Landscapes: There’s no place like home

I was biking to work last week, moving at a leisurely pace as I came around a crest of a hill on a favorite bend of one of my favorite local roads. I slowed to a crawl to admire the view, and was struck again by the beauty we have in Addison County.
I have lived in the county for nearly 25 years, and am not in the slightest bit tired (or tiring) of these surroundings that have become my home, and the home of my three sons who have grown up here: the mix of forested slopes in the Green Mountain National Forest; the rolling woodlands and meadows of the Champlain Valley, interspersed with more manicured pastureland, cornfields and hayfields; a wonderful mix of small tumbling and cascading mountain streams and big slow-moving rivers, along with valley lakes and mountain lakes, and ever-changing beaver ponds; old farmhouses and barns and covered bridges; and downtown greens with steeple-crowned churches.
From certain heights, you can see swaths of one of the nation’s truly great lakes — even if it isn’t officially designated as such.  And of course several county towns have Champlain lakefront. Ahead of me and to the left as I came around the ridge on my bike was a low-lying swamp. Even the swamps are beautiful.
Having just returned from two weeks in Alaska, I was reminded of something the great English writer C.S. Lewis, author of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” once penned in a letter to a close friend.  “As to the business about being ‘rooted’ or ‘at home everywhere,’ I wonder are they really the opposite, or are they the same thing? I mean, don’t you enjoy the Alps more precisely because you began by first learning to love in an intimate and homely way our own hills and woods? While the mere globe-trotter, starting not from a home feeling but from a guide book’s aesthetic chatter, feels equally at home everywhere only in the sense that he is really at home nowhere? It is just like the difference between vague general philanthropy … and learning first to love your own friends and neighbours (which) makes you more, not less, able to love the next stranger who comes along.”
I can relate fully to Lewis’ thought here. I will grant that, from a distance anyway, Vermont does not have the sort of majesty that can be found in Alaska’s towering, glacier-covered mountains, active volcanoes, fjords and rugged and oft unpeopled coastlines (although what can compare with the majesty of a late September Vermont hillside swathed in the colors of a maple-dominated hardwood forest?). But the majesty of Alaska makes me appreciate the beauty of Addison County more, not less. Or, rather, I think it is only my deep appreciation for the woods, hills, and rivers of my home county that enables me to appreciate the different sorts of beauty of a faraway land. If I did not appreciate, and care about, the woods and meadows by my house, I think that beauty of Alaska would never be able to rise in my mind beyond mere scenery.
In any case, not many days go by that I am not aware of the beauty that surrounds me. Part of it, I suppose, is just a sense of connectedness. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt. I think not. Familiarity — a better word might be intimacy — breeds love and care, not contempt.  Who do I love best? My family.
Of course there is another side to that, in addition to appreciating, in an “intimate and homely way” the beauty of “our own hills and woods.” C.S. Lewis’ close friend J.R.R. Tolkien captured that other side as well. At the end of “The Lord of the Rings,” after seeing the devastation wrought by war in lands far away, the four Hobbit heroes return to their home county known as the Shire, a land very similar in many ways to Addison County. They find to their dismay that the Shire has also suffered the ravages of war.
Sam, who of all the Hobbits in the tale is the most connected to the local land, comments on how much worse it is to see the devastation in the fields he knows than it was to see it in distant lands. “Much worse in a way,” he says. “It comes home to you, as they say; because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.”
This, along with the beauty I appreciated on that bike ride, was also how I have felt the past week and a half in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Vermonters have been watching — and in countless cases pouring out aid and compassion upon the victims of — the devastations of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, the 2007 tsunami in Indonesia, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan earlier this year. I have felt sympathy toward the victims of these catastrophes. Though I have not visited any of these locales in person, I have supported relief efforts of agencies and of friends who have gone on relief-trips.
Yet looking at photos of the destruction in all these places, although I feel a certain sadness and can intellectually understand how bad it is for the people involved, it is something different when the photos are of homes, bridges, streets, rivers and downtowns that I drive on, bike along, dine at or fish in on a regular basis. And, of course, it is especially different when you are looking at the sight in person, and not at a photograph.
Home, they say, is where the heart is. That is true. Home is therefore also where the heart can be broken.

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