Home is where the heart is, and these days mine is sprawling all over
the place. That's a result of having traveled a fair amount recently and
having moved a few years ago from a small house in our city's central
neighborhood, where my wife and sons and I lived for nearly a decade, to
a farmhouse on a peninsula in Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay. We
moved just ten miles, but it seems much farther.
Not since we were children had my wife and I stayed in one place as long as we stayed on Eleventh Street. We lived through many of the usual turmoils and triumphs there: teaching the kids to walk and ride bicycles, patching sidewalk injuries, whipping up Halloween costumes and birthday parties and spontaneous neighborhood barbecues. It was a place that made friends feel they could arrive unannounced, carrying bags of groceries and bottles of wine, and stay up so late cooking, eating, talking, and playing music that they had no choice but to stay over and sleep on the couch. We planted gardens there and supplied sunflower seeds to several generations of birds and squirrels. We watched neighbors move in and move out and witnessed marriages, divorces, births, and funerals. We played baseball in the street with the neighborhood kids and retrieved their Frisbees from our roof. We made friends with the mailman.
In that small house on its seventy-five-foot lot we learned about the richness that comes from living for a long time in one place. It's a lesson our grandparents could have taught us if we had stayed still long enough to listen. Our generation and our parents' generation have been restless, changing houses and communities as casually as we change automobiles, yet those of us who stay in one spot for even a few years are surprised to learn that with time every tree and flower garden in the yard -- and every creek, pond, playground, and basketball court in the neighborhood -- accumulates memories. Spend enough time in a place, and your experiences there grow layered and complex, which is one way to build a fuller life. Putting down roots can tap into deep sources of nourishment.
Exploring new terrain, on the other hand, strips us free of old notions and helps us see the world with fresh eyes. Most of my childhood was spent twenty miles from our new house, and Gail and I lived half that distance away during our years on Eleventh Street, yet Old Mission Peninsula is wonderfully free of associations for us. We moved here with the enthusiasm we would have carried on a move across the continent, or even to a different continent. We stepped inside this 125-year-old farmhouse with its second-floor dormers and sagging floors and eminently sensible Cape Cod design -- the long sloping rear of the house backed protectively against the north wind -- and it was like stepping into a new life. A new house, new neighbors, new places to explore: We had no idea what to expect, and it thrilled us.
One bright January day soon after our move, I spent the afternoon following a red fox as it meandered across the snow-covered fields near the house. I stayed a hundred yards back, downwind, and the fox never saw me. It stopped now and then to investigate clumps of underbrush for voles and field mice, to lift a leg and mark territory, to sit and scratch itself and look around idly like a domestic dog. It's tempting to say that a city dweller would never see such a thing. But I know better. In Traverse City our maple-lined street and backyard, with its box elders and lilacs, were home to raccoons, skunks, squirrels, hares, and opossums. We were a short walk from the wetlands and woods bordering the grounds of the defunct state hospital across Division Street, and just five blocks from the Boardman River, where my sons and I fished in the summer for resident bass and pike and in the spring and fall for steelhead, brown trout, and salmon. Gail and I stood with the boys at night in the yard to watch the aurora borealis and wrapped ourselves in blankets on the grass and counted meteors during the Perseid shower. One week the four of us gathered in the alley every evening after sunset and watched the tight triangular massing of Venus, Jupiter, and Mars, a conjunction not due to appear again for 120 years. Feeders hanging in our backyard attracted dozens of species of songbirds. A few blocks from our house a friend watched a plummeting hawk strike a pigeon in flight, then follow it to the ground, hood it with its wings, and tear its breast apart. I once flushed a sharp-tailed grouse -- a rare bird in our part of Michigan -- from the sidewalk in front of the Salvation Army store at the end of our block and watched it soar up Maple Street toward the playground behind the elementary school. That same fall a bald eagle lingered for days near Clinch Park in downtown Traverse City, and a motorist struck and killed a young black bear on a busy stretch of highway between our city's two malls. Nature does not recognize city-limit signs.
But of course nature is more prominent in the country, and much easier to observe. We saw stars in the city, but only the brightest of them. Now we witness the full breadth of the Milky Way and can sense that all the space between the brightest stars is occupied by lesser ones. During meteor showers we see not just the largest and most spectacular meteors but also the brief flashes made by particles the size of bird seed.
