One year ago, I was in Balestrate, Sicily, staring out at the sea. For eleven weeks, blue water and endless sky was the view from my balcony. Day after day I watched the waves roll in. Even if the breeze was chilly, or when it rained, I could see endless blue from my windows.
I was lucky to have this place and especially this view during Italy’s Covid-19 lockdown.My gratitude was immense. Yet, as lovely as it was, I began to tire of looking at the sea.
I ached for green spaces and trees. I longed for a landscape that was familiar to me.
The landscape of our childhood—the place where we played—is imprinted on our psyches. Our idea of home is wrapped up in the landscape of where home was when we were young and life was carefree.
I grew up in Chicago with busy streets and alleys. Neighborhoods lined with majestic oaks and brick buildings. Automobiles and buses were a daily part of life. Downtown, with the Sears Tower and Hancock buildings, was a backdrop for all activities. I could see these skyscrapers in the distance and occasionally a drive along Lake Shore Drive would thrill me.
But for a few weeks each summer, I would visit my godmother’s farm in Michigan and this is where I was truly a kid. This is the landscape that is imprinted in me.
This is where I played, surrounded by fields of corn and hay. A landscape dotted with red barns and cows and the occasional horse. This is where I discovered snakes and dandy-long-legs. Where we played wiffle ball with hardened cow patties as bases. Where we chased chickens and later, when the chickens were gone, cleaned out the coop and held make-believe weddings and other such games. Where I climbed the silo, much to Grandma’s chagrin. Where straw got stuck up my nose after jumping from the barn loft into loose hay below. Where, when I tired of others and needed to be alone, I would hide beneath the low hanging branches of her willow tree.
In the country, I played outside from morning til night and came inside only for noon dinner and a brief light supper. The sun didn’t set until 9:00pm and Grandma and the older girls would sit on the back porch in rocking chairs watching us younger ones try to catch fireflies, while the crickets chirped incessantly. There was a stillness in the evenings when even the humidity got drowsy and allowed us to sleep.
Wherever you played outside without any worries—even if this wasn’t something you did until you were older—that landscape is inside you. That landscape feels like home.
That landscape is a part of you. It is stored within the cells of your body and remembered in your senses.
Think of the smells and sounds and tastes of your childhood. These are all part of the landscape you carry. These things stay with us and we are surprised when we happen upon them in places far away from our original home.
This landscape imprint is like a holdfast: a root-like structure on algae that allows it to attach to something deeper, and keeps it from being swept away in the tides and winds. The landscape of our childhood—the physical landmarks, scents, and sensations—acts as a holdfast in our adult lives, keeping us grounded to place.
“Humans don’t have holdfasts or suction-cup stomachs, but we do have hearts and minds. We have strong memories of smells that have held meaning for us since we were small, smells that fill us with joy or bring us to our knees with sorrow and regret. Certain sounds go straight to our hearts—seagulls, wind over water, a child’s voice, a hymn. We recognize landscapes the way we recognize faces we haven’t seen for many years, and greet them with the same embrace and grieve for them when they are gone.”
When we move as adults to a new place—a new city or state with a different landscape than our childhood—we can often feel unmoored. Maybe not immediately, but eventually. The excitement and newness of the place wears off. We become restless or unhappy. We sense something is missing. Our spirits ache to be back in the familiar landscape of our youth.
John Hill, in his book At Home in the World: Sounds and Symmetries of Belonging, tells of a client who was forced to leave her home as a child when the family moved away from the country and into the city. She eventually learned to adapt to city life yet she never felt safe in her new home on a busy street. She became homesick. She wasn’t able to heal the loss of her childhood landscape and remained melancholy as an adult. Her homesickness was a sadness and discontent that couldn’t be explained until, in therapy, she remembered the home she was forced to leave, her first home. Spiritual writer and psychotherapist Thomas Moore explains this experience. He writes, “Human beings are part of the natural world. We are only reminded, if we are reminded at all, by a sadness we can’t explain and a longing for place that feels like home.”
I can relate to Hill’s client. I spent enough time in the city as a child that it is familiar to me, but it isn’t soothing. The constant noise and energy, the lights that penetrate the night and a city that never sleeps, these things are thrilling for a time but eventually unsettling.
Our sensory memories of childhood are so rich that they can take a lifetime to unpack. Yet over and over again we are transported back to childhood and reminded of something we thought was forgotten or which has never left our memory. Recalling those special places of our youth—the smells, sounds, and tastes, how it looked or how it felt—is more than nostalgia. These memories are the key to understanding the special elements that make a place feel like home.
So, for me, while staring at the sea for eleven weeks was lovely, I eventually longed for a landscape that was familiar. A landscape that fed my soul, filled with growing things and shades of brown and green. When travel restrictions lifted, I found that in the countryside of Sicily.
As we celebrate Earth Day, may you remember the natural landscapes of your youth – be they city, country, mountains, or beach. Honor these memories and their beauty.
Keep these landscapes alive by doing what you can to preserve them. (Starting with: reduce, recycle, and re-use everything. Stop purchasing plastic as much as you can.)
As you nurture your memories, you nurture your soul.
Don’t forget to nurture the earth too. This place is your home.
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