Some mornings in Seattle, when I stepped outside I’d be greeted with a waft of ocean air. As a girl who grew up vacationing at the Oregon Coast, the scent of the sea carries with it a bit of home; but I never expected it in this teeming city.
Here in Bellingham – small city hedged by forest, bay, farmland and Canada – it is not the ocean greeting me on the breeze when I step outside, but the musk of farm animals. And it thrills me all the same, this whiff of sweet manure, tapping into another place of home in my being.
On a walk this morning, as soon as I step into the woods the scent of a barnyard dissipates and I am left with evergreen trees. Their musk is subtle in these woods, so much so that I experience it more than I inhale it. Here among trees and song birds and squirrels is the scent of home that has become my lifeblood these past years. Wherever I go, my compass points toward forests.
. . . . .
A friend kindly suggested to me recently that, one day if I live among family or friends, geography might not matter so much. The message between the lines was this: If you had more meaningful human connections, you wouldn’t be so attached to a place.
For me, that place is the Pacific Northwest. But my husband’s entire family live in Mexico, and we have talked extensively of moving there one day to be near them. The one question at the forefront of my mind is not, Could I love Mexico? I have no doubt that Mexico would open up a new door of home in my heart. New people, new landscapes, new trees and birds, new colors and sounds, scents and tastes.
No, the question has been, Could I live without these forests?
My husband’s family live dead center in Mexico, where it is arid and hot, far from any forest. I wonder how homesick I would be for these living beings that bring me to life whenever I am in their presence. Who tap into a place of knowing in me that transcends language.
It’s not that my friend’s comment offended me. It just didn’t ring true. Isn’t there room for loving a place without it diminishing love for people, or visa versa? And even more, isn’t it valid enough to simply love a place, with every fiber of your being?
This is my reality, and it’s not been one that everyone can relate to.
. . . . .
I step out of the woods into a large clearing, treading as lightly as my running shoes on gravel permit. To my left, a spotted towhee perches on the tips of a small tree, his voice a continuous question. Eeeeeeeeuup? Eeeeeeeeuuup? I regard him with sidelong glances, mesmerized by the urgency of his voice. I wish I could speak back.
To my right and up the path, a half dozen robins comb the grass for a late breakfast. Their rust-colored chests bob up and down, set against green blades and a sky the color of their eggs. As I watch them, I feel my own chest swell with emotion.
Step by step, I make my way to a bench and sit facing the woods. Cotton swab clouds move across the sky as if being pulled apart in slow motion. Somewhere in the woods, I hear the pounding of a beak on dead wood. The rise and fall of a robin’s call. The continued questions of a towhee. Two gulls soar soundlessly over my head and I watch until their white bellies disappear. I see the curve of a bushy black tail trailing a squirrel up a trunk.
And I release the swelling in my chest, a torrent of gratitude and wonder streaming down my face. That this place exists. That I am here. That any of them are alive.
I don’t know if I can bear imagining a world without them. Not even where I live apart from them, but without them in it. A world that is no longer hospitable to their lives. And this is precisely the world we humans are creating.
It is possible to weep with wonder, love and heartbreak all in the same salty tears.
This, too, is my reality.
. . . . .
One of the many things that slowly edged me away from my roots in Christianity was this mindset that the earth is not our home, and therefore, we cannot love it too much. Likewise, human beings are the main characters of this earth’s narrative and the ones, in the end, who truly matter. All other life is here for our pleasure or use – and yes, our care – not existing for their own glorious purposes, but ultimately for ours. Furthermore, life is best spent investing in things that have eternal value, according to the faith, which means humans. Humans have souls; no other living being does.
I fully recognize this is not universally true of the Christian faith – as it is practiced or perhaps as it was originally intended; there are always exceptions and my knowledge of Christianity came only from western culture. But in my thirty years of experience, this was largely how I saw it lived out across many denominations and communities.
I began to see that the ones I loved did not hold much value in my faith tradition. That, no matter what, I did love this place and earth was my home and humans aren’t the only ones who matter in this story.
I began to see that trees have souls and animals are sentient beings and this world is as much their home as it is mine. We breathe the same air, yet we are the ones degrading it. The state of this earth matters, whether or not this is the only life we’ll know or if it will all be reborn one day after it’s destroyed.
It matters because we exist. Together.
. . . . .
I didn’t have the words at the time, when my friend suggested I not give so much weight to loving a place. But I do now, thanks to Kathleen Dean Moore and her book, Great tide rising, that makes me ache with familiarity. At the end of an early chapter, she listed what it means to love a place (which is exactly the same list for loving a person):
- To want to be near it, physically.
- To want to know everything about it – its story, its moods, what it looks like by moonlight.
- To rejoice in the fact of it.
- To be transformed in its presence – lifted, lighter on your feet, transparent, open to everything beautiful and new.
- To want to be joined with it, taken in by it, lost in it.
- To fear its loss and grieve for its injuries.
- To protect it – fiercely, mindlessly, futilely, and maybe tragically, but to be helpless to do otherwise.
- To press your lips against it, to taste it, to close your eyes and feel it gratefully and fully.
And I wept here, too. For the knowledge that this love is more than enough to sustain me.