Eva Saulitis: Homeground

Homeground.  That’s the word bobbing around in my mind
this morning, rising and sinking like a stick in a tiderip, nudging me. It’s
the word and concept that began a three-hour 49 Writers-sponsored workshop I
led in Kodiak last Sunday.  Looking out
my window past the bare birch trees to the west, toward Kodiak, I remember the
hop and skip the distance seemed between Homer and the archipelago as I flew
there on a Dash 8.  From the mainland
mountains, hop to the Barrens, hop to Shuyak, and you’re there.  A boat journey is another story.  The fetch down Cook Inlet is enormous, the
currents, treacherous.  The north wind’s
track across that expanse was dramatic, from my vantage, like a huge feathered
wing.  Wind, a relentless force that
defines our coastal lives, bigger than us, “push of the world,” as the musician
David Grimes calls it, writ in plain language on the inlet. 

Writer Sara Loewen met me at the airport twenty minutes
later.  For Sara and her husband, Kodiak
Island is homeground, birth place, and I could feel it.  Homeground.  Island archipelago large enough to be a
state.  Part treeless, flat, part
mountainous, snow-covered, part indented by deep intrusions of saltwater, part
gentle, part wild.  “Teach me how to live
here,” I said to the workshop participants sitting around the table with me at
the Wildlife Refuge the next day.  And
then we all began writing.

Homeground.  What is it for the migrating crane?  The brown bear?  The gray whale?  Can you have more than one?  In the workshop, we considered the idea that
we write out of an inner soil made up of the places that have formed and shaped
us.  Our language.  Our way of seeing.  Geologically, the people sitting around that
table in Kodiak were, for the most part, conglomerates.  Place, when we consider it this way, brings
up conflicted responses.  A few people
were still feeling their way into Kodiak, testing their hearts against the
questions:  Do I belong?  Is this home?  Do I recognize myself in this landscape?  Does this place speak my language?  A couple were dead-certain:  I was
born here.  This is home.
  Or:  I’ve lived here forty years.  This is home. 
I could see it in their faces, this solidity.  This hard place, this windy,
foggy, rainy, difficult, gorgeous place: 
it’s mine.  I belong to it.  It knows me.
And then the strange surprise.  One person in the workshop was, like me, a
longtime Alaskan with roots half a world a way, in Latvia.  We’d both been born to refugee parents, displaced
persons, people who saw themselves as lifelong exiles.  Wrenched from their homes, our parents had
settled in America with reluctance, waiting for the chance to go back home.  Eventually, the adopted, temporary home laid
its claim on their lives.  Today,  my mother says she’s more American than
Latvian.  My parents never went back,
even when it was safe.  Perhaps this man
and I had been driven by our parents’ sense of displacement to lay claim to a
homeground ourselves.  When I first came
to Alaska, that recognition hit hard; it felt like a matter of life and
death.  I’m home.   But my
homeground, that’s another story.

I am certain that the
way we write has something to do with our complicated relationship to
place.  Our inner creative ground
reflects the weather and tectonic forces we’ve known as strongly as the terrains
of Kodiak reflect the story of wind, glacier, earthquake and rain.  We are a story of layered dirt, a collection
of rocks.  While we were writing the
afternoon away in the workshop, up the hill, at hoe, Sara’s young sons were
doing their own geological explorations of homeground.  With their father, Pete, they were chipping
away at a big, gray, quartz-riddled rock on the kitchen table, using a hammer
and chisel.  Imbedded in the rock were
fossilized shells.  They’d found the rock
at a special place on the island. 
“Kodiak is amazing,” said Pete, holding the rock steady while Liam
tap-tapped away.  Said the man born and
raised in that place.  Homeground written
all over his hands and face and the easy way he moved through in and out of the
house.  No question of where do I belong troubling his eyes.

Back at the workshop, after identifying the components of
our homeground, we took blank sheets of paper and wrote “word hoards,” on one
sheet, words associated with our childhood homeground, and on the other, words
associated with the place we live now. 
We mined the words not just out of landscape, but also out of our bodies
at work, our hands and bare feet in the dirt, out in the weather.  Here are some words from my childhood
homeground, a little western NY town called Silver Creek:  heat
lightning   lake effect   snow drift  
crayfish   grackle   starling  
vineyard   tractor   pesticide  
quince   shale   snow plow  

And then we tied word to self.  I am
from yellow crate of picked grapes pesticide stenched chalk-dusted squeezed
through a sieve to make grape juice I drank iced down in September heat.

