“…to become native of this place, if we are to survive here, and our neighbors too,
our work is to learn to speak the grammar of animacy, so that we might be truly at home.”
–Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
So many processes and beings hold our world together. We’ve only begun to see the complex connections that thread us to everything and everyone. We’ve only lately acknowledged essential workers and the supply chain. There is so much that has escaped our notice.
Take plants, from phytoplankton in the oceans to mosses and ferns, wildflowers and trees. Take our atmosphere and water, too. Human life is wholly dependent on healthy working systems of plants, animals, bacteria, soils, atmosphere, water. Why do we forget this?
I can’t control the future, in terms of pandemic or climate change, but I can pause and learn what science shows us we must do. Rushing back to “the way things were”—to full-throttle twenty-first-century commodity culture—feels completely wrong. Here’s why.
It starts with trees. Something I’ve learned from trees is that there is a power to staying in place.
My home is a refuge where, through nearly four decades, my family and I have nurtured a commitment to place. In 1984 we bought five acres, complete with mobile home, in a rural corner of central North Carolina, part of a one-hundred-acre intentional community established by three Quaker families a decade earlier. Enchanted by notions of back-to-the-land simplicity, we imagined lush gardens and a cottage industry.
Living in a forest and caring for one hundred acres turned out to require a substantial commitment. The rocky soil made gardening a challenge, the dense forest was difficult to clear. With our neighbors, we maintain gravel roads—this includes chain-sawing our way out after hurricanes and ice storms—and two wells, along with a couple of miles of underground pipes that bring the water to our houses. We eventually developed a communal garden. We make decisions using a slow and imperfect consensus process. All of this, you will note, demands time at home.
It took ten years for our family to build a house, much of it with our own labor.
I’ll admit that there were whole seasons during which I fantasized about moving, mostly summer seasons. It was hot; ticks and chiggers ate us up. Expecting the future to involve scarce and expensive gasoline, I worried that living a thirty-minute drive from cultural offerings might get old. Then I’d flip worry on its head and fancy myself a martyr for staying, for resisting the lure of town life with its coffee shops, sidewalks, flower planters.
In our hearts, though, we knew that it would be hard to find anything this good, even with its faults. There was a reason to stay, though we couldn’t always name it.
Today, against the reality of a global pandemic, I am glad to live in a semi-wild place. You can’t live surrounded by enormous trees and not sense that you are merely one part of something large and complex, that system of living beings and processes. This awareness encourages patience. Do people confined to city apartments come to a similar realization, listening to sirens day and night, waving to neighbors across the air shaft?
My grandparents, four immigrants out of Eastern Europe, arrived in America just before and after World War I. I don’t have details about my grandparents’ economic situation or what their own attachments to home were. I do know that poverty, discrimination, and lack of opportunity pushed my paternal grandmother to leave Poland. It was difficult once she arrived in New York in January of 1920, but she managed, through a combination of wits and strength. That’s what you do—you manage.
By the time the grandkids came along in the 1950s, things were looking up for my grandmother’s children. Her two sons, engineers, were riding a wave of upward mobility. I believe it reassured her to see that the financial ease she had dreamed of in her youth would at least be achieved by her offspring. Today I recognize how much I benefited from American capitalism and its inherent racism: because my immigrant grandparents were ultimately accepted as Americans—in essence, White Americans—America’s social, economic, and educational doors opened for me.
It’s painful to acknowledge where America is now. In my lifetime, capitalism spun out of control: wealth is hoarded by a relative few individuals while wages for the rest of us stagnate. Institutions of injustice flourish, and corporate greed leads to obscene levels of resource extraction and fossil-fuel burning, threatening our home planet.
In my early twenties, I noticed the aspirations for continued upward mobility among my peers. It made me want to leave the New York suburbs where I’d been raised. My own migration, not quite as profound as my grandparents’ experience, took me south. In North Carolina, I pursued a graduate degree in ecology and a career in conservation. When I arrived in this intentional community a few years later, I did not anticipate the strength of commitment to place I would soon discover.
