About once a year, I see these custom maps making the rounds on Facebook. The ones that ask you which states or countries you’ve been to and then produce a colored-in map showing the extent of your travels. Sometimes it’s a world map and other times it’s one of the US.
I look ok on paper when it comes to the world map. I’ve been to the Philippines plus over half a dozen countries in Europe. That’s respectable, I guess. My US map would look less impressive. I’ve been all over the deep south but have only strayed beyond those borders a few times. Wisconsin when I was younger, a music festival in rural Illinois (three times), two trips to New Mexico.
But these maps can be hilariously misleading. I’ve been to Mexico once. Haley and I took a day trip with a friend from his house in El Paso to Juarez, the city right across the border. We went to the plaza downtown, visited a flea market, and drank margaritas at a restaurant that catered to visiting Americans. That’s enough for the checkbox. And so my map will now have the entirety of Mexico colored in. Now, at parties, I can tell people, “Oh, yes. I’ve been to Mexico. Of course I’ve been to Mexico.” But there’s an implication here that I know Mexico. That I’ve tasted, seen, heard, and experienced Mexico. And I haven’t. I’ve just had a brief glimpse into one small section of a place.
There’s nothing wrong with glimpsing a place briefly. But I think we sometimes overemphasize travel’s significance in the formation of a human being. Traveling absolutely CAN be a way to “broaden one’s horizon.” But it isn’t necessarily so. Spending a weekend or a week (or even longer) in a city doesn’t necessarily show you the heart of that place. In fact, I would say it definitely doesn’t. I spent two days in Rome when I was in Europe. I ate several wonderful meals, saw beautiful and ancient buildings and ran into one of my professor’s in front of a statue of Laocoon and His Sons (funny story, remind me to tell you sometime). But I still don’t know the city any more than I know Juarez after my one afternoon trip. I never ate what real Romans eat for breakfast, I couldn’t find my way around without a map, I couldn’t converse in the language, I couldn’t show you shortcuts or dive bars or the best bakeries. I never learned the city the way it takes natives years, decades to learn.
The longest I ever stayed somewhere while traveling was in the Philippines. I worked with a team teaching sustainable agriculture in a village in the mountains outside Butuan City. I was there for 3 months and learned my way around that corner of the world and learned enough of the language to help a dentist pull teeth (funny story, remind me to tell you sometime). I’m fairly confident, if I went back now, I could find my way from MJ Santos to Butuan City to get to a bank, a grocery store, and my favorite restaurant. The place would be quite familiar to me but also still very foreign. I would feel, in some way, like a stranger.
So how long do you have to be somewhere until it feels like home? The longest I’ve ever lived anywhere has been here in North Florida. I was here for my teenage years, away for a while, and have been back for about four years now. I think I know this place fairly well. It feels like home. I lived in Waco, TX for six years. I know that place fairly well and it feels like home, too. Of course, there is still much I haven’t experienced or learned in these places. There are still so many things that are new to me.
On instagram, I recently saw an image of a nondescript exotic location superimposed with the words, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” The quote was attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo. First of all, there’s no way St. Augustine said this. Second of all, the idea is idiotic. The world is not a book with a page devoted to every place which one can read if one travels widely and often. The world is more like a massive library where each shelf represents a place. But the shelves are expanding and new books are being written and others are being removed from circulation forever. And you could never hope to read each page, not in a million years. Traveling to a new place, then, is like walking down the row, browsing the spines and occasionally slowing down long enough to skim the description on the back cover.
Living in a place, on the other hand, is like picking a section of the library -a very small section – to sit down in and read. You still can’t hope to read every page. There are, afterall, more biographies than you could count and volumes devoted to street corners and hollows in the woods. But, after years of reading you can start to get a full picture of a place. You can start to truly be at home. And this isn’t just a pleasant byproduct of sitting around. Instead, I think this deeper knowledge of place is both an important part of what it means to be human and also a crucial component of our ability to make, to create.
Robert Bly is a wonderful example of this idea. Bly grew up on a farm in the midwest. He then studied at Harvard with other great poets including Donald Hall and John Ashbery. After that, he lived in New York City where he spent most of his time focused on poetry. But to little profit. It was only when he moved back to the midwest, eventually settling down on a farm right around the corner from the one where he grew up, that his writing flourished. His first great success, Silence in the Snowy Fields, was written on that farm. Bly later said about that move “I never would have written a book that interesting if I had not moved back to the country where I was a child.”
There’s a basic sense here that good art must be rooted in place. Those roots are obvious for writers like Wendell Berry and George Mackay Brown (For the islands I sing!). But the roots are still present and crucial for writers who don’t write overtly about their home. Tolkien comes to mind here. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth is entirely fictional yet the heart of his epic is the Shire, a place obviously grown from a cutting of his beloved rural England.
And this place-rooted creativity goes beyond the written word and even beyond art. Agriculture, some of the most fundamental “making” we humans do, is only good when it is based on a deep understanding of a specific place. But, even more than that, we begin to “create place” when we choose to live somewhere and commit to it.
When we put down our own roots in a place, we write our own story and slip it page by page onto that place’s shelf. We make our home and draw it onto that place’s map. Our name finds itself in dozens other biographies in that corner of the library. Our lives, our children, our work all become a part of that place. Even more than this, they create that place.
None of this is to say that travel is somehow bad or not worthwhile. I still love to travel and I think it offers wonderful experiences and a fine glimpse at our world. But a glimpse is all it is. A glimpse at places others know and have made. To stay home, to create a home is to make your own place and know it in a way no one else can.
The photos in this post are from my Instagram and show the way I run to and from work a few times a week. I’ve gone this way literally hundreds times but still see something new every day.