Archive for the ‘The Search For Home’ Category

The Search for Home – Part 3: Sense of Place – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, February 5th, 2009

The Search For Home
 Part 3: Sense of Place

by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


“…the loss of…. places makes up a loss of ‘world.’   Modern man becomes ‘worldless,’ and thus loses his own identity, as well as the sense of community and participation.  Existence is experienced as ‘meaningless,’ and man becomes ‘homeless’ because he does not any longer belong to a meaningful totality.  Moreover he becomes ‘careless,’ since he does not feel the urge to protect and cultivate a world any more.”    – Christian Norberg-Schultz

garden1-sm.jpgOur quest to rediscover home/wholeness involves a journey into the present, into the body, and finally into the land itself.

This “land” is fully everything not made alien by our kind, by our design.  First and foremost it is the very ground, undulating beneath the pavement, breathing deeply through the cracks in the sidewalks and the stretches of suburban yards.  It’s the flesh of plant and animal and rock, of all that’s come before us reconstituted into the heated soil of the garden and the dirt that always finds its way beneath our fingernails.  It is the ground that grows the food we eat, but even more close to home, it is what holds up our houses, the terra firma that supports our being and without which we would be left floating in the air, nothing more than an etheric possibility lost without the ground to manifest through and on.

No wonder when someone makes a statement without foundation in truth, it’s said to be “groundless.”  Before an electrician turns on the power, he first “grounds” it to the actual soil.  All life depends on the microbes active within the earth, and we’d quickly perish if for some reason they were to go extinct.  Like Macbeth trying in vain to wash his hands of any evidence of the unpleasant deed, we say we are “soiled” and scrub away at the dirt on our bodies, at the evidence of our organic source and eventual earthly conclusion.  When someone is particularly unassuming, relaxed, plain spoken and in obvious relationship with the rudiments of living, we say they are “down to earth.”

The quality, the expression and fact that is “land” is so much more than ground.  It includes and extends into the grass braving life in the tended dividers between lanes of speeding traffic, the trees reaching towards the sky, and into the birds that fly there now.  This land is not just a part of the whole, but claims as its own the giant sequoias and the fish of the sea, all the natural wonders of the world.  And you.  And me.  As humans it is we that are part and parcel of a greater entity, in a membership replete with inherent benefits and duties.

So just what is place, then?  Asked to give examples of places, most of us in modern society would respond with a list of cities (New York, Los Angeles), countries (the United States, Germany, India), or continents (North America, Europe),  essentially the monikers found on any world map.  It’s less likely we’ll mention the small town or inner city neighborhood where we grew up, as if to really be a “place” it must be large enough and distinct enough to be readily recognizable as such by others.  Fewer still would answer with a description of natural environs (southern Ozark bottom lands, Utah canyonlands, northern Pacific coastland), or a list of specific and personal points of our own connection/reconnection (the ocean cliffs below Trinidad, the grassy spot at the foot of the giant pine in so-and-so’s back yard…).

beaverspillway2-sm.jpgHad I been asked to name some places while still a young runaway, I would have said “The park, the local hangout, the beach at Zuma Cove,” and some years before that I’d have went on and on about “my room” and “my backyard,” or even more particularly, “under my bed, in the closet, behind Mom’s lilac bush.”  Before the names of distant cities and countries meant anything at all to us, “place” was experienced as those nested haunts where we could see out but nobody else could see in, tiny places the shifting boundaries of which one could reach out and touch, with its being and character known in this way.  For the young, places remain close-at-hand, personal, protective, and somewhat exclusive.  Places are special.

Whether large or small, whatever we come to think of as  a “place” will seem to have specific if mutable borders.  The secret habitats of our younger years were bounded by the walls of our closet and the light that slivers through the cracks in the door, by the leafy arms of concealing rhododendrons and the encircling boughs of park trees.  Neighborhoods are bordered by major boulevards or railroad tracks, by subtle or extreme shifts in the prevailing architecture, lifestyles or cultural makeup of the predominate population.  Likewise in Nature, where so-called life zones are demarcated by the at-times abrupt transition from timberless alpine peaks to evergreen forests, from piñon/juniper slopes to high desert or valley grassland.  Bioregions may contain one or several different life zones, but can be defined by the direction the rains run off its land, the major rivers or distinctive landforms that seem to distinguish one place from another.   In addition, every region is defined by the character and effects of its “places of power”: specific mountain ranges, lakes or ancient sites long acknowledged as places conducive to the focusing of intent, spiritual revelation or inner peace.  Indeed, their power seems more accessible, our experience more intense because of their unusual topography, localized energies, or the effects of the acknowledgment, devotion and guardianship of countless generations of indigenous peoples… but the ability of the land to affect us, any land, depends largely on the receptivity of the individual.  Our experience of the power of place intensifies in direct proportion to our ability and willingness to perceive, to feel, to heal.  Once we’re truly open to it, there is no building that can defeat its pull, no fragment of uncovered land no matter how small or contained, unable to gift us with inspiration and power.

