Root (transitive verb)
a: to furnish with or enable to develop roots
b: to fix or implant by or as if by roots
This is my home.
I live at river mile 21, a slight dell where the creek comes in from what used to be called Sucker Lake. It travels down a ravine I only call the Canyon, with its blocky ruins of not-so-long-ago, its hidden architectural grace of a bridge. The creek probably has a name, but that may be another recent ruin. It tunnels out beneath the lake-edge dam, slides down fifty feet of wild rock, and matures within a quarter mile into a placid slice of pond. And there it offers itself to fill a small emptiness the Willamette River didn’t know it had.
It’s easiest to see my home when you rise out of it, quickly. Traveling east on State Street, suddenly you’re even with the branches of the douglas firs, and not their straight-hipped boles. The rest of my town, and the next one over, sits on a bluff, where the highway reveals the green sinuosity of the water’s course. From my home shore, you come upon the river like you would a sleeping snake. I do sometimes feel the urge to back away slowly. It’s big and breathing and it’s right there at my feet.
I locate my home as a dip in the lay of the land, a place lush and water-shaped – as William Stafford put it, “insanely green.” My house in this is a townhome. It’s just off a busy road, and I can see a dozen neighbors’ windows from my own. I cannot see any water, but give me five minutes – half of that’s just waiting for the light to turn – and I can touch the river. My house and its two hundred closest companions crush, penguin-like, into the very slightly higher ground between a slim arm and a shallow bay of the same lake, and that silver-green traveler, the Willamette.
I find myself in land. I’ve grown roots half a dozen times; I can’t help it. It’s understood that many generations of modern Americans are a rootless sort, and certainly I grew up moving from region to region, posting to posting, and school to school. I’m not “from” anywhere. It never made sense to imagine I could stay attached, but that didn’t stop me from growing down into a place. I’m a dandelion: just give it time, the wind will blow me away. Folks forget, and I do too: dandelions have tenacious roots.
This time I’ve stayed, five winters and counting, at one crossroads of water, beneath eight gracefully middle-aged doug firs and a single sheltering maple. This time I made my own choice, and this rooting has been gradual but it is deep.
And I am moving. This is also my choice. Every time I search uneasily for a private place to sit beneath the yawning windows, I know it’s right. And every time I cross State Street to the river, I can’t stand the thought of leaving.
If you’re tallying by place – a distinct land- and culture-scape – I’m on my sixth. If you’re counting buildings of residence, I’ve lost track. It’s possible to understand a life as a history of leave-taking.
It’s always hard; what I face now is not new. But the stakes are different. I notice I am stronger as I age – stronger of conviction, of intellect, of skill. My roots grow with concurrent intensity. They changed the rules of this game before I noticed. Digging them up for transplant becomes less a process of a gardener’s tender care and more a battle of wills.
It’s true my old connections never quite leave me to heal in peace. I’m always finding burrs in my socks, or translucent flowers pressed between the pages. It’s like an aspen grove in here: separate lives on the surface; beneath, a single entity, old and strong. If I have six homes and god knows how many houses, they have only one. They go wherever I do.
So I’m storing up the things that I’ll take with me, from this place. The way, for example, my part of the river gives back the first light of day: incompletely, changed, like it’s swallowed some of the sunrise. Where does the dawn resurface?
Nothing but time could teach me that home means many things, some of them contradictory.
I try to go home for Christmas every year. This home lies in the southern half of California, bounded by dry, folded mountains like a dropped cloth of velvet, and set back a few blue miles from the unpacific depths of the Santa Barbara Channel. It’s Christmas-home because my parents live there, in the gray house on its wide culdesac that they bought when I was fourteen. The olive tree that I recall is gone, and the court’s least favorite neighbor, the mockingbird who perched there to compose his half-thieved tunes in the smallest morning hours. The fan palm, dryly rustling, and the queen palm, glinting at sunset – these endure.
I get lonely for these things. And for the morning light first brushing the eastern hills; for the arched porch at close of day, a glass of wine, and my mother’s conversation. My life is long gone from here, but these winter glimpses remain a gift of grace.
When my plane lands in Portland, the cooling, diffuse light soothes and welcomes. Meanwhile my freezing toes recall the kiss of deeply shaded grass, shelter asked and given from which to thank that bright, demanding southern sky. In the midst of home, we are in every other home.
