Perhaps it is true that you can only really know a place when you have left it, when the space between your memory and your life is years long. And in that span of years, a visit is both a homecoming and a reflection, the lost souls of your past staring back at you.
And perhaps so too is leaving your home the only way to see it clearly -- all things for granted, all things missed. The place you vowed never to return finally has some redeeming qualities, and their pleasant surprise is unnerving.
I grew up in the North Woods, nestled into pine forests, twisted up with birch trees, among a thousand or more lakes. In a place where temperatures can swing over one hundred degrees between seasons, the hardy people of my hometown still thrive in this place. They taught me how to dress for the cold, waiting for the school bus at thirty below. They taught me to swim naked under a full moon in the height of summer. And they taught me how to laugh, how to love, how to weep, and how to survive. Skills not just learned from years of hard work, but from the land itself.
It's this connection to the land that most deeply draws me home. Only in my returning do I feel the tug of the forest, the loon call, the howl of the coyote. Even now, in the depths of winter, these familiar sounds draw me in like a breath. Where I now call home, there are trees and lakes and ridges galore. But they are not the same. They are rich with a history long ago forgotten. They do not exhale the memories of people, of traditions, brought to new life in the dirt and moss.
There is something I can't quite name here, a richness that fills the air and my lungs. Soon, I will have lived away longer than I lived here, and yet my heart still calls it home. I could not survive, I think, my own sadness and memory a cloud across the vibrant blue sky.
But every so often, when a few years have passed, I get the familiar ache for open water and loon song and the smell of pine trees and peeling birch bark. And sometimes, by fate or by choice, I come home.
this piece is the introduction to a new collection of essays about place. I look forward to sharing them with you, and hearing your feedback.