(We welcome you to share this piece as you like)

(Photos of Animá Center (c)2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)

The Search for Home – Part 2: The Call to Roam, The Call to Stay – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

chaco-dagger.jpgThe Search For Home

Part 2: The Call to Roam, The Call to Stay

Excerpt from the upcoming book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin (


“Men feel, in growing numbers, the drawing of a net of dependency against which something wild in their natures still struggles as desperately as trapped fish in a seine.”
-Loren Eiseley

I have a few friends who spent their first eighteen years in one neighborhood, in a single house before moving out on their own.  But as I write this, the average American is switching their primary residence once every three to four years.  Stretching the median myself, by the time I “ran away” for the last time at age sixteen, I had lived in, and tried to attach myself to eighteen or more different places.  Our family moved from one to the other for any number of reasons, such as to get closer to a new job or further from our past.  Because we found a better deal or warmer or cooler climate.  Because the landlord decided he wanted the house for his daughter and ran a hose into the bedroom to run us out.  Because another rental was sold out from under us to make way for an apartment complex, once its aging owner couldn’t cover the ballooning taxes.  There were always lots of reasons for us to move, but most played on the word “too,” pronounced emphatically in recurrent moments of dissatisfaction:  because the rooms were “too small,” the neighbors “too noisy,” the crime rate “too high.”   Each house or town was in turn pronounced too big or small, too rainy or dry, crowded or inconvenient, built-up or isolated, rich or impoverished, degraded or pretentious.  It seemed that the grass was “always greener on the other side of the fence” (or at least, that a yard of colored gravel would be an improvement).  Not that the complaints weren’t qualitatively justified, but one tended to act less out of reason than the unflappable belief that every move provides improvement, on the way to the discovery of an ideal place.

Mom was amazed, of course, at how long I’ve spent now in a single area, in the same canyon, on the same land, in the same cabin– the place where every single one of these photos were taken.  She was especially surprised having never stayed anywhere longer than a couple years at a stretch in her entire life, remaining some places less than a month, and averaging over two moves per year.  It amazes me as well, when I reflect on my first few years on my own, a period during which I considered myself a “gypsy.”

There’s admittedly a degree of humor in this scene: a red-bearded, motorcycle-riding American beach-boy identifying with the dark-tressed outcasts of old Europe.  I’d nonetheless  been taken in by the movie images of skulking fortune tellers and twirling fire-lit damsels, silk headbands and gilded daggers, and wild-eyed horses pulling their homes-on-wheels from the shadows of one town or forest to the next.  I felt a particular attraction to the round-topped wooden wagons with the colorfully painted wheels, filled with everything a family could possibly need, ready at a moment’s notice to be battened down and pulled towards the next promising vista.  I later tried for the same look and feel, with a cedar shake camper perched on a Jeep pickup truck, and later in a school bus art gallery.

In the Gypsies I felt I’d found a people in love with the raw sensations of life, feeding on a headwind the way wolves snap and grin at the falling snow.  A people who valued liberty over comfort and ease, adventure over accumulation, peasants who found more gold in the progressive sunsets than in any prince’s purse.  A culture where kids were assigned the responsibilities of adults, and adults were encouraged to never stop being kids.  I knew that their constant traveling could well be the result of being chased from one homeland to the next, yet it never occurred to me that the force that drove them forward might be a deep-seated yearning for the Balkans where they lived for centuries, or for the Indian subcontinent they inhabited before that.  To my youthful mind the Gypsies were the archetypal nomads, freely choosing to never settle down, to never see an end to their whirling-mandolin wanderings…

My Celtic and Nordic ancestors ranged far and wide, but staked out in their time  homelands they dutifully lived and died for.  The numerically and militarily superior Roman forces faced an imposing Celtic host who often wore nothing but loose cloaks of fur, armed with nothing but the most primitive weapons and an overwhelming sense of allegiance to place.   For my teenage years, a Harley-Davidson served as my dragon-ship as I sailed off into uncharted waters, but unlike my elders, I embarked with no consideration of a way back.

