I like the vegetal aspect of the metaphor, because what I miss (what I think I miss) most about Where I’m From is vegetation. The plants depend on the climate, of course, so climate also matters to me, as do hills and water, preferably salt water. But my real focus is trees and flowers. When I get off the plane there, the shapes of the trees look right to me, as do the varieties of flowers that grow . . . and the size they’ll grow to. In the Midwest, geraniums are annuals, either little round balls edging gardens or leggy ones spilling from window boxes. On my high school campus, dark red geraniums grew into hedges five feet tall.

So what does it take to put down roots in a new place? And if you’re a tropical plant, can you ever really take root in a climate zone with snow? Do you have to live in a pot, put out on the deck in the summer, sheltered in a conservatory or sunny window in winter?

A lot of things contribute to rootedness: meaningful work, friends, a partner, children, being recognized in the places you normally go (bank, restaurant, movie theater, grocery store . . .); getting involved in the community in whatever way suits you (tutoring, religious institution, political activism); living in the sort of place that suits you, whether that’s city, small town, suburb, or whatever. I’m sure a lot of people would argue for connectedness: knowing your neighbors, going to church or synagogue, getting to know your children’s friends’ parents, the things that give you multiple ways of running into the same people.

I had most of those kinds of connections where I grew up, but I didn’t experience them as connection. I felt trapped. I wanted very badly to go somewhere else, almost anywhere else, where no one knew me and I could start over.

Again, the common wisdom is that you can’t escape yourself, and you’re supposed to stay and face whatever it is you’re trying to avoid. I don’t buy it. Anyone who reinvented her- or himself as a college freshman knows what I mean. The pushover speaks out on the first day, and no one knows to expect doormat behavior. The sharp-tongued one turns kind, and no one says suspiciously, “Are you being sarcastic?” Freed of longstanding expectations, a person can adopt new behaviors. Someone who was messy as an act of rebellion can keep things orderly; someone whose room was military-neat to avoid parental cleaning and snooping can relax. It’s the other people, the connections, who often hold us to old patterns. It’s not impossible to change in place, but I think it is harder than to move and start fresh.

I have meaningful work, friends, a partner; I have some degree of recognition in places I go often (the gym is the best for that). My community involvement is minimal, partly because I divide my life between two communities, campus and home, with a long commute between. But I don’t hanker after more human connection. What I want is to grow things in my garden that would not be happy here, like plumbago, jasmine, and bougainvillea. I could have them in pots, in the summer, but I don’t want to watch them die when frosts come, and we don’t have a suitable indoor space for them in winter. I enjoy the garden I have, and I make the most of plants that need a cold winter, like bulbs, to be at their best. They’re exotic to me, a welcome burst of brightness in a chilly spring (always late, by my standards, no matter how early to locals).

But before I left the land of plumbago and oleander, I had no idea how attached I was to the landscape. It didn’t really register on me; I didn’t garden, I didn’t take photographs, I didn’t keep a bird list or do anything else that required deliberate effort to connect to the outdoors. It was just there, as much a part of my life as the air I breathed. And even now, I wonder how I would feel if I could move back. Would I be haunted by the ghosts of my past, both my own younger selves and the people I wanted to get away from? I would surely have a lot more money worries; would they overpower my delight in the shapes of the trees? Would I miss the bulb flowers and the relative lack of spiders in my midwestern clime?

Parts of Australia have a similar climate and plant life to the place I grew up. I’ve never been there. If I went, would I get off the plane, smell eucalyptus, and feel instantly that my roots had found soil in which they could be happy? Or would I then find that despite my belief that “home” means the right vegetation, “home” truly inheres in something else, something I haven’t yet recognized?

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6 thoughts on “Putting down roots

  1. I know what you mean about certain plants simply feeling "right." I am never happier than when I am in the midst of pine trees: the smell, the sound of the wind in the needles, the dryness of the air where they grow. It instantly makes me feel "at home." But it lasts only as long as I do not have to connect to anyone. I knew immediately what you meant when you asked if you could return to where you grew up and feel different; I can't. As soon as I am in the midst of these old scents, I start falling back into the person I was then. Sometimes this is good, but at others it is suffocating and all I want to do is come home, to this place where none of the plants seem right but the people do.

  2. Perhaps it depends on the From and To points? I don't really miss anything about my home state, although I'm fond of it. California has become my real home by now, and its biota seem natural to me.Or maybe it's just me.

  3. Meg, I think California is the earthly paradise and so of course you adapted just fine . . . except that this isn't true for everyone. I have a good friend, a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, who hated living in CA. Hated.it. She understands my feeling of uprootedness, but only through a very different place.

  4. Hm, what does it mean that I miss night-blooming jasmine and bougainvillea but wouldn't move back to LA for a million bucks. (OK, maybe a million bucks… a *year* that is. And maybe somewhere in SoCal other than LA.)But more seriously, I didn't realize how much I missed certain flora and fauna in the midwest until I moved back. And then, oh! Fall foliage and spring daffodils break my heart with their magic every year! And lightening bugs and cicadas in the summer make me feel like all is right in the world. And it's meteorological, too — I love a summer thunderstorm or those gigantic fluffy clouds in an azure blue midwestern sky. Oh, and robins and bluejays and cardinals, oh my!But the place I grew up is a 12 hour drive away from here (and it has a slightly different flora and fauna — but much is the same), so it's not about *here* exactly. It *is* about an eco-system so similar to the one I grew up in for 18 years. And that was a place I wanted to get away from, too, just like you wanted to get away from yours. So isn't it weird that we feel such an *elemental* connection to these places?

  5. Dr V: yes, it's that elemental, visceral thing that gets me. I *know* how financially impossible CA is, & I remain enchanted with fireflies, which were critters from books for me; but the sense of place works on me anyway. When I was in grad school, I heard a sermon on place, and staying where you grew up, & I thought, "How stupid! Most of the congregation is students; are you saying we shouldn't be here to study?" but over the years it has echoed. I thought I could go anywhere and adapt, but I'm less adaptable than my younger self thought.

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