For a new sequence on The Clearing to celebrate the publication of The Long Field, the author Pamela Petro invited eight writers, poets and artists to contribute pieces exploring hiraeth and hwyl, Welsh ideas, but rooted deeply in us all. Today, it’s the turn of Jane Brox who considers the idea of home, not as a fixed place, but as a sequence, with relationships between them.
For indeed, what we all want to find is not so much our place as our path. The path leads to the place, and the place, when we have found it, is only a clearing by the roadside, an opening into another path.
Lucy Larcom , 19th century American poet
Sometimes in evening, as I watch the slim crescent of a waxing moon descend among the neighbourhood trees, I imagine it also setting over the farm, the island, and the cities where I once lived – places I’ve now built as much out of memory and imagination as experience. As they jostle with each other for my affection, their borders occasionally blur. The white pines that stood near the orchard of my childhood toss in the salt wind that scoured the island of my early twenties. In that way, they aren’t so different from all the things I’ve carried with me from the kitchens and yards and barns of the past and that now have settled in together: apple boxes and grain scoops, papery husks and shaped stones. Shells. Books. The peony and the purple irises. What did I hope for each time I packed them up and brought them along? Perhaps that they, too, could defy gravity and find buoyancy elsewhere.
It hardly matters that time has changed those old places differently from the way it’s changed me. In memory, they all feel simpler, quieter than ever. I’m no longer sure which place I long for the most, or which one I would return to if I could. Actually, I am a little afraid of returning, of finding my affections altered. Or affirmed. One thing I’ve learned is that almost anything will grow in the keyhole of light that opens in the wake of a windthrow.
As a child I took rootedness for granted. I lived surrounded by my extended family on a small New England farm in the Merrimack Valley of Massachusetts where our measured rows of crops and their ordered lushness were snugged in by woods. Everything felt like our own – not only the houses, fields, orchards, and the ticking of the irrigation during the August drought, but the brooks, the birch stands, and the lady’s slippers that bloomed beneath the pines. Even winter, when the bone structure of the world showed itself in whites and grays, seemed to belong to us.
Our place hadn’t been much when my grandparents bought it at the turn of the twentieth century during a time when dairy farming in New England was facing one of its declines. But the outbuildings in need of repair, the rusting harrows and plows, the unremarkable herd of cows, and the blind horse that came with it must have looked more promising than the village they’d left behind in in the arid hill country of Lebanon. The farm, they saw, was somewhere they could settle for good, even if their children were to speak another language. And it has endured in our family longer than their native tongue. My father and more than half of his eight his siblings, none of whom could utter more than a few words and phrases of Arabic, lived their entire lives among those fields and woods. Which was the point of it all.
My grandparents died before I was born, and they could have hardly imagined the stability that meant so much to them also seemed to grant me the freedom to wander — not out of necessity as they had, but out of desire. Even during my teenage years I expected my future was elsewhere. Going away to college was the means of going forward, at least in my imagination, no matter the fidelities of the farm and my family. I was also a child of the 1960s and 70s, and along with absorbing the Women’s Movement and the protest culture of my times, I clung to the idea of leaving my old world and its constrictions behind. So, my sense of place has been complicated by my idea of the future as much as the past, by a longing that is both forward leaning and backward looking at the same time.
Let me linger in once place on my path: Nantucket Island, where I spent my early twenties. In the late 1970s, it wasn’t yet overgrown with wealth the way it is now, and in winter we were a small community, made tighter by the fact that so many had departed once the weather got a little rough. We were thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts. Sometimes the Coast Guard had to cut the ice in the harbor so the ferry could get through. Sometimes the ferry couldn’t get through. I loved the sand and scrub, the pines stunted by the wind and the salt. The silence washing right up next to my ears. As much as I loved it for its own wild beauty, I also loved it because it couldn’t have been more distinct from the farm. My parents came to visit me once, and didn’t have much to say about it, though I do remember, during one drive to the far reaches of the island, my father sucked his teeth and said, “Not even a billy goat could live here.”
Funny how my love for that antithetical landscape also magnified my feelings for the place where I was born. Its distance and distinction from the Merrimack Valley helped me to more fully understand both the lushness of the farm and its obedience to the seasons, to see the full meaning of the stifling quiet of its summer heat even as the island felt so soaked in meaning for me: its tides and the time they told, the small street of shops, the moorlands, and the sweep of sand beaches. But I have a feeling Nantucket remains most significant in my mind because it’s where I began to take my writing seriously. I can still see my young self at a table in a house way out on the eastern edge of the island. The windows gave on to a marsh in winter, and hawks teetered over its scrub. The space and possibilities for work felt enormous, and I barely knew what to do with what I thought I wanted. But it was a start. And the winter led to other seasons, a year, and then another.
As much as I loved life there, I sometimes worried what the extremes of the place might mean for my life. I wondered if I was too young to dwell in a place that was thirty miles to sea. And, with time, the more committed I felt to writing, the more I realized the future was something the island wasn’t going to provide. I began it imagine a more varied community, and what it would be like to test myself in a wider world. It took me three tries to leave the island for good, but each leave-taking was a little easier than the one before, and I eventually settled outside of Boston, in a place that was busy even when it snowed. I couldn’t carry the view of the marsh and the marsh hawks with me, but as I moved from apartment to apartment, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, I tried to conjure the feeling of space and quiet that had allowed me to begin.
I lived in the environs of Boston for years. I also moved back to the farm for a time, and then came here, to the coast of Maine, which has been home for more than fifteen years. There is a lot for me to love in this town along a harder, colder coast. Rivers, bays, sounds, ocean — so much water. Salt and brackish and fresh. Mostly it’s too cold for me to swim, but over time I’ve found places where the currents warm the bay just enough for a short dip in the waning days of summer. Ever since I arrived, a little shy of turning fifty, I’ve had a feeling that the path ends here, though I can’t be entirely sure of that. It might just be I’ve come to appreciate how much effort it takes to settle and then re-settle elsewhere.
I understand that I’ll never know this town in Maine as intimately as I still know the farm of my childhood, with its histories and obligations, or feel it as consequentially as the island that helped me begin the life I was hoping for. If place is a path, then you are constantly living with your old affections, and it might it be that I’ve accreted too much by now to give everything over to one place.
You can see down only so far into the cold northern waters. Still, those who have lived here for generations read the currents and the bottoms much the same as my father –now long dead – used to read the lay of his land. They’re aware of their boundaries, marked by a ledge or a cove. A buoy. Even from my perch on the shore I can tell they are at home as they cross and recross the same body of water they’ve always known. Setting traps. Checking lines. On a still day their voices carry a long way. Sea birds rise and fall in their wake. The sun glints off the surface of the bay. An osprey returns to its nest. And the most I can do is take in the mystery of it all.
Jane Brox is an American author of creative non-fiction. Her books range from memoirs of growing up on a farm in Massachusetts — Here and Nowhere Else and Five Thousand Days Like This One to Brilliant, about the evolution of electric light, and Silence, in which she looks at the cultural absence of speech, especially in monasteries and prisons.
The Long Field by Pamela Petro is out now.
The image at the top of this essay is by Pamela Petro.