The expression “home is where the heart is” appealed to me at this age, probably because my heart found itself warmed by so many different wonderful places.  But what I preferred to say was “home is where you hang your hat.”  Or “home is where you lay your head”— on strange couches, on pillows of barn hay or boughs of pine.  I even wrote it on my clothes, the way other kids squiggled skulls and hearts full of initials on their jean legs, “ruining” the Levi jacket my mother sent me.  Philosophical graffiti.  Points of reference for the intentionally homeless.

In my travels I fell in with love the giant moss-laden fir trees of Oregon and Washington, the archaic geology of the Tennessee hills, and the laconic pace of the Rio Grande at Big Bend where it winds between the United States and Mexico.  I slept in Midwestern rainstorms beneath a tarp stretched over my motorcycle, made the most of Utah’s caves during the hottest part of a summer, and accepted refuge from the worst blizzard on record inside a windowless Arizona dynamite shack (thankfully emptied of its most explosive contents by a miner sympathetic to our plight).  In the process I found myself becoming attached to particular regions, those with a characteristic feel and energy that resonated with my own.

While every place is glorious in its own way, offering its own unique expression of landform and lifeform, there were still certain locations that stood out for me, affecting me deeper, and evoking a deeper response:  that cloister of crystal clear rivers known as the “Klamath Knott,” those parts of Colorado’s San Juan mountains still unimpacted by trails, and the ponderosa covered lava heaves of the Mogollon Rim.  I’d learned to listen carefully and appreciatively to the varied voices of the land, the deep baritone monologue of Louisiana bayous and the shrill communication of  wind-whipped Wyoming mountain tops.  It was clear, nonetheless, that there were particular places which not only spoke to me but made demands– places that solicited commitment and provoked loyalty.  Promises of a potential relationship.  Entreaties.  Voices of the land that clearly said to me, “Stay.  Please, stay.”

This is without a doubt the power that inspires the traveler to slow down and notice more, the weary migrant to finally settle down in one place, the seed to send its root in the direction of the core.  It is perhaps this more than rational choice or casual circumstance that puts the brakes on spinning wheels, soothes the beat of restless rambling hearts, and that seduces folks on their way to somewhere else to stop and run their hands into its warm, giving earth.   For all the stimulation our traveling provides, we may eventually find we’re unable to give wholly of ourselves to so many different suitors for our time and hearts.

A part of me still feels like a “gypsy,” an animal driven by a maddening wanderlust, and a product of a society of discontent.  But I have grown to mistrust such predilection, to resent dissatisfaction, to commit wholly to those I love most and the place I cannot live without.

It seems our kind are forever under the influence of two opposing instincts:  the urge to keep on moving, and the call to remain.  In the first case, we’d be wise to connect deeply to the spirit of every diverse place we come into contact with, finding home in each.  In the latter, we agree to a special relationship with but a single home, demonstrating our affection through our artful care of it.  Through our attentions, rituals and celebrations.  And by staying.

When we’re truly healthy again, home again, we’ll do both.  Then and only then, will our search be at an end.

(to be continued)

The Search for Home – Part 1: The Search Begins – by Jesse Wolf Hardin

Thursday, January 22nd, 2009

hohokamspiral.jpgThe Search For Home

Part 1: The Search Begins

Excerpt from the upcoming book Home by Jesse Wolf Hardin


“There are more people wanting to break out of houses than wanting to break into them.”
-Thornton Wilder

“There’s no going home,” you may have heard them say.  What they mean, of course, is that there’s no way to go back in time, no retreat to the comforting arms of parents who always made sure there was food on the table and the cuts on our knees healed, no way to reclaim the houses we grew up in or the innocence that attended us there.

