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Where (and What) is Your Home?
David Hsu, 24 Sep 06

amherst.jpg I've been musing over the notion of home recently, because I actually went home this week, to western Massachusetts. I haven't figured out much, obviously, since I live in Seattle, Washington, yet consider "home" to be over 3,000 miles away. But then again, home is a fiercely individual concept: it's hard to articulate all the elements that make a 'home'; our location, and notion, of home may change over time; we may not be able to live at home for various reasons; and how we are comfortable with our environment and the people around us are all, I think, wrapped up in this notion of 'home.'

I have plenty of musings about my home, and the concept of home in general, but I'd really like to open the conversation up to you. Please join this conversation; tell us about your homes. Where are you from? Where do you live now? Are they in the same place? If not, how often do you go 'home?' Does it still exist? How is it changing? Is it changing too fast, or too slow, to be part of your picture of a brighter, greener future?

My Home:

I'm from Amherst, which is a small college town in the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts, in the northeastern United States. The town is about an hour and a half to Boston and three hours to New York. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the population is about 35,000 residents, though estimates seem to vary wildly, because of the large number of students in the area. There are approximately 30,000 students in five colleges in the area. I was rather surprised to find that we have a Wikipedia entry, but you can also find out what is happening in town at the town's very own website.

I noticed a lot of things, since I've been gone for awhile. The maple tree in front of our house is now nearly four stories high, no matter that I can remember it back at ten feet tall. The whole town is overwhelmingly, lushly green, with vegetation spilling into the roads and streets near my home. Driving on a back road the other afternoon, I noticed a towering wall of clouds on the horizon on an otherwise clear day -- not a typical sight in New England, until I realized that it was evaporation off of the Connecticut River. Finally, we are at the beginning of fall in New England; despite the regular turning of the seasons, the changing colors of the autumn leaves never, ever fail to shock me. As the chlorophyll in the trees is slowly destroyed by the autumn's lower temperatures, for a few short weeks, all of the trees in New England are clothed in glorious, garish reds, oranges, and yellows.

There are also certain changes that I noticed that are less beautiful, too. The strip mall in the next town over continues to expand, with more than ten big boxes, all in a fat row. Behind my house, there's a subdivision on what used to be a farmer's field. My mom avoids the town center now, because of traffic congestion. There are a lot more SUVs than I remember, too.

Home & Environmentalism:

It seems to me that our (my) attachment to home has both positive and negative implications for environmentalism. I've written before about the long time scales in nature that we can barely perceive, and we regularly highlight in these pages how remote sensing has expanded our capability to envision and imagine our impact on the earth. At home, however, one has more opportunity to notice changes of all kinds -- environmental, economic, physical, social, aesthetic -- as part of everyday life. Changes seem to be more immediate, and the processes that change our environment may seem more in our control. We might be able to witness the changes in our gardens or local ecosystems. We may have time to go to our town meeting to protest zoning changes or new developments. At larger scales, candidates and issues may not always seem connected or relevant to our lives. Systems like schools and infrastructure are always hot-button local issues, because they affect people's children, streets, or businesses.

Of course, my attachment to home, and tradition, is not necessarily good. As time has passed, the town has certainly changed, but has it adapted enough? For example, my small town was once based on agriculture, but is now largely based on services. The town (and area) is still rather spread-out, and requires one to drive, mostly, to do anything at all. And whether or not I like it, my town remains certainly connected to larger scales. We didn't invent most of our ideas, our currency, our technology, our economic niche, or global warming, but all of those things will surely affect my town, as it will affect us all. (Unless we secede from the U.S., that is; I assure you that this has been discussed at the town meeting before).

Furthermore, even if we like our homes and the world is 'out there,' the local scale is not always superior. This is what is frequently referred to in academia as 'the local trap': put simply, just because it's local, doesn't mean that it is good. Local agriculture and food, though it can be more tasty, can be much less efficient in production, which is no small concern in countries which don't produce enough food. Local farmers and homeowners can either be the best users, or worst abusers, of pesticides and chemicals. There are legitimate economies of scale, in food production, in infrastructure, and in energy production.

