by Mary A. Hood
Such a strand of trees Ravens call these branches home Down in the hollow
The ravens appeared as two black undulating waves against the branches. One bird cried, the other answered as they flew off—one, into the blue opening, and the other, deep into the foliage. Ravens are wary birds and with good reason. Once common in the region before European settlers cut down the forests and shot the birds, they have learned to stay away from people. Ten years ago, the only ravens in New York were in the Adirondacks; now they are breeding all over the state, including in Steuben County. Their intelligence, behavior, and interactions with their own and other species have been studied extensively by biologist Bernd Heinrich. In “Ravens in Winter,” he writes, “To us, home is an area where we are at ease, because we are familiar with neighbors, with local peculiarities of food and shelter, and we recognize friends and potential enemies. I suspect it is similar with ravens.” He explains that where these birds call home is variable, and that “vagrant” and “resident” are not absolute categories for them. While I am not certain of the exact location of these ravens’ nest, the woods along this road are part of their home territory. The philosopher Marjorie Grene writes that “all living things are defined by where they are.” I believe the reverse is true as well, that “the where is defined by all the living things.” And the ravens and the woods are as harmonious and meaningful a reality as any I experience.
Stone Schoolhouse Road runs through Urbana State Forest in the region called the Keuka Highlands. An old stone schoolhouse provides the road its name, and I wondered where it might have stood. Roland Bentley’s compilation of schoolhouses in Steuben County through the Steuben Historical Society would probably document its location. Like many rural schools of the nineteenth century, it might have had a cloak room, a water pail and dipper, pine benches with straight backs, and a wood-burning stove. My affection for schoolhouses probably comes from the fact that I liked school and was a fairly good student. School was an avenue of safety and richness in my life and more of a well-placed doorway to the world than was my childhood home. School was a place where smart, strong women played major roles and a level of equality prevailed. Although school also had its awful characters, in the days of the innocent 1950s they were only that, characters.
I am not alone in my fondness for schoolhouses as evidenced by the preservation of many old schoolhouses. Preservation and restoration of these old places are being done both physically and in memoirs. One of the strongest entwinements of schoolhouse and home comes from Mary Swander who writes about her Amish schoolhouse home, Fairview, in her book, “Out of This World: A Journey of Healing.” It was her intent to create a healthy place to live and to heal from an environmental illness. She does not remodel it or fix it up to some ideal of House Beautiful magazine, but keeps it simple and functional. Her choice of an old schoolhouse, I believe, represents a choice of place that embodies the qualities of healthy, righteous living.
People have such different ideas of home. An article by Mary Chao in the July 22, 2007, issue of the “Democrat and Chronicle” describes an all-American family. The photograph of the father with his wife and daughter flanking him reveals a prosperous family: he, the CEO of an insurance company, fifty-something, and a bit overweight; his wife, somewhat thinner and well groomed; the daughter, also a little overweight, perhaps with Downs Syndrome. His dream was to have a waterfront home; he worked hard and saved all his life for one, and he purchased one five years ago for a quarter of a million dollars (now worth almost a million, the article points out). What a great investment, the subtext seemed to say, and I imagined a large majority of people might be quite envious of this family.
How different from my vision of home. I do not dream of a vast manicured lawn; I dream of native plants. I do not dream of 3,500 square feet; I live in 800. I live in a modular home in a trailer park on a small lot with a large linden tree in front. The tree threatens to engulf the house with its tentacular foliage. My home was a decision that involved a lot of factors, but I think of it as modest and as environmentally low-impact as I can afford. It uses the pre-existing infrastructure of the village (water and electricity), and I try to live as locally and sustainably as possible. Two minutes and I am in the countryside, a rural land full of wildlife, not just game animals, but native species that once made up the ecology of the northern deciduous forest. My dream home is a place not of isolation, where I go to get away from the wicked world or to keep the world out, but one where the natural world is close and I am part of a community.
I have watched from my porch cedar waxwings come in and perch like ornaments in the bare branches of the mountain ash. Elegantly marked birds, their slate-gray breasts, Zorro masks, sun-tipped tails, and small red-shoulder patches look so much more graceful than the dull pictures in the field guides. With crests like aerodynamic racing helmets, they twitter in high-pitched buzzy voices. I have seen hundreds of red polls erupt onto my bird feeder and stuff their throat pouches with sunflower seeds. Tiny red-topped finches, they dart from linden branches to feeder in waves of feeding frenzies. I have watched tundra swans fly over in white chevrons, their long necks stretched forward and their seven-foot wing spread embracing the sky as they search for a stop-over. A few of these swans stop briefly on Keuka Lake, but I have seen six or seven hundred in the Genesee Valley fields north of Dansville. I have watched the resident family of crows dunk their bread in muddy puddles, eat the soggy globs, and then fly off on black wings drawn together like eyebrows in a frown.