Not that we live in isolation. We have neighbors within shouting distance and too many cars passing on Blue Water Road, and a subdivision growing noisily in the field across the road. Our single acre of land is all that remains of an eighty-acre cherry orchard that once covered both sides of the road nearly to the bay. Like many of the orchards on the peninsula, this one was uprooted years ago and the land parceled for development. But our acre of lawn and gardens is shaded by grandfather maples and screened by a fencerow of cedars along the road. It gives us enough privacy for now, and we like the neighbors very much.
When we moved to the peninsula our first urge was to get to know the waters of the bay and the few small ponds nearby. The only way to become acquainted with a river or lake is to embrace it: Walk the shores, wade the shallows, cast a line into it, paddle a canoe on it, rig up a rope swing and drop, shouting, into the heart of it. Knowledge comes with experience, a word whose root translates into "being in peril." Risking peril puts us closer to a place than we can ever get by standing at a safe distance, watching. We need to risk sunburn and wet feet, mild hypothermia, sore muscles, blistered hands, loneliness, and humiliation before we can know a place well enough to feel at home in it. In Traverse City I felt at home on the Boardman River and the portion of Kid's Creek that flows from the state hospital downstream through town to the river. On Old Mission I'm at home now within a few square miles of hardwoods and cherry orchards and along the shoreline surrounding them. Early on July mornings I can walk from my house to East Bay, wade among reeds and rocks along shore, and cast deerhair flies for smallmouth bass. On this water, famed throughout the world for its fishing, I'm often the only human in sight.
When I built houses for a living, I liked the work of measuring, cutting, and nailing, and I found it satisfying to step back at the end of each day to see what I had accomplished. But I never believed I was building homes. That takes time, life, and love, not the work of carpenters. For a house to become a home it has to be lived in. The walls have to become saturated with cooking smells and candle smoke, the floors have to be anointed with spilled milk and tears and mud dried in the shape of tennis-shoe treads. There must be smudges on the windows, pennies in the furnace vents, dog hair on the carpet, a smear of toothpaste in the sink. The space inside needs to be filled for years with voices, music, and laughter. A house, no matter how skillfully built, is not finished until it has been cured in ten thousand ordinary moments.
My brother and I and, later, our adopted sister grew up in a house surrounded by so many lakes, woods, and fields that our early years had the feel of an extended weekend in the country. Home to us was the house, our yard, the forty acres of hardwoods across the road, and, of course, especially, the lake. Rick and I could handle oars and outboard motors almost before we could ride bicycles. Melissa spent her early childhood in inner-city Louisville, but when she came to Long Lake with my parents at age thirteen, she took to the water with the natural grace of an aquatic mammal. She was always the first in the lake every spring, wading out and diving under in April, when the water was only two or three weeks past frozen and so cold it flushed her skin and made her hoot in agony and delight. From then until the cold returned in autumn, she was more often in the water than out of it. During the summers none of us wanted to travel. We wanted to stay home. Our definition of the word included perhaps a square mile of land and water, and for a long time that was enough.
But our homes tend to expand as we grow older. They expand to include larger circles of friends and the places where we go to work, play, and relax. They expand to include the rivers and lakes where we fish and boat, the woods where we hunt and hike, every place that has emotional and historical significance for us. The larger our territory and the more we care about it, the greater our outrage when it is stolen or dumped on. "Not in my backyard" is a familiar cry of people refusing to allow uncontrolled development or the disposal of wastes in the vicinity of their homes. It expresses a literal sentiment. A backyard can stretch for miles and miles; a home can be as big as a continent or a planet.
My backyard now includes about a dozen counties in northern Michigan. It's rolling country, tilled a hundred centuries ago by glaciers and since grown up with hardwoods and conifers, where cedar swamps surround meadows of bracken and goldenrod, and stands of jackpine and aspen divide plains dotted by the weathered gray stumps of pines that were cut a hundred years ago and have never grown back. You can't go far in any direction without descending to water. It's land dotted with lakes and ponds, crossed by rivers, and bounded on all sides by the Great Lakes.
