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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In Search of Home

Air Date: Week of

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Longing to go back to his birthplace in Iowa, Chicago commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate ponders the meaning of home.


CURWOOD: In our increasingly mobile society, the idea of home is becoming less and less clear. On a recent trip to his native Iowa, commentator Tom Montgomery-Fate wondered if home is a real place or just a state of mind.

MONTGOMERY-FATE: I’ve lived in Chicago for 15 years but I don't feel at home, not in the city or the western suburbs where I now live. Coming from a small town in Iowa, I don’t handle the human density or frenetic energy of the city very well. It tires rather than inspires me. But so do the suburbs. The tangle of eight-lane arteries clogged 24/7 with millions of cars on their way to 200-acre malls and 400-acre parking lots or perhaps to a 30-plex movie theater.

Go west, young man. My wife Carol and I keep moving. We started on the city’s south side and every five or six years we drift another 10 or 15 miles west. I’m on a slow, meandering journey home to Iowa, place I’ll always come from.

The Latin roots of the word “nostalgia” mean homesick. I wonder about this today as we drive west on Interstate 88 back to Iowa. It’s dusk and we’re in the middle of Illinois, cruising through fields of corn stubble and past strings of cows plodding back toward the barn. In the distance a cloud of synchronized black flecks, sparrows, abruptly and beautifully change direction, like a fistful of pepper caught in a swirl of wind. Day slips into night and the horizon, the only hard line left in the world, finally disappears.

Wendell Berry once wrote that trees are immobile yet flexible. People of course needn’t be either. Few bloom where they are planted, or are planted at all. Roots have become a liability. We increasingly associate success with being mobile and accessible. We can work and live anywhere with a laptop and a cell phone. Starbucks have become the makeshift offices for an army of small entrepreneurs.

Several years ago while driving through Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I noticed two boys pushing themselves down a dirt road on kick scooters. A friend pointed out that they couldn’t have bikes because an Amish council somewhere had determined that the chain and sprocket was an inappropriately high level of technology. It might break down community, too easily draw people away from their families and homes, from their roots. While this may seem a bit dictatorial it also suggests a sustaining ethic: community over convenience, meaning over marketability, wisdom over information.

It takes two hours to cross Illinois. In the darkness on the bridge over the Mississippi I try to remember a home does not belong to us, we belong to a home. On the Iowa side I see a smattering of lights, a yellow Caterpillar slowly crawls through the mud, its headlights illuminate a new subdivision. Even from the highway I can see the warm breath of steam rising from the fresh gash in the earth.

[MUSIC: Daniel Lanois, “Still Water” ACADIE (Opal, 1989)]

CURWOOD: Tom Montgomery-Fate teaches writing at the college of DuPage at Glen Ellyn, Illinois. He’s the author of “Beyond the White Noise”, a book of essays about living in the Philippines.

Coming home is the theme of this year’s annual Living on Earth storytelling special. That’s coming up in just two weeks. Our storytellers will share tales of how homecomings have influenced their lives. For example, Boston-based storyteller Jay O’Callahan recalls how gathering the clan in a huge blizzard turned his sister’s wedding day into a topsy-turvy affair.

O’CALLAHAN: Bong, bong, bong, bong. I woke 7 o’clock, grandfather clock, and I stretched, went back to sleep and I snapped on the radio. The announcer was saying, “It’s the biggest snowstorm of the century. This is a blizzard, ladies and gentlemen. Two feet of snow and it’s snowing, going to snow all day and all night. Everything is cancelled: Celtics, Bruins, college boards.”

I sprang out of bed and I looked out the window and there was two feet of snow and it was snowing hard. It was wild out there. Only the bluejays could move. Everything was transformed. By 8:30 and quarter of nine all the wedding guests, the Chicago guests, our neighbors, they were all tramping through the blizzard into our big front hall. “Going to be a wedding? How far is the church?” “A mile.” “A mile!”

CURWOOD: Find out if Jay’s sister makes it to the altar. Don’t miss our annual storytelling special two weeks from now on Living on Earth.




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