Deep in our deepest nature is the environment we knew as a child, so that when we meet it later in life, we know we are home. Such is my feeling for the part of rural Vermont where I live. Which is not to say I’m ecstatic every minute here, given the long winters and the dearth of Impressionist art. But I know in my bones I’m in the right place – I’m where I’m supposed to be – and when I go away, coming home is more than a return trip. It’s returning to where I belong.
Lest I feel smug about the superior qualities of the place I live, I remind myself that there are people out there who feel the same way about subway tunnels. Familiarity has to be a part of it, but there’s something else, too.
I believe there’s a secret ingredient at work in forming this irrational bond. I think it must be that somebody who loved us, loved that place. Maybe we didn’t stay long, maybe we barely remember it, but for the rest of our lives the sensory impressions associated with it work away at the back of our minds, guiding us like an invisible compass as we make our choices about where we spend time or, if we’re lucky, where we will live.
According to my theory, it may be those very experiences that are at the heart of our deepest prejudices about the natural world (“I can’t bear the humidity!” we declare, vaguely recalling a family fracas in Alabama) as well as the delights that take us by surprise in their intensity. If we hadn’t had such a good time camping with our family that time, why would we love foraging for firewood in the rain? We might not be able to trace its origins, but we recognize that in some way, we’ve been there before and we were happy.
It’s as if we’re Konrad Lorenz’s ducklings and we were imprinted when we opened our eyes for the first time and saw the wheelbarrow and thought it was Mother. Forever after, the sight of a wheelbarrow gives us comfort. But one person’s wheelbarrow is another person’s Kancamagus Highway or desert arroyo. It’s random, but it’s not.
Jane – or Janey as she will forever be known by me – and I spent a large part of our girlhoods as best friends in Croton, New York. We shared everything: hairstyles and heroines, favorite books, hopeless crushes. The only things we didn’t share were our summers.
Janey’s family were Ocean People. Mine were of Field and Forest. Immediately after Memorial Day, her family went to the Cape, mine to Topsham, Vermont, to my great-grandmother’s house where my mother’s aunt still lived. As our summers drew near, I observed Janey and her brother and sisters entering a period of barely controlled ecstasy over the idea of returning to their place in Chatham. I couldn’t imagine spending all that time in the water, which as far as I could see was only good for drowning. Or on boats, which can sink. To her, the rumble of excitement in my family about going to a farm was equally incomprehensible.
But she didn’t know the thrill of riding the neighbor’s pony, Peter, bareback and pretending to be an Indian princess (within sight of the road, so that others could be thrilled, too) and hadn’t savored sweet praise from my older brother for the amount of firewood I could lug around to the kitchen door for stacking. Or listened to the creak of the hammock in the breezeway, or the cicadas on hot afternoons, or my mother talking about her cherished birch trees all year long.
I must have followed suit because once my own daughters began spending time there, “the farm” became a sacred word in our New Mexican household; 2,000 miles away, they smelled “eau de Vermont” in every musty book. After their children were born, they started bringing them here to our house, not far from my family’s original home, and the process started all over again.
Our grandson Lucca was about four, I believe, the day a group of us started up the path through a dark part of our woods toward a sunlit opening. Up ahead, my daughter Francesca was leading the other children in a rousing chorus of “The wheels on the bus go round and round…” a tradition begun a few summers before at the request of little Cecilia, who had been concerned about the possibility of tigers. Lucca hadn’t been here in a while, and he trailed along behind me, looking suspiciously at the mossy rocks along the path. And then recognition dawned. “I’ve been here before!” he suddenly screamed in delight. “I know this place!”
I couldn’t have scripted it better if I had devised that walk as a net to catch our grandchildren and draw them back here as adults. Unfortunately, there’s the pull of competing forces to consider, too, like the other sets of grandparents. Or they could marry into Ocean People and learn to swim.
Mary Hays writes and philosophizes in Corinth, Vermont.