When you explore those shorelines, fields, and woods, you frequently find the remains of old homesteads. Often all that is seen of them is a thicket of lilacs and a few gnarled apple trees near a sunken foundation, with maybe an ancient barn falling slowly into itself. After the Civil War a surge of settlers arrived in northern Michigan to take advantage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which for a nominal fee gave each family up to 160 acres of cut-over forest. Many of the settlers were determined enough to dig out the stumps and make pastures and fields, but few were determined enough to stay on when the land proved so infertile that it could scarcely support a crop.
To live here even today you must be determined. The northern half of the state contains a remarkable density of jacks-of-all-trades. We work as carpenters, bricklayers, timber cutters, waitresses, auto mechanics, and convenience-store clerks -- sometimes all in the same year. We plant forty acres of sandy soil with pine seedlings and harvest them seven years later for Christmas trees. We hunt and fish for subsistence as much as for recreation. We sell crafts to tourists. We work in tiny machine shops building parts for the automobile plants in Detroit and Flint.
A few of us manage to live off the land, either by farming or from gas and oil royalties earned by the wells bobbing in the pasture out back. Some pockets of fertile soil are farmed for corn and potatoes. Orchards and vineyards thrive where the climate is kept moderate along the Lake Michigan shore, but they are dwindling in size and number as farmers and wine makers realize that their profits will never equal the offers of developers eager to convert acreage into subdivisions.
It can be difficult to find natives. Our numbers swell as people from southern Michigan retire or get laid off or just chuck it all and head north. Most move here because of the rivers, lakes, and woods, but find that the lovely country and the clean air come with a price. Good jobs are scarce and pay is low. You can find Ph.D.s managing sporting-goods stores, architects building houses, former auto executives throwing pottery in barnwood-sided studios. We have rural pockets as impoverished as the worst of Appalachia: You can meet men who haven't worked a steady job in ten years; their families might get by on food stamps and poached venison, but the old man finds a way to buy a new 4x4 pickup every three years.
Like most of the United States and Canada, the history of northern Michigan can be written around the twin themes of abundance and waste. Once it was land overflowing with riches, from beaver pelts to white pine, from copper to iron ore, from passenger pigeons to whitefish, lake trout, and sturgeon. The first white entrepreneurs considered it a storehouse of unlimited wealth and insisted to anyone who would listen that the beaver, pines, copper, and fish were inexhaustible. Even the most sober-minded observers estimated that it would take hundreds of years to cut the last of the enormous white and red pines growing in lush thickets across northern Michigan, by which time a new crop would have matured in their place. Instead the forests were decimated within a few decades, and except for tiny patches of virgin pine near Grayling and on the Keweenaw Peninsula, the stands of giant trees are gone.
Exploitation continues today and is still justified with soothing words. State forests have been carved into precise rectangles of an acre or two, one every half mile in some places. At the center of each clear-cut is a large green pump, its horsehead nodding hypnotically as it sucks oil from deposits left when the land was covered by ocean. New roads have been cut to access the wells; two-track tote roads used by loggers and horse-drawn wagons a century ago have been widened into gravel highways big enough to accommodate trucks pulling heavy machinery. When the wells are dry and the pumps are pulled, the roads will remain, kept perpetually rutted by hunters, fishermen, mushroom hunters, woodcutters. In the woods, along the logging trails, you can find abandoned cars, home appliances shot through with bullet holes, entire living-room suites leaking white stuffing. Along the county roads are neat-as-a-pin ranch houses next door to trailers set on blocks and surrounded by three wrecked cars, a radio-dish antenna, a dog kennel, and a snowmobile that squats all summer on the lawn -- and a mile away is a nationally promoted resort complex with a ski slope, a sixty-four-hole golf course designed by Arnold Palmer, and rows of condominiums jutting above the treeline like vertebrae.
I've lived most of my life in this complex place and feel at home here, but I don't know what it means to love the land. I suspect I'm incapable of the deep connection felt by my grandfather, who owned a cherry farm and maple-syrup business in Leelanau County and worked season after season in his woods, cornfields, and orchards. We seem, as a people, to be losing our sense of rootedness. Maybe we lost it when we stopped working the land. Maybe our sweat and tears have to mingle with the bones of our ancestors before we can feel deeply connected to a place.
