Kari Amick on Joan Didion, cranes, and the difficulty of going home.
There is a house where I lived one summer, across the street from the Welcome to Maine sign on northbound Route 16. The house is white and set back from the road. The people who own it had it lifted and moved back. The logging trucks that barreled through every day and every night made the roadside inhospitable, but even with the house further from the road their headlights would slant through my window at night and squares of light would slip across the floor and up the wall before disappearing. I shared my room with one other girl and shared the house with four other people. We were not related except through the house, and while we had some other things in common they would not have been sufficient to warrant friendship if we had not shared a kitchen table every evening.
That summer I was twenty-nothing and unconcerned with the future, consumed by the past. New Hampshire was the mythical land of my youth, and I was working there; living across the border in Maine. Never mind that the two towns closest to me were townships I had never visited before. I was home.
Of course I wasn’t.
Animals home. For them, the word is a verb. To home. Birds fly north, and salmon swim upstream, led by magnets or magic to the place where they were born. When I worked in New Hampshire I spent five days a week floating on water looking for loons, birds that returned to that same lake every year from winters on the ocean. Loons are loosely monogamous, but they return to their lakes one at a time, as if each mate needs to make peace with the water individually before they can begin the business of copulation.
The very reason humans define and describe the homing instinct explains why we lack one. Homo sapiens is a learning animal. We have taught ourselves what home means, and we orient ourselves towards that, until our communication becomes garbled and clarity is lost. In 1967 writer Joan Didion wrote of the hippies: “these were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here.” They are children, she says, but children who lack some fundamental understanding of their own context: “I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and their father do not live together, that they come from a ‘broken home’.” At the same time, it is the breaking of the home mechanism that Didion is bemoaning throughout her essays, and she traces the fissure from those children to her own.
Home for humans is not an instinct, but a social and physical place. In another 1967 essay Didion writes of her daughter: “I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother’s teacups…would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that.”
When Didion goes home she is returning to her family, not to the house she lives in, “a vital though troublesome distinction,” because her family means her parents, not her husband. For migratory fish and some birds, home is where they were born and where they will reproduce, one place with two purposes. For other birds it is only where they raise their young. It is a vital though troublesome distinction. The birds in the latter group, despite their consistency after reaching maturity, may or may not actually be going home.
The first line of the first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem reads: “This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.” The country is part of the dream, and it wears the dream as lightly as a veil. The country is also, or can also be, home. The simplest explanation is to say that home is a place as well as a thing, and it is grounded in reality. But the relationship goes beyond that: the place called home teaches you something about the things home ought to be teaching you; it emphasizes relationships differently through variations in culture, which may be reflections of variations in landscape. It becomes a member of the community. “Bernardino Valley,” Didion writes, “would draw a kind of people who imagined they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air, people who brought with them Midwestern ways of building and cooking and praying and who tried to graft those ways upon the land. The graft took in curious ways.” The home that teaches a child the rules of the game does not exist independently of the land any more than culture can. Home exists at the intersection between the two: between the physical landscape and the cultural landscape. And if the cultural landscape is a dream, there are repercussions. “The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past,” and perhaps because very few people have a past of their own in California. Didion does—her family is there. The hippies slouching towards Bethlehem do not, or rarely do. Past is synonymous with home.
I’ve reached a juncture in my life where people ask me where I’m going before they ask where I’m from; they demand information about the future with little concern for placing it within the context of the past. Where are you going? What’s next? I offer my answer: watching loons doesn’t qualify you for much in the way of work, but I’ve managed to land one of the jobs it does qualify you for. I’m going to raise cranes.
Whooping cranes are white birds, five feet tall, and graceful where they should be ungainly. Like loons, cranes raise only one or two chicks per year. Unlike loons, cranes are endangered enough to merit captive rearing to supplement their numbers. The trick to raising birds in captivity is to look and sound like them, to stay silent and play crane calls through an mp3 player, to swaddle one’s self in a white sheet with one gloved hand marked to look like a crane’s head: red forehead patch, yellow eye, long black beak. Then when the cranes are introduced to other cranes they will migrate with them, they will mate with them, they will not know that the difference between the misshapen thing that raised them and the real bird they see now. They will follow the crane flock home.
