I’ve been lucky enough to live in some beautiful places: the Oregon Coast, the Connecticut River Valley, the Rockies and the Cascades, and though I always knew I’d come back to New England eventually, I wasn’t always sure which part.
I love Boston, the beautiful city of my birth and childhood, the lakes of New Hampshire, the fields of central Maine where my brother and I summered on my uncle’s dairy farm. When Anne and I resettled on the idea of Maine (we are both Colby brats), I was pretty sure I understood why: my memories of summer, the winter weather, the proximity to the ocean. But the first couple years we were here, I found myself unsettled instead, as if I understood much less than I thought about why I was drawn here. It wasn’t until I came across the following passage in which Wendell Berry describes his return to his boyhood farm in Kentucky that I caught a glimmer of understanding.
I had made a significant change in my relation to the place: before it had been mine by coincidence or accident; now it was mine by choice. My return, which at first had been hesitant and tentative, grew wholehearted and sure. I had come back to stay. I hoped to live here the rest of my life. And once that was settled I began to see the place with a new clarity and a new understanding and a new seriousness. Before coming back I had been willing to allow . . . that I already knew the place as well as I ever would. But now I began to see the real abundance and richness of it . . . inexhaustible in its history, in the details of its life, in its possibilities. . . . I saw my body and my daily motions as brief coherences and articulations of the energy of the place, which would fall back into it like leaves in the autumn.
I came back to Maine in a far different form than I’d been in when I left before. I’d chosen to live here this time, to put myself into the harsh climate and build a new sense of my life. What I came to recognize, though, was that all the time I’d been thinking of Maine and seeing what it could give me, in its weather and geography and landscape and its people, its stories. I expected my coming back here to feed me, soothe me, make me more of the person I meant to be, or wished to be.
But what I understand now is that I was unsettled because I realized I owed Maine something in return. My relationship with the state was not a transaction in which I repaid what I received, but a gift I’d received and needed to reciprocate.
This state needed me to listen, to work, and to care for its land and its people, both present and future. To learn more deeply, not so I could count myself a native, but to do what I could to refresh this place with my energy and heart. Maine would serve me, but I needed to serve it, too, not the government or the business parts of it, but the idea of it, its wholeness. I needed to find ways to make my passage here worth my presence, worth what I took away. For isn’t this all we really want, after our material desires prove to be base and we are thrown back on our selves as the core of our identity? To be of use?