By Jenna Gersie
In August 2013, I spent about a week at home in northwest New Jersey, preparing for my ten-month stay in Far North Queensland, Australia. In between packing a year’s worth of my life into two suitcases, saying goodbye to friends and family, and taking care of the necessary doctor appointments and financial arrangements, I had some time to part with the oak and hemlock forests that I love, the Turkey Vultures soaring on broad wings above, and the beautiful late summer light that makes Sussex County so special to me.
In recent years, as I’ve begun to study my home place from an academic standpoint, I have grown more attached to my rural region of New Jersey, one of the places that give the state the nickname “The Garden State.” The more time I spend away from the place I grew up, the more it feels like “home” to me.
But I was off on a journey; I was returning to a place I had lived for a short while nearly five years before. In 2009, I studied abroad in Cairns, Australia, and connected with the rainforests and coral reefs of that region. In 2013, when my final flight from Sydney to Cairns approached land, my heart sang as I saw the rainforest-covered mountains that lined the coast. I felt like I was coming home.
Australia began to feel more and more like home to me as I got to know the community—human and non-human—of the Atherton Tablelands, about an hour’s drive from Cairns. I planted hundreds and hundreds of rainforest tree seedlings with TREAT (Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands). I was welcomed to country by Aboriginal community members both on the Tablelands and down on the coast. I became friends with the locals, learned to identify the birds, and grew accustomed to the relentless terrestrial leeches.
And while I was in Australia, I began to explore the meaning of “home” through the novels of Hermann Hesse. I had discovered that many of Hesse’s characters left the places where they had grown up to embark on journeys of self-discovery, only to later return to their homes or other places with which they had connected along the way. There I was, having returned to a place that I had explored five years before, and examining the actions of these characters and their own connections to nature and place.
For many of Hesse’s characters, a sense of homesickness pervades their feelings as they travel away from their homelands. Peter Camenzind misses the lake and mountains of his native place; Goldmund thinks often of the old chestnut tree and cloister walls of the place he spent the second half of his childhood; Knulp imagines the gardens of his father’s house; Siddhartha returns again and again to the river of his childhood; and Hans Giebenrath daydreams of fishing by the riverside in his hometown. For me, the Black Kites had replaced the Turkey Vultures, the oaks and hemlocks were substituted by Atherton oaks and Bunya pines, and the sunset in the west shone in different colors from my rainforest porch. I thought often of home.
I also thought of the idea of “reinhabiting”—both of returning to a place one has connected with, and of getting to know that place inside and out: its streams, trees, animals, people, seasons. In LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice, Robert L. Thayer writes, “People who care about a place are more likely to take better care of it. And people who take care of places, one place at a time, are the key to the future of humanity and all living creatures.” By getting to know one’s life-place, one begins to care more about it, and therefore take better care of it. I knew the bleeding heart tree seedlings that I planted in Australian soil and the Pale Yellow Robins that fluttered through the trees on my way to work. I cared about them.
But now I am in the process of reinhabiting. I have left one home behind for another. Hesse wrote, “A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward…” I said goodbye to the rainforest trees that had become my home, so that I could return to my original home. Now I look out my window and see the oak trees and Turkey Vultures I had missed. Like each of Hesse’s characters who return to his home place, I have returned to my home in northwest New Jersey. I am beginning to relearn the natural history of this place as I spend time outdoors. I have put aside my Australian bird guide for a North American one. I am homesick for the Tablelands, to be sure; but I have returned to the place that knows me as well as I know it.
Where ever you are, you have the opportunity to connect to place—to make the place you are living your life-place, to care for that place, and in caring for it, to take better care of it. Meanings of home are ever-changing, but I believe they are founded on one thing: sense of place. How well do you know your home place? What does “home” mean to you?