In social terms, also, the concept of home, and belonging to it, must accommodate both our attachments to places, and an expanding vision of universal citizenship, including awareness of the environment and human rights. In Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, David Harvey criticizes the emphatic focus of communitarian theories on local self-determination, something along the lines of, there are some small communities in Arizona and Utah in which homophobia, polygamy, and child brides are the norm. So, how do we reconcile our local attachments and universal ambitions?

Let's discuss it -- please comment!

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I feel like home for me has changed a lot over the past several years. When I grew up home was in Indiana and then college was nearby my childhood home in Indiana, but it was strange how home changed when I left for school. I was so close to where I grew up, yet home was so different because it was in a dorm close to people my own age who really cared for me. Then I graduated and moved out of state. That is my home now. It feels like home. I think home can constantly change, but it's the place where you feel the most comfortable, the place you rest your head and feel like yourself.

Posted by: Midwestmusic on 24 Sep 06

Good starting point. Thanks for the article. My $0.02: Home is where you're comfortable, feel safe, and from where you can launch your forays into the world (but to where you return because you need to feel rooted). For some people, home is mobile, and *where* they are isn't as critical as what they bring with them. For others, home is absolutely rooted to a fixed place. Some may also consider home where the community is, and if there's no community, then it fails a critical definition of home.

About ten years ago, I had to make a hotel 'home' for about six months. My then-girlfriend and I largely closed up shop at our apartment, and moved most of what we needed to the hotel, 2000 miles away. We agreed that it was a nice long-term place to stay, but it wasn't home.

I dinged up an Excel spreadsheet that graphs one's home preferences based on answers to eight questions. The Y axis shows Loyalty and History at the top, Comfort and Self-Indulgence at the base; the X shows Community and Outward Orientation at the left and Job, Possessions and Inward Orientation at the right. The ideas are rough and certainly subject to update, but it's interesting nonetheless. If anyone wants it, you can e-mail me at photo (at) aspen-graphics (dot) com. I included a macro to reset responses to neutral, so don't be surprised if your macro warning goes off upon opening; you can disable the macro and manually reset instead if you wish. Note: I didn't spend time making the sheet have error-handling capabilities, so the user is responsible for putting only one x in each row, and fully filling in the matrix.

Posted by: photoleif on 24 Sep 06

I grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire, in the fenlands of east England. I've not really had a solid sense of home since leaving (I've lived in Reading, Leeds, London, and now Bristol). When I got involved in Greenpeace briefly during the late 80s, on the first wave of climate change awareness, I realised that my dad's farm was situated below sea level, and would probably be one of the first places to succumb to rising sea levels. I was convinced as a 17 year-old that I would live to see my home town underwater, or at least swamp.

That always seemed to be partly wishful thinking, but as time's gone on, it seems more and more like an accurate intuition. Even if I counted it as home still, it would be a very fragile home.

Posted by: Gyrus on 25 Sep 06

Maybe the reason I'm so into experience design is that my "home" has always been a function of changing locales and environments. My original home in New Jersey isn't even a childhood memory: my memories begin with my upbringing in Los Angeles. But my original LA homes are both gone, macadamed under LAX parking lots. The beach and the surf are still there, but in 1980 I embarked for Europe on a Fulbright and then began a personal odyssey to places that were nice but never felt like "home": Sacramento, Seattle, the San Francisco Peninsula, San Diego.

Last October, almost a year ago, I returned to LA (more precisely, Santa Monica) after 25 years away. I was surprised at how much had changed, but even more at how much had stayed the same. Although the population's grown and become more diverse, the processes operating here -- politically, economically, geographically -- haven't changed at all. Ostentatiousness, personal displays of wealth, and media-defined beauty are omnipresent and discouraging. The media focus on LA, a constant since my childhood, has waned somewhat, which may be prove a blessing if it encourages noting what's genuine and good about LA life. But I'm not confident.