In our time caring about a place means watching it change. It isn't easy. Old men go around in pissy moods because the world refuses to stay the way it was. They're angry because suddenly everyone has a personal computer and a cellular phone and nobody consulted them first; because there's too much traffic and it moves too fast; because the woods where they've hunted all their lives have been divided into lots, and the lakes where they've fished all their lives have been taken over by water-skiers and personal watercraft. The world has been altered beyond recognition, and mostly in the last few years. Such rapid change can induce a landed, psychological version of divers' bends. The psyche, unable to adapt, becomes poisoned and bent with pain. One symptom is a tendency to bellow at the television; another, irritation with strangers.
Not far from where I live is a section of trout river that Kelly Galloup and I have fished a dozen times in the last couple years. It's water overlooked by most of the flyfishers who congregate in the better-known sections upstream. We've caught relatively few trout there, but they've been bigger than average. One day when Kelly, Pat Moore, and I pulled into the access site to launch Kelly's drift boat, another fisherman was already there. He was not happy to see us. He stomped around his boat, throwing gear inside. Finally he could not contain his anger.
"Why are you fishing here?" he demanded. "Why do you guys from Traverse City have to come over and ruin it? I've lived here all my life, and I've fished this river since I was a kid, and now I have to watch you bastards ruin the fishing just like you ruined the partridge hunting."
This outburst took place at a public-access site on a river thirty miles from where Kelly and I grew up. Between us we've fished the river more than fifty years. We consider the upper river ours. In the last two seasons while floating this particular stretch, we had seen only two other anglers. We were not even sharing water with the man -- he was going upstream, we were going down. It was easy to dismiss him as a jerk. He was being ignorant, irrational, obnoxious. But we saw his point.
We're afraid of losing what we don't even own. It's pure selfishness. We want fifteen miles of prime trout river completely to ourselves. We want a lake of our own. We want to chase away every fisherman and water-skier, bulldoze the cottages, build bonfires of docks and ice shanties. We want to post the property every hundred feet with no-trespassing signs and patrol it on horseback. We want to dump truckloads of trout in the water, as if they were seeds thrown into our private garden, and harvest them for winter. A length of river, a wooded hilltop, a stretch of public shoreline should be enough for anyone. But they're not. Too many people are building too many houses and moving into the spaces we once considered ours. It's an old story, not that that makes it easier. On the contrary.
I'm convinced that the human heart can expand to fill all available space. Moving and travel enlarge those spaces, landing us in new, strange places while we're still under the spell of the familiar ones, and teaching us unexpected things about ourselves and the world. It makes coming home a revelation. I might not care for the land the way my grandfather did, but I care for it nonetheless. When I am gone for long, and especially when I visit places without clear lakes and rivers, my homing urge grows strong. Even where the fishing and the scenery are extraordinary, I soon miss the wooded hills and the dunes and the cedar-scented, sand-and-gravel rivers of northern Michigan. If my feelings for this place are contradictory, that's not unusual. And if it does not quite satisfy my needs and expectations, that's not unusual either.
As an undergraduate at the University of Louisville, I sat in a packed auditorium listening to an address by the late Argentine-born poet and story writer Jorge Luis Borges. He was past eighty then, frail and blind, yet he stood unaided on the stage and spoke of life and literature with such passion that tremors ran up my spine. At one point, in response to a question from the audience, Borges corrected an assumption about his citizenship. "I am not an Argentine," he said. "Like Socrates, I am a citizen of the world."
Few of us have the capacity to embrace the entire world, but it seems a worthy aspiration. When I lose heart or feel constricted and cut off from world events, I walk the fields and woods of my home and climb hills above cherry orchards to stand in a Lake Michigan wind that carries the scents of fresh water, tallgrass prairies, Rocky Mountain snowfields, and Pacific surf. It is the same wind that surges across the treeless plateaus of Iceland and North Dakota, that funnels through the gorges of the Andes, that swirls down Twenty-third Street near Lexington and lifts the pages of used paperbacks lined up for sale on the sidewalk.
The idea of one wind, one world, is new to me. I passed the decade of my twenties in motion, living no place for long, convinced that I belonged nowhere in particular. Now, beginning my forties, I find it strange and heartening to feel at home on the earth at last.
Excerpted from THE RIVER HOME: AN ANGLER'S EXPLORATIONS, by Jerry Dennis. Copyright 1998. Used by permission of the author and St. Martin's Press. Artwork by Glenn Wolff courtesy of St. Martin's Press and Glenn Wolff Studios, All Rights Reserved.