Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Wildness and Place, Gypsies and Homebodies

“With environmental writing,” I explained to someone recently, “if you’re not writing about climate change and pollution, you’re writing about the importance of Place.”

Truly, those darker options are branches on the same tree—they are the threats and the shadows that seek to erase and ravage the refuge of a right Place.

I used to say that nothing in this world compares to the alpine zone of the mountains of New Hampshire, that up there is my best Place. That, it seems, is not quite true. Whatever the wild and holy thing that lurks in the rocks and krummholtz and ridgelines and alpine plants is undeniably of that geography, but I’ve found fractals of that same sense of wonder and practical sublimity—a wonder that to me feels like my heart opens like a drawbridge to let the greatness of the world pour in and if joy grew feathers, I could swoop around like the ravens—in other quarters, too. I’ve come across that same magic at the ocean, in snowstorms, in being love, in farming, in both the laughter and silence of good friends.

When I go, like a hopeful gypsy, looking for Place, for my Place in the world to send out roots, what I am looking for is some configuration of all that wildness and wonder and love and community.

It is a hard thing to look for and I worry that either it cannot be found, or does not exist, or—most bittersweetly—my expectations have been raised to impossible heights because of the quality of what I have witnessed before.

But that is ridiculous.

When I have been away from the wilds for too long, I begin to think that however wonderful I believe the mountains or the sea or thunder and lightning or the sweetness of a friend or the look of Orion on a cold night to be, absence must have made my heart grow imaginative and too fond. Reality, I tell myself in these dim times, cannot compete with hope and memory. The mountains, they do not really do that to your breath. To watch an osprey dive into the ocean does not make your heart skip a beat, every time. People, even the oldest and dearest friends, change and the next meeting could be strained and awkward. And so on.

I sell myself short. Reality, nearly always, exceeds both expectation and memory. The relief and surprise at this truth is one of the sweetest things I know.

There is nothing I can ever write that will come close to the shivering thrill of being above treeline. No one, yet, has adequately portrayed the comforting, urgent wildness of the sea. And there are no right words for how the kindness of a friend changes the color of the sky. The reason that everyone, for better or worse, writes about love is that it is at once the most important and least describable thing in this world. Wildness—in the sense of being joyfully and fiercely immersed in love when surrounded by sublime aspects of life—is only another iteration of the puzzle and glue of love.

I have come as close as I know how to living immersed in natural wildness, and for all that I ache for and am the best version of myself in places where the stars are clear and the world yawns before me in ridgeline or forest or roiling sea, I recognize that—corporally, at least—it is impractical as a human-mammal craving food, shelter, love, purpose and community, to seek for my home Place in the wilderness.

Perhaps that sense of eternal but impermanent belonging is part of the allure of wild places.

Regardless, it does leave the actual question of practical geographic place to become home Place open to debate.

On that subject, I’ve read maybe too much Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry. They make for a confusing pair—I am tugged one way to be a gypsy wandering in search of moments of wildness and torn the other direction to come and be home already.

I know as well as I know the undeniable alpine zone that I am not alone in this tug-torn struggle.

What, then, I wonder makes the wanderers stop? The troupe of gypsies seems to shrink a little every year. I see people around me settle—in the best way—into good paid jobs or satisfying creative outlets or balancing a beloved partner’s yearnings with their own independence or raising beautiful babies, and so their wandering becomes more complicated, even if pieces of their heart still hunger for different wilds. Or, did they find their Place and all other necessary aspects to their life kaleidoscoped into roots, the sum of all the parts as rich and true as a newly discovered wilderness? Or did everyone just get tired from ripping up roots and setting them down in new soil every few months or years, just dipping in the toes and never committing to the downs as well as the ups?

I don’t know, but I want to know how to wander home to something still wild.

My Place, when I find it, I know will be a compromise and a balance off all the kinds of wildness I love and crave. I do not look for perfection—there is nowhere on earth where I can have the Presidential and Franconia Ridges, the Maine coastline, a New England hardwood forest, a farm with stonewalls, work that satisfies but does not sap my soul, and a town knotted full of people I love all within a few miles.

Now, I don’t know quite where to look, where the found is to my lost, where wild and home and love and Place will lead me or anyone else but experience makes me hopefully believe that the reality can be sweeter than even our wildest imaginings. 

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