Every Path Leads Homeward

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.

IMG_0164The Atherton Tablelands

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.

IMG_2437Sussex County, New Jersey

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?

Environmental Storytelling–John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers


Photo courtesy of US Department of Transportation

By Neva Knott

Recently, I read John McPhee’s Uncommon Carriers, a collect of ethnographies about people who drive 18-wheelers, tow boats, and coal trains. The collection is a look at the sub-cultures that propel the American lifestyle–and is an engaging and enjoyable read. Three essays in particular stood out to me.

“A Fleet of One” in which McPhee joins long-haul truck driver Don Ainsworth for a 3,000-plus mile journey across the country, in a tanker carrying hazmats. Though the story McPhee gives reference to ecological aspects of places Ainsworth’s truck rolls past. “Deadman Pass, the Blue Mountains, the Oregon Trail, The Great Divide Basin, the Carolina piedmont, the Appalachians, and the Rockies, are all specific geographical markers. He gives detail to scenery with a description of the Yakima River, “…deeply incised and ran in white water past vineyards and fruit trees, among windbreaks of Lombardy poplars. Hops were growing on tall poles and dangling like leis. There was so much beauty in the wide valley it could have been in Italy,” and comments that, “The State of Washington was bright enough, however, to require that a truck stop in the beautiful forest of Englemann spruce and Douglas fir be invisible from the interstate, right down to the last billboard.” The early descriptions of landscape signal McPhee’s point of view as he begins his ride with Ainsworth. He leaves off these ecological observations as he enters further into the world of the trucker, of the road. There is not a balanced amount or abundance of ecological information in the essay, yet McPhee’s environmental commentary versus his reportage of trucker life, truck stops, tank washes and off-loading docks establishes a contrast of place, one that suggests that McPhee sees the landscape of the road as part of the larger American landscape but realizes this is not the normal view from the driver’s seat.


Photo courtesy of wiki commons

In “Tight-Assed River,” McPhee examines life as a tow boat crewman on the Illinois River. Interestingly, more freight moves via waterways than across highways. In as much as McPhee engages his readers with the characters who pilot these boats, he reports on the  the environmental  history of the Illinois river and “the rearrangement of nature” that entailed dredging and the building of levees in an attempt to create an open-water route from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. In these few pages, McPhee explains the exploration and the geological history of the Illinois River basin. He outlines the twentieth-century prosperity along the Illinois. It was prosperity derived from the environmental bounty, “…the Illinois River was second only to the Columbia among commercial river fisheries in the United States. In 1908, twenty-five hundred Illinois fishermen caught ten per cent of the entire U. S. riverine catch.” Hunters “harvested tens of thousands of ducks,” and mussel beds provided the raw material for “numerous button factories.” This prosperity was rendered extinct when “engineers reversed the Chicago River” and the Illinois became part of Chicago’s sewage system. To conclude this exposition, McPhee cites the Clean Water Act of 1972, explaining that, “The river is not foul, as it once was, but it has a permanent tan, a beige opacity from agricultural runoff.” He quotes Tom Amstrong, the tow boat captain, “we’re brown-water people,” as connection between the history of the river and its present quality.


Photo courtesy of wiki commons

The essay “Coal Train” is a reminder of the overarching impact something like opening up a new coal mine can have. Not only was the Powder River Basin landscape devastated, a whole new burden was put upon the rail system. McPhee explains the current boon to coal trains was a result of the Clean Air Act  of 1970, “Powder River Basin coal…is as much as five times lower in sulfur than Appalachian coal. With the Clean Air Act, power plants were required to scrub sulfur out or burn low-sulfur coal.” Consistent with his environmental commentary in the previous essays, McPhee steps away from the narrative of the train operators to explain the landscape of the coal mine itself, calling the mining of the Powder River Basin, “an invasion of the planet unprecedented in scale.” The Orin Line, known as the Coal Line, cuts through Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming. McPhee visits the Black Thunder Mine, where he found, “The faces of the canyon walls were for the most part jet black—beds of coal eight to ten stories thick.” He describes the extent to which the mining is digging into the mountains. Even so, there is enough coal for another two hundred years. McPhee concludes this scene with this comment, “On the horizon there were no trees. Deer and antelope were everywhere at play, much too young to care what had happened to the range,” suggesting the National Grassland is not preserved as it should be because of the mining. In conclusion of his visit to the mine McPhee relays these statistics, “From mines along the Orin Line, twenty-three thousand coal trains annually emerge—that is, about thirty four thousand miles of rolling coal, going off as units to become carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, water, ash, and heat, and to air-condition…”. In listing the by-products of using heat as fuel for power plants, he is listing the greenhouse gases produced in the process.

While the main narrative in each of these essays is the story of people in jobs that power America, McPhee positions himself as an environmental storyteller. His environmental commentary elucidates the ecological impacts of these modes of transportation. Uncommon Carriers is an interesting read about jobs and American sub-cultures, and it is an important piece of environmental storytelling.