into them like an animal into a den. When I left home, I moved west, to the "wet side" of the state, and my sense of place was unsettled. I continued to spend long stretches of time outdoors, trekking through the rain-drenched mountains or along the wild and rugged coast, and felt glad to be there. But I didn't let the place seep into me and become part of me; shoulders hunched against the wet, I held myself at some distance from the Pacific Northwest. In Utah, I remembered, with a child's open-hearted joy, how it feels to give over to a place, to be swept into an intimate embrace with the earth. In Utah, I understood that place is part of our identity — that place shapes our identity.
This is what I want for children: a sensual, emotional, and conscious connection to place; the sure, sweet knowledge of earth, air, sky. As a teacher, I want to foster in children an ecological identity, one that shapes them as surely as their cultural and social identities. I believe that this ecological identity, born in a particular place, opens children to a broader connection with the earth; love for a specific place makes possible love for other places. An ecological identity allows us to experience the earth as our home ground, and leaves us determined to live in honorable relationship with our planet.
We live in a culture that dismisses the significance of an ecological identity, a culture that encourages us to move around from place to place and that posits that we make home by the simple fact of habitation, rather than by intimate connection to the land, the sky, the air. Any place can become home, we're told. Which means, really, that no place is home.
This is a dangerous view. It leads to a way of living on the earth that is exploitative and destructive. When no place is home, we don't mind so much when roads are bulldozed into wilderness forests to make logging easy. When no place is home, a dammed river is regrettable, but not a devastating blow to the heart. When no place is home, eating food grown thousands of miles away is normal, and the cost to the planet of processing and shipping it is easy to ignore.