A mountain-ringed campsite beside the Athabasca River in Jasper National Park. A crackling fire. Sun slanting down through the trees. River rumbling over rapids. The occasional crow chorus. (The resident clan regularly sends scouts to check if we’ve forgotten to take the dog food in.) Soft music playing from one of the randomly selected CDs we’ve brought with us.
The music happens to be Hawaiian, which is a bit jarring at first. It’s the 1993 Facing Future CD by the inimitable singer Iz (Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole, 1959–1997). We bought it in Kaua’i when we were there for my niece’s wedding.
And then there’s a second odd juxtaposition.
Iz sings John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”— substituting his own home places for Denver’s West Virginia. And it makes me wonder what it is that accounts for the huge multinational and multilingual popularity of Denver’s song.
Of course, it’s home.
We all long for home, in one way or another. It’s where the heart is. It’s “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in” (Robert Frost). It’s where our dead are buried (Pablo Neruda). It’s where our hearts grow fonder…
For me, home is people as much as place.
When I think of home as place, it’s in the smallest and largest terms.
Home is the house I grew up in. It’s Mama’s summer kitchen full of canning jars and vegetables and fruit. It’s Daddy and my brothers raising the roof with their cheering (or scolding) of their favourite hockey teams—the Toronto Maple Leafs (my dad’s) and the Montreal Canadiens (my brothers’). It’s dropping in for a visit next door, where one baba or another was always happy to see me.
Home is also vast changing skies over prairie woods and fields.
The countryside of home was mostly small, family-run mixed farms when I was a kid. It breaks my heart to see how that landscape has changed. Enormous land holdings where no one lives anymore. Monoculture farming. Destruction of flora and fauna with pesticides and herbicides. Pre-harvest “dessication” of crops with chemicals that are now being linked to cancer.
Something terrible is going on.
A 2019 study in the journal Science reports the staggering loss of nearly 1/3 of North America’s birds since 1970. I see the loss on my own small piece of family dirt on my parents’ farm. The last time I was there, there was nary a swallow nor a robin nor any of the buzzing or chirping “little brown birds” I could never get close enough to identify.
My bit of family dirt is where my parents lived for a few years after they married. My mama’s home place is immediately west of my few acres. It’s the piece of gumbo land my grandfather bought so he could marry my grandmother. Directly east is my great-great-grandfather’s homestead, and the quarter-section just north of that is my great-grandfather’s.
I can feel my people there, on my little piece of farm on a country road beside a major highway. For me, they’re part of “home.”