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Recovering the art of making a long-term home

By Kristin Van Tassel
Prairie Writers Circle

(Saturday, Feb. 8, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- My brother, Rolf Potts, says there is a difference between tourists and travelers. He should know. He’s spent the past six years traveling Asia . His first book, “Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was published in January.

Rolf says tourists experience only what is expected. Travelers are open-minded and engaged to see more than this, making the adventure real.

But I believe that even travelers see little more than a snapshot. They lack inhabitants’ long view -- the memory of a place in previous years and the ability to envision its future.

Though residents by name, many of us see America as travelers merely passing through. The geographical locations where we end up are temporary or incidental or both. We might enjoy the cultural amenities, admire the landscape or become attached to certain individuals of the places we live, but such feelings will not keep us from moving elsewhere for the right opportunity. There is no home, only a house -- little more than a layover on our occupational journey.

Americans have always been mobile. The U.S. Census shows we move on average 12 times. Four to five of those moves are at least as far as the next county, including two to three to another state.

I am part of this pattern. I left my home state of Kansas for a college in Oregon , a place that seemed exotic at the time. After a brief return, I left again for California . But now that I’ve been back in Kansas nearly six years, I wonder if it’s time for more of us to start finding our way home.

My concern is that travelers cannot see the cumulative results -- socially, economically, environmentally -- of how they live in a place. Such perspective requires observations of the landscape, seasons, animals, plants, people and enterprises over many years. If we believe we will be in a particular place for the rest of our lives, then we will be more likely to live and make decisions with concern for that place and its future.

I am not arguing against travel, either vagabonding or other excursions into the larger world. Trips I took both in the states and overseas changed me in ways I value. But I think we should eventually return to or make a home where we plan to stay, for good.

Some will dismiss this as nostalgia, a sentimental return to a romanticized past. But originally nostalgia meant homesickness, a longing to return home to a particular place. In this sense of nostalgia, there is an integral link between home and place. This understanding fell out of use, as our ancestors became increasingly mobile and less rooted. And now leaving home no longer makes us ill.

Instead of homesick we are homeless, and this homelessness is ultimately disorienting. We live in an era that allows us to buy the necessities we take for granted -- our food, clothes, fuel -- without giving thought to the places where they come from or the means by which they get to us. Because it is no longer necessary for us to raise our own food, we can live anywhere. We need not recognize how the land and climate of particular places sustain us.

Caring for a place -- its people, its land, its politics -- in a way that is sustainable for the long term requires the farsightedness of someone who plans to stay in a place, come what may. Perhaps we need a companion to Rolf’s "Vagabonding," a guide that helps us relearn the art of making a long-term home. If I can convince Rolf that it is not a travel bug but nostalgia that ails him, maybe he’ll write the book himself, finding his cure here in Kansas near me.


Kristin Van Tassel, who is finishing her doctorate in English at the University of Kansas, is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, which is working in Salina, Kan., to develop perennial grain agriculture.