|Place, the place we call home, the place we belong to, defines us. When we have lost our sense of place, we have lost our soul.
Last Christmas I wrote a piece about homelessness, and suggested that the homeless and the addicted are a perfect metaphor for all of us living in modern civilization. I wrote:
Civilization is our Pusher. It’s The Man who keeps us hooked on consumption and debt, The Man who holds the key to our prison and gives us our illusory rush of elation when we buy and use His addictive product. The Man who seduces us back even when we have decided that life in His prison is insane, self-abusive, worse than death. The monkey is our addiction, without which we cannot live. And we wander the streets of civilization’s artificial world in a daze, never really home, wondering what is missing, why we feel so lost. Civilization is our ghetto, a whole world of six billion homeless people, setting fires on every corner for warmth, ganging up and stealing everything we can get our hands on to pawn for our fixes, breeding babies already drug-addicted at birth.
So the next time you see a homeless person, or an addict, don’t be frightened, angry, or filled with pathos. You are looking in the mirror. It is we who are homeless, and addicted. What will it take before we break the habit, walk away from The Man, and find our way home?
On another occasion I wrote:
Know your place. We are all part of a web, a mosaic, and we all travel, but ultimately we have our own place, our ‘home’. If you’re not totally connected with everything and every creature that is part of your place, then it isn’t your place. If you don’t have a place, then you don’t yet really exist. A house is not a place, though if it’s open it can be part of one. A mind is not a place.
The wonderful books of biologist Bernd Heinrich are about birds and animals, but most of all they are about the places that the creatures he studies call home, and about the importance of those places. In his latest book The Geese of Beaver Bog he talks about another biologist, David Ehrenfeld, who writes about animals and the importance of place to them. I’ve ordered Ehrenfeld’s 1994 book Beginning Again, but I’ve already read the amazing first chapter from Amazon’s ‘search inside’ page for the book. The chapter is called ‘Places’ and here is an extract that shook me to the core of my being:
Because the turtles [I was studying in Costa Rica] come out to nest after dark, much of my work was done at night. There was a great deal of waiting between turtles, plenty of time to sit on a driftwood log and think. In the first years of my research I was often the only one on the beach for miles. After ten or twenty minutes of sitting without using my flashlight, my eyes adapted to the dark and I could make out forms against the brown-black sand: the beach plum and coconut palm silhouettes in back, the flicker of the surf in front, sometimes even the shadowy outline of a trailing railroad vine or the scurry of a ghost crab at my feet. The air was heavy and damp with a distinctive primal smell that I can remember but not describe. The rhythmic roar of the surf a few feet away never ceased — my favourite sound. I hear it as I write in my landlocked office in New Jersey. And then, with ponderous, dramatic slowness, a giant turtle would emerge from the sea.
Usually I would see the track first, a vivid black line standing out against the lesser blackness, like the swath of a bulldozer. If I was closer, I could hear the animal’s deep hiss of breath and the sounds of her undershell scraping over logs. If there was a moon, I might see the light glistening off the parabolic curve of the still wet shell. Size at night is hard to determine: even the sprightly 180-pounders, probably nesting for the first time, looked big when nearby, but the 400-pound ancients, with shells nearly four feet long, were colossal in the darkness. Then when the excavations of the body pit and egg cavity were done, if I slowly parted the hind flippers of the now-oblivious turtle, I could watch the perfect white spheres falling and falling into the flask-shaped pit scooped into the soft sand.
Falling as they have fallen for a hundred million years, with the same slow cadence, always shielded from the rain or stars by the same massive bulk with the beaked head and the same large, myopic eyes rimmed with crusts of sand washed out by tears. Minutes and hours, days and months dissolve into eons. I am on an Oligocene beach, an Eocene beach, a Cretaceous beach — the scene is the same. It is night. The turtles are coming back, always back; I hear a deep hiss of breath and catch a glint of wet shell as the continents slide and crash, the oceans form and grow. The turtles were coming here before here was here. At Tortuguero I learned the meaning of place, and began to understand how it is bound up with time.