What a terrible thought, to never be able to go home…. whatever that word has come to mean for us.  Depending on the circumstances under which we left our parent’s domicile, at one time or other most of us experience a longing to return to whatever familiar landscapes — childscapes — once permitted us the feeling of being most ourselves in at least conditional safety and relative privacy.  Sometimes this meant a comforting house with a protective papa and a loving mama who served both delicious foods and bountiful hugs, a fort with walls that neither ill intentioned bullies nor freezing storms could ever breach.  A grandparent’s farmhouse with printed flower wallpaper and a porch with a squeaky swing.  An adobe casita with a torn screen door through which the chickens always got in.  Or even the basement of a red brick tenement house, featuring high windows with opaque glass that no stranger could look in.  For others the buildings of our earliest memories still house either real or imagined terrors, sometimes a father’s unforgivable abuse, and in other cases simply the oppression of suburban mediocrity, of tasteless art on septic white walls.  Or the stench of mildew on old carpets and the ominous clanking of the plumbing in an overcrowded apartment.  For them the hunger to return is no less great, though it be to the undeveloped lots where they could play free of not only violence but from manipulation, convention and constriction.  Or to a well-remembered tunnel under backyard hedgerows, beneath concealing stairs in a wilderness of alleys, or the trusted arms of neighborhood trees that conspiratorially lifted us above the line of sight of any supervising adults.

Either way, a toddler’s entire world consists of a relatively small amount of space, a playing room that also happens to be the place where they sleep, and a bathroom once it’s time for toilet training…. living as if nothing exists beyond the reach of one’s own hungering physical senses.  It isn’t long however before that reality expands to include a yard, a local park and then an entire sprawling neighborhood.  The growing child ventures out in all directions but returns home each time, usually well before dark.  Its movements back and forth trace the spokes of a wheel whose center remains essential and intact.  For most kids this reality, this home keeps on changing, but each new house or secretive yard becomes the center of their attention in turn, the center of the known universe.  We want to believe, long after we’re grown and on our own, that we could go back to that center if we “really wanted to.”   We’d like to believe against all evidence, that even if birds ate every bread-crumb left behind to mark our trail we could somehow find our way back.  Back not just to a time but to a place where things made “sense,”  where our senses were at home in the characteristic tastes, sounds, sights and smells or our childscape.

And with this taken away, perhaps we can’t go home after all.  At least not to those homes, not the way we remember them.  While some writers have described successful pilgrimages to the only slightly affected haunts of their childhood, for most of us such haunts no longer exist on the physical plane.  If our idea of home was a tract house with pink stucco walls and sprinklers in the yard, we could be in for a surprise.  Locate a recognizable spot on the map, hunt down the appropriate off-ramp and try to ignore the malls ever under construction.  The whims of progress will likely have altered the landmarks you once depended on to orient yourself.  Without a numbered address, one could easily get lost.  Even with some surviving reference point such as a hill too tough to have been completely leveled, a church preserved by the Historical Society (exactly two and a half blocks east of the house, and you passed it twice a day being while being driven to school and back) still the land may appear foreign, reordered and remade.  Even if you could find a high spot from which to judge the morphed terrain, pulling off a digital survey of this alien movie set, hold the surveyor’s mast up on the giving tops of the parked cars, shoot a line through the discount store and the waiting room of the MinitLube and determine the exact spot where you’d slept beneath cowboy or castle print covers, where wild things lived in forests beneath your bed….  even then, you might not know your home.

Which is to say, it may not look at all the way one remembered it.  There could easily be fuel station trade magazines and nondairy creamers where your comic books were once stacked.   The nightly walk down the hall to the bathroom may cross the floor of a hair salon, or point through the walls of several subsidized housing units, deep in the bowels of a giant forty-story complex.  Reach out in the dark, but there will be no familiar light switch.  Every direction would involve moving through unfamiliar terrain and arousing the suspicions of strangers.

For many of us it was never really our home anyway, perhaps just one in a long string of rentals, in a succession of inner city apartment buildings or the generic houses of the suburbs.  Our conceptual home often remains hidden in the “Never-Never Land” beneath the old maple bed, a place full of secrets and dragons and bears extending down through the floor and foundation, down into the soil and the depth of the stories it could tell.

It is the soil, and sometimes only the soil that lasts– home-ground, alternatively covered with concrete or asphalt, and successive waves of structures built with the flesh of trees and powdered gypsum-rock pressed into panels.  Forests are leveled, hills terraformed by men in roaring graders, and one building after another succumbs to rot and age or the fickle whims of a never-ending series of titleholders…. but beneath all this surface traffic the earth abides.  Microorganisms feast in it’s fermentive hold, working away in the dark, patiently feeding on those “made to last” materials standing between it and the warming rays of the sun.  As children we bond not only to the layout of the rooms, but to the particular feel and odor— even the taste— of a soil blend peculiar to the area we’re in.  Our subconscious bodies register their position on a grid of electromagnetic lay-lines, as they naturally attempt to orient in each new place we move to.