It was our intention to become native to this ecological address, so we resisted the contemporary trend of using home as a pit-stop. Home, for many, seemed to have become a place to drop into, sandwiched between long workdays made longer by children’s enrichment activities, workouts at the gym, shopping, concerts. Our family committed to a rhythm that prioritized consecutive hours of home-time, dinners together most nights, frequent walks in the woods. We avoided jobs that would take us away fifty, sixty hours each week. There were periods when I commuted five days a week, and there were others when I worked part-time and from home. My spouse worked part-time for many years as well. We sacrificed professional advancement and financial security. It’s too bad it works that way, isn’t it?
Over time, I learned that pine warbler song in February meant spring was on its way to our rocky hill. I came to expect the first katydid calls on the Fourth of July, and in the depths of drought, a summer tanager’s staccato notes lifted my sweaty spirit. I committed to living here.
Today I associate all the people I love with this land. Memories are everywhere: my child toddling downhill, falling on her diaper-cushioned bottom then looking back at us before getting up and continuing; my parents sitting on the porch the day before my mother’s surgery, attenuating fear with idle talk. There were potlucks with neighbors, delirious sledding parties. Even the empty chicken coop and an abandoned garden are precious to me: I can’t forget wrestling black snakes out of the hens’ nest boxes so we could grab the amber-yolked eggs. And of course the vegetables I planted under the oaks withered: water and nutrients were appropriated by the trees, which had lived here long before my arrival.
On the fifth anniversary of our move-in, one of those oak trees crashed through our mobile home roof in a storm. I still panic whenever the wind picks up, but I retain a deep respect for and communion with these trees. All winter their silver limbs and stoic trunks surround me. All summer their shade bleeds emerald.
Trees are masters of staying in place, yet as we now know, they create exquisite, mutually beneficial underground networks with soil fungi and neighboring trees. Without moving, they communicate with one another and reallocate resources when an insect pathogen invades or drought returns. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide humans emit from thousands of industrial processes. How tragic that in our rush to convert natural habitat—to “develop” land—we decimate what could save us.
This spring was gorgeous: one of the greenest and most flower-filled in recent memory. Daily walks through woods and fields soothed my worried mind. In late March, well into the pandemic, I watched leaves emerge. First the gray branches of winter lit up overnight with little green flames. In no time, these tiny flames grew into full, flamboyant leaves. Shade came before we actually needed it this year.
I won’t suggest that it’s easy to stay home when you are worried over the health of loved ones, the future of your job, the state of our democracy. My point is that because I have cultivated a complex and deep connection to the place I call home—intimacy with its seasons, insects, plants, animals—I feel confident in the gift that home offers. It shelters me and supports me in this long pause. “Home” is an expansive concept that spills outside my door to the forest and beyond.
In the past four decades, Americans adopted a life of hyper-movement, hyper-consumption, and overdriven work schedules. “We’ve been told—and eventually told ourselves—that consumption was our joy and our job,” says Bill McKibben.* That lifestyle is now on pause due to a virulent virus. Could we leave it behind, permanently?
It’s the right moment to ask this question, and to acknowledge the societal sacrifice that comes with a consumption-driven lifestyle. We can no longer look away from the cruel racism present in every aspect of our economy and our systems of justice, government, and health care. We see that mental illness, suicide, and drug addiction are escalating. Most terrifying: in living profoundly disconnected from nature, we have nearly ruined our home planet.
My lifestyle is neither suitable nor possible for everyone. But I am convinced that when we plant roots and attentively occupy our place in the world—when we slow down to notice the interdependence of all the parts—our desire to care for, and take care of, is likely to extend beyond ourselves and our four walls. It extends to all living beings. We discover a desire to take the time and effort needed to heal what we now see is a damaged world.
*Bill McKibben, “When Social Distancing Ends, Will We Rethink the World We Want?” Yale Environment 360, May 14, 2020 (https://e360.yale.edu/features/when-social-distancing-ends-will-we-rethink-the-world-we-want)
Laura Cotterman, now retired, worked as a botanist, editor, and publications coordinator primarily for nonprofit organizations engaged in biodiversity conservation. She is coauthor, with colleagues at the North Carolina Botanical Garden Damon Waitt and Alan Weakley, of a field guide titled Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast (Timber Press, 2019). Wildflowers won a 2019 National Outdoor Book Award.
Images By: Laura Cotterman