I have watched the maples cycle, transforming in spring from an ink sketch to red fairy-wings dangled with pearls, then to purple star-trees, then losing their leaves and turning back to basic skeletal. In May the small yards turn to dandelions and look as if they have been sprinkled with gold doubloons. I have watched the yellow leaves of a fall ginkgo tree begin to cascade down until the tree was completely bare in an hour, the ground below turned into a carpet of gold filigree. I have seen fireflies in the hedges light up the borders like white string lights. I have observed the hills that surround my home as an ever-changing canvas upon which the natural colors of the land are always reflected. There are more colors than I could list that sit upon those hills at daybreak, dusk, fall, spring, storms—all the different times and lights of weather and the seasons. And when a rainbow rises from the hills, I believe it and the land is the good luck rainbows promise. All these sights are part of my home.
I have such affection for my neighbors who are mostly older folks. I love my next-door neighbor, a smart, independent elderly lady who wears a bright red hat in winter. I love the old fellow who sits in his car for hours waiting for the mail at the post boxes. I love my neighbor who plants potato vines on vertical strings in front of her porch, transforming it into a leafy room much like the feel of a tree house. I love my neighbor who watches the geese fly over and gets so excited she waves to them. I love the walkers who saunter up and down the streets, rain or shine, dependable as daybreak. I love the lady on the corner who gathers her friends on her porch on warm summer afternoons and keeps track of all the comings and goings. I love the porch sitters, the lawn mowers, the leaf rakers, the snow plowers, the corner gatherers, the dog walkers, all the busyness of the ordinary. I love my neighbor who brings me macaroni salad, homemade apple sauce, and banana bread. I love the two sisters who run the natural food store a few blocks away. I love the waves, the smiles, the hellos, the small courtesies that make my world a sweeter place. All of these small connections are part of my home.
Some people ask upon meeting me where I live, and I suspect it is not that they are particularly interested in my actual environment, but they want a clue as to my wealth and social status. In a world where your wealth, possessions, and especially your house and where you live reflect your value and importance, it is discomforting. I have often thought of saying I live at Linden Place (naming my home after the old tree in my yard), but that attempt at humor may not be especially well received. And I have to remember that naming a place is often a way that well-meaning folks give it value. But the point I am trying to make is that showcase houses, those designed for display, are not my idea of home.
There are so many ways we define home and so many writings about home. Anthologies and collections on the meaning of home fill the presses, but one that captures the changing landscape like few others is “The Place You Love Is Gone” by Melissa Holbrook Pierson. She presents a broad picture of a culture that has gone drastically wrong. She writes of land the size of a football field paved over for each five new cars made, of the loss of two acres of farmland per minute, of her home in Rockland County, New York, where the number of farms has gone from 17,360 to 250, and of the endless Walmarts, strip malls, and developments. Her narrative is not hypocritical, a problem I experience with some writers. Frankly, there is something deceitful about nature writers who live in the Hamptons, naturalists who live on estates purchased from real estate deals, environmentalists who are wealthy oil executives, or CEOs of coal mining companies who build private nature-preserve homes.
Our relationship to our home and our land is often like our relationships to each other. They can be exploitive or based on an exploitive way of living. We often use land like we use each other, in manipulative, oppressive ways to gain wealth, status, power, or control. Our culture teaches and rewards that kind of thinking and that kind of behavior. Who among us does not want the good life of wealth and material abundance. But we do not pay as much attention to the reciprocity of that process and the costs of that wealth. While there are some who treat their land and home places respectfully and responsibly and some who try to live less exploitively, most of us live on a gradient, our lives positioned on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum lie the more obvious exploiters: owners and managers of factory farms, some companies in the agribusiness, the resource extraction businesses such as timber, minerals, coal and gas/oil, the multinationals who in their autonomy and distance operate on profit motive alone, those in the financial institutions who drive exploitive businesses, and the heavy, frivolous consumers who support them. On the other end of the spectrum are the folks like Wendell Berry and those who live socially and ecologically sustainable lives—from members of eco-villages to members of sustainable institutes. Most of us live somewhere in between and more often closer to the exploitive end of the spectrum. Perhaps the challenge for each of us is to shift our positions, even if only a small degree, to the more sustainable end.
The woods along Stone Schoolhouse Road reverberate with the calls of the oven birds in summer. “Teacher, teacher, teacher” they cry, as if they, too, are lovers of school. These woods are the birds’ home, and I imagine them living in a birds’ state of grace. It is with gratitude I walk this state forest knowing that while it is not a nature preserve, it will not become a housing development or the site of a big-box store, (and I hope not a natural gas drilling site using hydrofraking). There will always be ground leaves for the oven birds’ nests; there will always be insects for them to eat. I also walk with the hope that these forests will not become the source of a question we might ask someday: “What to make of a diminished thing?” Perhaps this is the true meaning of home.∎