For someone like myself, it’s a difficult matter to determine which of so many residences could be considered a home to return to.  I remember the confidence I felt as a young boy paddling an innertube too far out into a darkening sea, depending on a recognizable shore light to guide me back.  The outgoing tide threatened to take me away to my destruction, and the further out I got the more lights I could see until I could no longer tell one from the other.   I’ve experienced a similar terror in the search for my roots, looking back for a single point of origin, a spot on the horizon that would tell me, unequivocally, that I was on the right road home.  Instead I see a plethora of too-bright spots, accompanied by the hazy recollection of jumbled numbers on faded curb sides and tin sidewalk mailboxes.  My head spins with the pictures of so many walkways, doors in dozens of different colors each leading into a place where I’d once tried to belong.

Where would I start on a search for my source-point, the geography of my mortal and spiritual beginnings?  Surely not the hospital where I was born in transit west to a “promised land,”  that three-hundred room concrete “birthing hut” with the aluminum chairs with their red vinyl plastic seats lining its waiting room, a sterilized stopover on the way to someplace else, just another “rest stop” on the highway that  happens to have a particularly high percentage of doctors and nurses milling around.   How about the first  “tract home” my parents ever bought, purchased before anyone had planted a blade of grass, with many of the neighboring structures empty and the smell of freshly turned soil still strong?  Definitely not the various pastel apartments with their chlorine-smelling pools with the impossibly blue bottoms, huge structures packed with folks I never met, subjected to the sometimes personal sounds of deliberate strangers bleeding through my bedrooms’ hollow walls.  Nor the garages I converted into black-light bedrooms after puberty cast its spell, yearning for freedom but clinging to free meals and shower privileges.

ocean.jpgWhenever I travel through an area I knew as a child, I longingly scan it for anything even remotely familiar after the passage of so many years.  One time I found a particular house we’d once lived in, now inhabited by a family with no toys out front. I wondered if they’d let me go inside for a peek, hoping for the relief and affirmation a flashback might provide, hoping to spot something in the corner of the house that would confirm my future by verifying my past.  But of course I never knocked, unwilling to face their suspicious expressions through the locked security screen or be subjected to an interview through the peephole in a closed door.  Instead I took advantage of the coming darkness to walk around the side, defying the “Neighborhood Crime Watch” signs posted on its lawn.  I moved slowly past windows full of well illuminated residents brushing teeth in the bathroom and watching TV in the den.  I stopped at the rear corner next to the arresting smell of a honeysuckle vine still working its way up the trellis by what was once my bedroom window.  Though empty, the overhead light was on, and my attention was drawn to the spot where a poster of Bardot on a Harley once hung.  While the house no longer appealed to me, I felt somewhat betrayed by its easy acceptance of others. The wall was still white, flecked with little sparkly stuff just like it always was,  but now it sported fluorescent pennants instead.

All in all I’ve found a half dozen of my early residences.  More often though the buildings are long gone, replaced by a fast-food restaurant or “multiple-unit housing.”  At best I may have located the parks where I underwent romantic rites of passage, now too brightly lit and too well patrolled to serve these darker rituals.    Even the shopping center once billed as the largest of its kind proved long outdated and long since removed, sometimes making it difficult to come up with a single crucial landmark (so little exposed “land” these days, and so many “marks”).  Again, it seemed as if the only constant was the soil beneath it all.

Soil, and water.  Water running underground, rain flooding the streets, water escaping down cement ditches in a mad dash to the sea.  The rocky cliffs I once clambered down to launch my innertube have been terraced and developed, fenced and posted, but like the soil the ocean abides.  Some years ago I snuck down a driveway, past the resident’s covered motor boat  and down a familiar trail to a shellfish-encrusted rock.  I sucked in the collecting dark, faced the immensity of the mighty Pacific.  Behind me a place I no longer knew busied itself with foreign endeavors.  Ahead of me, save for two distant ships, lay an empty expanse I still associated with whatever “home” was.  What else could I do, there beyond the reach of the rear porch light, but take my shirt off and jump in?  Jump in, and forget about looking back.

(to be continued)

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