I do not remember much from my Appalachian Culture class at West Virginia University. I took the course in hopes of learning more about my family’s heritage and history and, though I liked the class, I came away feeling that since I had grown up elsewhere, I had missed out on the common secrets woven into the life of a people and their homeland. The one characteristic I do remember, however, was the mountain people’s sense of place… a sense of being closely tied with the land and the community, a sense of belonging.
My own experience growing up was almost the opposite. My father was in the military and by the time I started high school we had lived in twelve houses, six different states and two countries. As an adult, my travels continued. I attended three different colleges, moved to yet another state after graduating, spent three years in Botswana, and after coming back to the states, lived in four more houses before settling in, eighteen years ago, to the home I have now. The moving around took its toll on my ability to connect closely with any one place and until just recently I have spent most of my life wishing that I could live somewhere else. Though I longed for that sense of place and knew that it was missing, I could not seem to find, nor manufacture it.
Thankfully, my outlook has recently changed. I am experiencing a new spirit of gratitude as I become better acquainted with the property on which I have lived and gardened these many years. If these words sound strange coming from someone who lives on a half-acre lot in the midst of other homes on half-acre lots, it is likely because they are strange. I think it would be safe to say that most of my neighbors have not given much thought to their own bit of earth. Our neighborhood used to be a farm, many years ago, and before that a forest. It was majestic and fruitful and filled with untold numbers of plants, birds, insects and animals. Now, it is covered with mown grass, a few trees and shrubs, volleyball nets, boat storage tents and utility sheds.
Our neighborhood has fallen a long way from the abundant life and diversity it once held, before humans came to live here. I realize that, though I fill our yard with native trees and shrubs, I cannot re-create what took centuries to produce. Still, I can and do choose to do something beneficial, something that adds to the “the health of the land”, as Leopold termed it. We are developing a new relationship, this land and I, and if I listen well I will learn what the land has to teach. I will learn to become its partner and its steward and it will reward me with its treasures. And I am finding that the greatest treasure is, after all this time, a sense of place.