One year "at home" after 25 away and I'm just about ready to leave again, this time for some smaller place where the trees meet the ocean and people really care for one another and the environment. That for me would be a good home.

Posted by: Bob Jacobson on 25 Sep 06

I grew up in Warwick, Rhode Island and considered that home until I went off to college in Ithaca, NY. I started considering Ithaca home sometime after freshman year. I'd say that my standard for determining if a place is home is whether or not I reflexively refer to it as "home" in while talking.

I have been living in Phoenix, AZ for the last year and really haven't yet started referring to my apartment as home. The atmosphere and lifestyle here is pretty different from what I'm used to, so I guess I haven't been able to settle down in my head yet.

As far as going home and seeing home change: My parents just recently moved out of my childhood home in RI, so there's not really a "home" to go back to there anymore. I suppose I still identify with Ithaca somewhat as "home," though it is changing a bit.

Ithaca prides itself on its resistance to big-box development and tries to keep local businesses alive--lots of political activism, etc. (Democrats and even Greens get lots of votes here). But its starting to cave in now. While I went to school there, they let in a Best Buy and Barnes and Noble--among others. Now, they're going to have a Walmart, Home Depot, and a bunch of other similar stores. Starbucks finally managed to set up shop and is hurting some of the independently run coffee houses in the area. Sigh... Traffic congestion is also getting worse. On the plus side, they recycle almost everything, have excellent mass transit (for a small city), are pedestrian-friendly, are investing in clean energy, and have tons of open public spaces. But the trend does seem to be negative, from my point of view.

Phoenix is a model of sprawl. It in no way represents anything green and environmental--with the exception of some solar panels here and there. But 99% of the people who live here drive to work. There's a meager bus system and absolutely no other public transit. Mesa, one town over (and where I lived for a short period), doesn't recycle any plastic at all...!

So, as far as "bright green and sustainable" goes, I have no idea how Warwick is doing, Ithaca seems to be slowly losing the fight (though there's a lot of spirit still there and they may turn it around), and the Phoenix metro area never had it to begin with.

Posted by: Bolo on 25 Sep 06

What did Thomas WOlfe say? "You can't go home again"
And then Randall Jarrell said “It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.”

And lets include Evelyn Waugh “The Beast stands for strong mutually antagonistic governments everywhere…Self-sufficiency at home, self-assertion abroad.”

THese are just some examples of how one can start to think about the concept of home.

Can you tell I’m a librarian by training?

I am lucky to live in IL, where my husband and I can take care of mom & provide for our daughter, and of course I still work FT. My home is where my family is, at least the part of the family I'm responsible for keeping alive & happy.

Environmentalism isn't the top priority when you have serious family care issues. I kept collecting my mom's prescription bottles because no one would recycle them and I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out (the pharmacy and recycling center wouldn’t take them and I thought I would be able to do something with them that would be more clever than put them in a landfill), after collecting a garbage bag full of those prescription bottles, one of the care giver assistants threw the bag away (after all, there isn't that much room in her apartment and the care giver prioritized space over recycling).

Being at home is an interesting concept, I don’t feel at home unless I know my family is taken care of and I have an interesting job to do. If I think about the environmental changes I've witnessed over my life (wells drying or becoming polluted, same with tributaries and rivers) I feel sick, and powerless.

Small communities that I become a part of along the way- the community that I live with, work with, those that I learn with etc., are the major vehicles through which I grow, survive etc. I can participate as a voice for the environment, but I can't clean the well water.

In response to the Harvey reference, I am reminded of the history of libraries in South Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana- while local cultures in these areas largely valued oral history, the libraries that the Dutch and English constructed did not respect oral learning, and they only housed written history.

The refusal to permit the oral history was equivalent to destroying and negating the value of that history. (The ability to transcribe oral history was there, they simply didn't value the oral history enough to attempt to do so).

Now when people think of African villages today, the first thought is often the practice of female genital mutilation. I am very against this procedure, but also very aware that there were many other traditions that were stamped away in the process of creating cultural repositories didn't include these other traditions and they have disappeared, and more reactionary (decidedly non-western) traditions have stayed.