Ehrenfeld goes on to describe the cruel and careless treatment of the turtles by local fishermen, and how the witnessing of such atrocities by the President of Costa Rica so enraged him that he took steps to protect the green turtle’s Tortuguero breeding ground in perpetuity.
Often, at night, I sit out on the back hill behind our house, overlooking the 1100-acre Albion Hills Conservation Area, with Chelsea the dog, just paying attention to the sounds and the smells and the shadowy sights in the moonlight. I soon forget there is a house behind me, and behind it a community of 34 houses interspersed with wilderness wetlands, and beyond it a city of 6 million that is forecast to grow to as many as 40 million by the end of this century. To us for a few moments there is only the wilderness, the sounds of owls and wood frogs and wind through the trees that have been here for a hundred thousand millennia — the dogwood and the balsam poplar and the maple and the trembling aspen and the white birch and white cedar and bur oak and ironwood and pussywillow, and the smells of rain and muskrat and decaying leaves. And I long to see and feel how this, my adopted home, this place that has welcomed me and allowed me to be a part of it and to share in its wonders, looked before man arrived to change it quickly and utterly. For even here, where nature is respected and where the actions of conservation authorities and lack (for now) of development stress has allowed some of this land to remain unaltered, and some more to start the slow path back to something like what it was like before we arrived, it still bears little resemblance, to the trained eye, to what it must have been, in the eons of silence and darkness before man arrived with his noise and artificial light and carelessness and altered it beyond recognition.
If I am to believe the biologists, the area I call home once probably looked like these photos:
I can imagine living in a place like this, but only because I do live in a place vaguely like this. If I were to have spent my whole life living in a city, or even on a farm, I don’t think I could imagine it. And even if I could, I don’t think I could conceive of it as my place, the place to which I belonged. While this is my adopted home, it is only, naturally, the place of a rare and scattered minority of humans, the First Nations, who learned, in ways that we never have and which I cannot hope to comprehend, to live with the bears and wildcats and mosquitos and black flies and bitterly cold winters and lack of year-round food supplies. Without my protection from these dangers and discomforts, I could never call this place home.
So in order to make places like this habitable to us, as we destroyed the places in the cradles of human civilization that were habitable to us naturally, we had to reform them with our cities and farms, until they became unrecognizable, nothing like the pictures above — terraformed, civilized, converted to a dreadful sameness all over the planet. These cities and farms were as alien to us as they were to the creatures that retreated in their wake. When we try to imagine how bizarre it would be to live on a space station, or on the moon, we should consider that we have already made a much more profound and barren adaptation here on our suffering planet.
But these cities and farms are not natural places for humans. They are not where we lived and thrived for three million years before their invention. Then we lived in the warm climates of Africa, of South Asia and of the Southern edge of Europe, when all those lands were heavily forested. We were and are, like all primates, creatures of the forest, and specifically of the tropical forest. And while three million years is but an instant compared to the hundred million years that the giant green turtles of Tortuguero have called that place home, that tropical forest is still the place our DNA tells us is our home, our place.
Most of that tropical forest is now destroyed, cleared for cities and farms, and we have been gone from there so long that the thought of returning there even if there was room for us, which there is not, is too terrifying to countenance. So we moved from there to less hospitable and more dangerous lands and remade them into cities and farms as well: Since we could not live in these hostile environments we destroyed them and built ourselves artificial landscapes, vast alien prisons which protected us from the terrors of nature and weather but detached us completely from any sense of place.
So now we are all homeless, six billion of us living in an artificial world of our own making. We have destroyed our own three-million year home and most of the homes and places of every other species on Earth, making them mostly homeless, too, those that we haven’t yet made extinct.
I bow my head to the turtles of Tortuguero. They are so much wiser, so much more alive than we shallow newcomers to this planet can ever hope to be. They know the importance of place. They know how to live as part of a world to which all life on this planet once belonged. They show respect for the grand design of our fragile, troubled world, and know their part in it.
While we are merely astonishingly fierce, wondrously adaptable, utterly homeless, arrogant beyond reason, hopelessly lost and addicted to the perpetuation of our own folly.
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