It seems preposterous for cranes raised by hunchbacked human imitations of cranes to be well socialized. It works for birds, who respond to the most straightforward of cues, yet the human looks at the man in the bird suit and laughs, because it looks like nothing so much as a man in a bird suit. The peculiar thing is this: the man in the bird suit is more effective than having another species of crane raise the chicks, because if another species of crane raises them they will grow up and try to mate with that species of crane, and those birds will find him as foreign as if he were a loon. And for an animal, being unable to mate is being unable to fill his biological destiny. The whooping crane raised by a sandhill crane will never have his date with Darwin; the whooping crane raised by a human will (it’s not that simple—nothing is—but it’s close).
So I tell people, if they ask, that I am going to wear a white bed sheet and feed cranes and then when they are released I will follow them to make sure they migrate. I tell people, if they ask, that I am going to Wisconsin to do this. Sometimes they ask where I am from, because sometimes they wonder or need the conversation to last slightly longer.
The truth is, I’m from a broken home.
Of course that’s not the complete truth. The problem with the phrase “broken home” might be that we assume it means something because we’ve been told what it means in the past, and really those two words together could mean any one of a number of things. My home is a broken home in that it is not all together right now, but it is like an egg that’s been cracked wide open because something new is coming out of it. My mother lives in Wisconsin. My father lives in Massachusetts. I have lived in Wisconsin for the past twelve years, but I was born in Massachusetts. In June, my mother will be in Massachusetts as well. The home will not be fixed; it will be a new home that retains some components of the old while sloughing off the old like so much dead skin. I find myself torn between being part of the new thing or becoming a scrap of dead skin.
Didion’s diagnosis of 1960’s malaise and my own sense of homelessness are not so distant, although in time and space they seem to be. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion quotes a psychiatrist who calls hippies “a social movement, quintessentially romantic, the kind that recurs in times of real social crisis.” These social movements are recurring because their most radical elements remain unsuccessful—while the hippies created something of the change they sought, shadows of their parents’ culture remained. Didion’s generation was caught between the hippies and their parents, and children of her generation rose up beneath them with their own concerns and climate. Forty years have passed, plus a little. And things are not so different: my own small malaise, my own small homelessness, is a reflection of what I can only call moving around a lot, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, here. Home is where the heart is, and where you treasure is, there your heart will be also. Oft-repeated phrases hold yolks of truth.
I tried to go home to New Hampshire that summer I lived in the white house on Route 16. I accepted a job founded on a dream. I spent three months floating on a lake called Umbagog, which means either clear or shallow waters in Algonquin depending on who you ask. The waters were both clear and shallow, like floating on air. But life doesn’t work like that, because dreams are like illusion veils in that you can see through them, and eventually they have to be lifted and you look your bride full in the face. I spent some of my three months floating on air, and some of my three months I spent in mud up past my knees or barreling through spiny pine undergrowth in swarms of mosquitoes. Some of those three months I spent talking to a hermit who wore suspenders and a feather in his cap and spoke of the black panther that came to his house every year with the authority of a zealot. And one night I spent in quiet terror while we watched our neighbor’s house burn down, and the fire trucks came from the volunteer fire department with their hoses dragging behind and sparking on the road. This place was neither home nor, entirely, not home: it was somewhere I lived for a period. It was not my childhood done over. It was the summer I was twenty-nothing, done for the very first time. When it was in my future, it was a dream. Now it’s something else entirely.
Animals home. For them, the word is a verb, and has a corresponding instinct. And humans home with over-thinking and whispered prayers for wisdom, with great faith in their own judgment. The truth is that it is a constant process of going home, cycling between your parents’ and your own, or between where you were and someplace else. When a loon is flying in the spring it is returning to its lake, but in the fall it is bound towards the ocean; a crane goes south and then north, and then repeats the pattern. There is no way to know which direction is home, because a bird’s brain doesn’t hold such a word. It might be that the cycle itself is the bird’s home, the place it is most fully present.
The human cannot live in a dream, a place without past. It is the past itself that enables us to learn, to touch upon reality; both our own past and our parents’, our culture’s. The children of the 1960’s made “the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum.” As children leap into the air and try to take flight there is always an attempt to create community, an attempt to locate a home. But this does not need to be drawn from a vacuum, and it does not always need to be a failure. Their first home equips them to do so. From there, they make their own way. Hopefully the hunchbacked cranes in human suits, their strange and impossible parents, taught them the right thing.
Kari Amick works as a crane mother and still needs to use at least three towns to explain where she's from.