As I am upset to see the well water dry up, I am sad to see the positive traditions disappear. How can they be recovered?

If I thought about the small communities I work with as examples of my ‘culture in action’ I could see much too be desired…

Home is where my culture is, my people, and that is a small community indeed.

Posted by: LisaRed on 25 Sep 06

Home, like marriage, is more a verb than a noun.

Superficially, home is a place that belongs to you. Really, it's the place you belong to - the place you marry.

"Belonging to" doesn't mean possession. It means commitment, work, involvement, study, concern, healing, partnership, dancing, joy.

The scale of home is fractal - a fundamental process repeated on multiple scales. Lacking home, we lack something vital in our humanity. Here in North America, most of us have been here for over 500 years without learning how to be indigenous.

Home is the coevolution of ourselves and place. We've been getting that wrong, mostly. A bright green future is getting it right.

Posted by: David Foley on 25 Sep 06

I was searching for home like you would not believe. I had no idea what home was. I moved so many times as a child and in college I transfered to 3 universities in 3 countries before graduating. I was lost and needed to find home badly. And I found it! Home is love. It's the peace and love, the trust, that makes it home. Its inside us. I found home in a hospital, trapped, away from family. It took a hospital trip to find the home of inner love. And I was totally free. I had been released from the prison of self, becoming a world citizen. You are home in my home.

Posted by: Michael Haslip on 25 Sep 06

Taking from my blog

Where (and what) is your home? A question that I always find really interesting since mine has never been back “home”. I live in New York City. By the age of 12, I had moved 10 times. I left home (the place where your parents are, or were, since them, too, have moved) at 17. An age, I understood, to start thinking about getting my own home. Not a kick in the butt out the door, but a mild suggestion that out I had to be. And since then, I have stayed for various period of times in Banff, Montreal, Barcelona, Cannes, Paris, and London. I have been in the US for almost 9 years now. My family, my home has been my immediate surrounding, the people that are close to me at a precise time. It took me a while to find my real home. And even sometimes I wonder if this will be my last home. Although, with all honesty, I hope so. Cause it is time to build my “permanent hom

Posted by: daniel belanger on 25 Sep 06

For a long while I thought that home was where I grew up, in the upper peninsula of Michigan. In the last few years, I realized that it wasn't the location, but my grandma that made the place home. My husband and I have a home of our own, but somehow it becomes homier everytime she visits. She brings with her the tastes, smells, and sights of my childhood, and there isn't a single other person or place to make me feel so much like myself.

Posted by: Heidi Guenin on 26 Sep 06

I am probably a neighbor of MidwestMusic, the first poster on this thread, because I grew up in Bloomington, IN, home of Indiana University - and I was the sixth generation of my family to be born and raised in that town.

Every time I go back Mom gives me a tour of the new construction, new neighborhoods, all the changes. The town feels far more global, as affluent alumni retire there, and the students and music business pull in more world-music interest. Yet the insularity seems to have increased.

Seattle felt like "home" to me when I arrived n 1986, because it felt like Bloomington with real money. Well, a lot more money arrived in the 1990s, and Seattle as a city now feels too mean and paranoid and in a way ashamed of itself to really be "home" ... but the landscape still has the presence and power that tells me I belong here.

I housesit, so I move constantly, and as another poster said, "home" is what I bring with me -- and the good, loving relationships I maintain.

Posted by: Yeshe Choden on 26 Sep 06

This is an interesting question, and one I think about a lot as I try to decide not only whether the place I live in should become my longterm home, but also whether it should become a home for my children. It seems like most posters equate feelings of home with a certain sense of responsibility for place, and I'd say that's the main reason that the place I live now (in the Midwest) isn't a home for me. I don't have at a fundmental emotional level a feeling of stewardship for the community, much as I might intellectually hope for positive environmental and social reforms. I guess I would say that I have no particular home, but I feel at home in several places, both urban (Manhattan, Oakland) and rural (the Oregon coast, western Massachusetts).

Posted by: Zil on 28 Sep 06



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