When I lived in that quiet house, my mother and I decorated the Christmas tree together. It has an order and a rhythm, this decorating, and we are the only two people in the world who know it. Undecorating has the same order, in reverse, and a very different rhythm. My parents have collected more ornaments – souvenirs of their travels, the many friends and family they have loved, and their own several homes – than we can use at once. Some ornaments take turns. Particular pieces go up every year, and one of these is Reed Duck. Reed Duck, who’s about my age, is just what he sounds like: a small waterfowl made of bundled brown reeds, hung with scarlet ribbon. He’s been lost for years, MIA, a casualty of some glitch in the undecorating ritual.
Mom was sorting through old clothes today, and there he was. He’d only fallen out of a box, and taken a long nap on the ground beside the box of stuffed animals I put away for my children when I left home, and the bag of beautiful small dresses labeled “for Tara’s daughter.” Mom cried when she rediscovered them, and I cried when she told me. The recovery of Reed Duck had been a gift – and in the next moment a cruel consolation for the lack of child and grandchild.
What do we do with those clothes now, those stuffed companions? The pink-striped dress I had my first portrait in, aged 5 – it’s still gorgeous. What good can it take into a new generation? My threadbare Ducky Daddles, whose squeaker stopped working before my memory starts, whose snuggly portability accompanied me across the country more than once – who will cherish him today?
I loved my animals fiercely, and I love their memory. My dresses were a joy, and I smile to remember them rustling and new. But the things themselves persist, inconveniently. They’re useless now to anyone except a person who will never exist. They’re valuable only to people who cannot use them.
Of course we can give them away. But what difference will they make: more unwanted things, stripped of the history and the love that made them special? The world already suffocates beneath a rising tide of material possessions. Mine aren’t needed – not even by a stranger. One stuffed animal is as good as another, unless it’s yours.
It’s my practice as an adult to avoid accumulating non-consumable goods. I keep the handmade scrapbooks that recall our travels, a not-insignificant number of books (many with history of their own), my journals since the age of eight. The loss of these would be great. But certain material things tangle themselves in so much weight of emotion. Of these, I keep scarcely any. It turns out this is because my parents keep them for me. The daily sufferings of parenthood never entirely cease.
I remember the afternoon the plump beige and sable cat I named Siam sat waiting for me on the front seat of our ancient Chevy. In the picture that survives from that day, I have rips in the knees of my jeans and my barretted hair is coming loose in white-gold wings around my face. I am grinning a partially-toothed beam of uncomplicated pleasure. Today, my only real choices are to throw Siam away, or give her away to a faceless organization. But I recall her as a friend, and you don’t throw friends on the trash heap. I can’t think of casting her to the wind without betraying everything bound up in her: a deeply happy childhood, my parents’ youth and hopes, my own regret that I’ll never have a daughter.
What do you do with those things, if they cannot be transplanted? They can’t leave home without dissolving into anonymity. And home cannot keep them, either.
Microscopic geography has never been my strength. I loved atlases as a child – big maps of foreign mountains with unfamiliar names. I loved my homes, but I did not know them in the way of the committed resident. I walked them in road miles, I drove them in townships and counties. I took what they gave, but I attended mostly to their grandeurs.
Here, I walk more than once a day, sometimes the same route. It’s often of moderate length: to the grocery store and back, to the river, around the bay, to the library. For a long time I sought novel routes by habit. When I began to have favorites, I was surprised to find them the ways I most often travelled.
There may be a word for this, in a language I don’t know. To me, this is the process of becoming local.
As I have located, I have tended not to localize, but here it is, surprise! I roam as much as ever, just nearby, without a car to find my starting point, without a guidebook to help me find a new trail. I’ve seen this as a domestication, an unwilding of the girl who met the wind-borne Gorge rains with gladness on the steepest slopes each week. It could be that: age and the knowledge of mortality allowing the wilderness-fear the upper hand. It might be just the commitments we make with our time: in my 30s, I have chosen more paths and thus closed off twice as many, something my 20s self did not see coming.
If it’s both things, at least there’s a consolation prize. Certainly river mile 21 is my consolation.
The maple’s leaves have just unfurled since Easter. The sun travels warm and the soft breeze cool through her thousand brick-tinted palms. I’ve seen four hummingbirds today, investigating. What interests them? They’re thought to find the shades of red attractive, but there’s no nectar for them here. Towhees throw their trilling rattle across the patio. Yesterday the rain beaded up on plum-ripe tulips made me want to take a bite of them. Today the sun drops blessings on the last of the tiny wood violets, fading among the moss on my small bank of earth. My camellias – one pink like the palest morning cloud, one pink like a 5-year-old’s tutu – are making confetti on the porch.
I will go from here. And perhaps I will come back – not to this patch of soil, but one close by. I will adapt; I always do. I think I can stand to move a river mile or two.
Please, though – and this is a prayer – not more.