At first, she found it dry. Soon and forever after, she would find it vast, dreadfully open, more sky than prairie, more prairie than mountain, more mountain than city. The whole would outstrip her ability to see, and she knew her days would end before she had seen one half of the continent and its rivers, its forests, its shores. Dry at first, then running, raining, flooding, wet. Then dry again…The Saint of Cabora had discovered America.
- Queen of America by Luis Alberto Urrea
I didn’t expect the car trip to the Medicine of the People’s Conference to affect me almost as much as the actual conference. From Napa down through central valley agriculture with its swathes of irrigated monoculture punctuated by dead, dry dirt (no living soil there) where water had been diverted away from agriculture due to water shortages and competing interests; into the Mohave desert with its barren stretches of sagebrush and tumbleweeds and endless sky and then into Arizona desert with its cactus and upthrust volcanic rock and myriad shades of subtle color and then up, up into the high desert mountains full of ponderosa pines and countless wildflowers. The whole of it gave me a deep, deep sense of homesickness and uprootedness and wonder at the sheer vastness of it all. I’m a homebody. Through and through. When I say homebody, I don’t mean just attached to being in my house. I mean being attached to the place around me: the plants and the animals and the seasonal shifts in weather. I like feeling ‘at home’. Familiar.
I remember feeling this way when Aaron and I moved from Arcata and the redwood forests down into Napa to be closer to family: lost. My extended family lives up in the Pacific Northwest. That’s where I was born and that’s where the majority of my camping and hiking and outdoor exploration occurred throughout my childhood. That is the landscape that sank deep into my blood and my psyche. That is what smelled like home, felt like home. When Aaron and I visited Arcata for the first time, I remember a sudden sense of being home. I remember telling him that it smelled like my grandmother’s house. And I knew this was where we should move to. This lush, green, moss-carpeted place with the smell of the ocean and spruce and redwood.
When we moved to Napa, I remember feeling lost. All those plants I knew, those smells, that coastal weather: gone. For Aaron, having been raised in Napa his whole life, it is here amongst the oaks and coyote bush and manzanita that he is home. For me it wasn’t immediate. It was (and is) a process of learning and exploring and laying down roots. Of daily intimate engagement with the land around me through walking, gardening, sitting and observing, harvesting. A process that has taken years and is far from complete. Often I would still think wistfully of the lush, green Pacific Northwest despite my growing love of this dry and then wet, brown and then green, hot and then cool, place of contrasts and of harvests and of spicy smells. Until this trip, I hadn’t realized just how much this place has become home. Just how deep my roots have grown.
I felt downright lost without my familiar plants and landscape and smells. I could feel it in my body. It just didn’t work quite right, everything was a bit off. It was beautiful where we were and everyone was amazing. I’m so glad I went. I’d been wanting to attend but had been unable to for the previous two conferences. So I was very excited to finally be there this year. And I promise to share more about it later.
But traveling there and back made it clear to me in a new way that I love to feel ‘at home’. That I need to feel at home. America is vast. The world is vast. I don’t need to see it all; what I need is to see a portion of it very closely and very intimately. What I need is to be rooted. What I need is a sense of place.