Hometown

This essay was originally published in Scott Russell Sanders’ A Conservationist Manifesto (Indiana University Press, 2009). It is republished here with the generous permission of the author.

Until I was in my late twenties, I didn’t know how to answer the question that strangers often ask one another in this land of nomads: Where are you from? I could say that I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but my family moved away from there before I started school. I could say that I spent my school years in the country outside of Ravenna, Ohio, but my family left there before I started college. I could say that I went to college in Providence, Rhode Island, and to graduate school in Cambridge, England, but every time I completed a degree I moved on. So I really wasn’t from Memphis, despite the accident of birth, nor was I from Ravenna, Providence, or Cambridge, much as those places had influenced me.

When I finished the last of my degrees at the age of twenty-five, I couldn’t name a place or point to a spot on the map and say, “That’s my home.” Not having acquired a hometown in childhood, I imagined I never would.

From England, my wife and I moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where I took up my first real job, teaching at Indiana University. When Ruth and I arrived there in the summer of 1971, our furniture, books, bicycles, and clothes only half filled a panel truck. Scattered about the second-floor apartment we rented in a house near campus, our few possessions made the place look less like a home than a campsite. Ruth began foraging at yard sales to fill out our meager belongings. I was reluctant to buy anything more just yet. It would only be a matter of time, I figured, before we moved again, not merely to another house but to another town, another state, even another country.

Good citizenship begins with the right conduct of one’s own life and one’s household, then stretches out to embrace one’s community and the surrounding watershed.

Up to that point in my life, I thought it was normal to uproot every few years and go somewhere new, if only for more excitement or more pay. During the Great Depression, my father had left his parents’ farm in Mississippi to seek work in Chicago, where he found not only a job but also a wife. The Second World War carried him back down south, newly married, to work in a munitions plant. After the war he landed a job with a tire company, which moved him and his family all over the country, from Tennessee to Ohio, then to Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Ontario, then back again to Mississippi. My mother wept at every move, yet she threw herself into each new place, joining a church, running for the school board, planting perennial flowers that would keep blooming long after she had moved on once more.

I took such moving about to be the American way. While growing up, I had read countless stories about pilgrims, voyageurs, explorers, cowboys, and pioneers. These were the venturesome souls, the pathfinders. By contrast, the people who stayed put—whom I read about in stories by Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Mark Twain, and others—were bigoted, listless, and dull. At our most lively, I came to believe, Americans were a footloose people, always striking out for new territory.

So instead of breaking down the crates we had used to ship our things from England to Indiana, I stored them in the attic where they would be handy for our next move. I worked hard at my job, but I didn’t pay much attention to where I was actually living. I knew little about the city government, the schools, the parks and museums, the local economy, the sources of our food or water or electricity. I didn’t know what social problems afflicted our city nor what efforts were being made to solve them. A few of the local trees, birds, and flowers were familiar to me from my childhood years in the Midwest, but otherwise I didn’t know anything about the southern Indiana landscape.

After a year in Bloomington, however, Ruth became pregnant, and the following winter she gave birth to our first child. From the moment I heard baby Eva draw breath, the alchemy of fatherhood began to work a change in me. I began to look around our apartment, around the neighborhood, around the town and countryside with a fresh awareness. How clean was the air that our daughter was breathing? How pure was the water she would drink? How safe were the streets? Was the library well stocked with children’s books? Were there parks where she could play, museums where she could explore? If we stayed in Bloomington even half a dozen years, Eva would attend one or another of the public schools. How good were they? How large were the classes? Were the teachers well trained and well paid? And who took responsibility, inside or outside of government, for making sure these needs were being met?

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