On Finding Home—Land&People

Certain memories from my childhood replay frequently in my mind like images on a strip of film. In one of these, I am eight years old, walking hand in hand with my father, showing him a small stream and waterfall in a patch of forest on the far edge of our farm. No doubt he had been to this place hundreds of times, but still he allowed me to show it to him as though it were my private secret. Quietly we picked fiddlehead ferns and watercress. My dad would have been in his fifties, and at home on that farm for almost 25 years; I grew up there. Unfortunately, it was part of the story of our lives that we would need to sell the farm just when I was learning of my need to stay.

On a fall day 20 years later, I was on my knees working the soil in a vacant lot in Providence, Rhode Island. The Trust for Public Land, the organization I worked for, had just bought this urban plot on behalf of a local land trust. For most of the morning I worked silently alongside a Laotian woman of about my age. We communicated mostly through laughs and nervous exclamations, as when a truck barreled too close to us through the narrow streets, or when we found a piece of glass or jagged metal buried in the soil. By afternoon, we had cleared almost a quarter acre and we were comfortable enough with one another for her to try her broken English on me. Suke was 28 and had arrived with her two daughters just four months before from a refugee camp on the Thai border; they were waiting for her husband to join her in Providence. While she waited, she gardened. Every day she would walk two miles through a city she didn't know to a place that had become very important to her. At the end of our time together, Suke held my hand for a moment and told me that this urban garden had made her feel at home in America.

In the years since, I have thought often about Suke. I think about her whenever I consider my own rootlessness and am graced by the memory of how quickly she sought land and soil to affirm her place in America. That garden gave me the experience of Suke, and it gave Suke the experience of home.

Over the next ten years of working for TPL, I came more fully to understand the lesson Suke began to teach me that day: the great transformative power of land conservation to improve all of our lives.

Through Suke's story and the stories of many people like her, I came to see that this power may be the greatest legacy of land conservation. Each of us has seen how conservation can change a community; how a project's impact can far exceed a property's boundary; and how the alchemy generated by a blend of human cooperation, activism, and experience of the wild can lead people to a different view of themselves and a better life with one another.

In 1995, I found myself in an auditorium in Billerica, Massachusetts, in the company of ordinary men and women in an extraordinary time. They were considering whether to put their community into debt in order to save a local farm. That farm was–and, thanks to that vote, still is–one of the last places in town to buy tomato plants in the spring and pumpkins in the fall. People held their children on their hips while they stood in line waiting for a chance to speak. By optioning the property, TPL had given them a last-minute choice between saving the farm and seeing it developed for a giant shopping mall. There was very little money to accomplish the former, and the latter promised to bring the town great financial return. The people debated that alternative as if it had the same importance as the future of their own families. They were passionate, angry, and alive. I heard in their voices the vulnerability and determination of people fully engaged in life.

That night, the neighbors of Griggs Farm expressed their allegiance to their ideals, to one another, and to the land, and in doing so they declared themselves citizens of a specific place. Their decision to go into debt and save the farm asserted their determination to have a home. Their actions reinforced the lesson I have learned in the years since I roamed our home farm with my father: caring for the land goes hand in hand with caring for community, and being of service to a larger world holds both great promises and great heartaches. Land conservation takes us out of our private lives to accomplish something greater for ourselves and our neighbors. To say "This is my home and I care about it enough to protect it" is the essence of citizenship, and to act on such words moves us from isolation to community.

In his essay "What Are People For?" Wendell Berry says, "You can not know who you are until you know where you are." Conservation that honors the familiar, the local, the native honors also oneself and others. Local places hold us to the world, inspire our thinking, replenish our souls, and remind us that where we live is a place like no other.

Land & People, Fall, 1999

Peter Forbes is the TPL Fellow. He is editor of Our Land, Ourselves, a chapbook about land and people. He lives on his family's farm in Canaan, New Hampshire.