Homeground is not about nostalgia.  Homeground is gritty, real.  Our bodies carry the traces down the
years.  Our writing and speaking reflects
the rhythms and nature of the terrain.  I
used to think my hometown irrelevant to me, backward, depressed, provincial,
pedestrian, boring, plain, dull, dirty, forgotten, lost.  Now I think it is imbedded, like those fossil
snails Luke, Liam and Pete freed with their careful tapping.  Sassafrass   floodplain  
trillium   creek

Teach me how to live
  I still remember an image
shared by a workshop participant in Nome, years ago.  One day, during break-up, she watched a chair
drift by her window, riding on a slab of ice. 
And that’s what told her it was break-up.  I can see that chair in all its detail when I
close my eyes.

As writers, homeground is what we conjure, not simply
through story, but through language, rhythm, the internalized ecology, geology,
geography, meteorolopy of place.  Take
poet Charles Wright, whose childhood homeground is North Carolina and
Tennessee.  This is a fragment from his
incredible poem “Dog Creek Mainline:”  Dog Creek: 
cat track and bird splay,/Spindrift and windfall; woodrot;/Odor of
muscadine, the blue creep/Of kingsnake and copperhead;/Nightweed; frog spit and
floating heart,/Backwash and snag pool: 
Dog Creek.
  The poet David St.
John wrote this description of Wright’s language in the preface to his
collected poems:  “Knotty, rhythmically
muscular, alliterative, yet still highly imagistic and visual, Wright’s poetry
took on a beautiful rasping quality.” 
Rasp of fish crow.  Fizz of frazil
ice.  Wind-shush of grassy treeless half
of island.  Creak of moose tread on forty-below

Places matter.  And
the places we inhabit speak in specific languages.  Our lives matter.  We are the keepers of the hidden, endangered
language of places, known only through intimacy, through carrying what Charles
Wright calls the “hard freight” of our lives across ice, through mud, up steep
cutbanks.  We are the keepers of stories
no one else can tell.  To retrieve them
takes what Adrienne Rich called “a severer form of listening.”

Whenever I travel to teach in Alaska, I try to listen as
well as talk, to keep my eyes open.  In
answer to my question Teach me how to
live here
answers come, images that become part of my own homeground.  A wooden chair perched on slab ice drifting
past a window.  A small blonde boy
tapping at a rock with a hammer and nail. 
A 40 year resident of Kodiak standing by a stream emptying into the
ocean, talking about midsummer in Latvia. 
The look on the face of a Coast Guard wife who knows she’ll be leaving

In the introduction to Homeground:
Language for an American Landscape
, Barry Lopez writes: “What many of us
are hopeful of now, it seems, is being able to gain – or regain – a sense of
allegiance with our chosen places, and along with that a sense of affirmation
with our neighbors that the place we’ve chosen is beautiful, subtle, profound,
worthy of our lives.”  The people I met
last weekend on Kodiak embodied that.  So
I’ll end this May Day blog right here, right now, this place, Homer, my
mid-life homeground, which has changed my inner soil in ways I can’t even
fathom:  white-fronted goose   small-craft
advisory   stinging nettle   erosion  
slough   spit   mudflat  
breeze   cloudbank   float plane  
varied thrush   dust.
  I am from these.

What are you from?

Eva Saulitis’ most recent book is Into Great Silence: A Memoir of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, published this January by Beacon Press.  A poetry collection, Many Ways to Say It, was published by Red Hen Press last fall.  Her homeground is comprised of Latvian sand and birch forest, western New York State farmland and beech-maple woods, and Alaskan muskeg, old growth and islet. Visit her at her www.evasaulitis.com.  

1 thought on “Eva Saulitis: Homeground”

  1. I am from Great Lakes asphalt inner city humid sand dunes beach grass thunderstorm maple leaf Plaster Creek watershed poison ivy cardinal Mitten state oak tree. And also from Great Divide high plains Rocky mountain schist plates argillite hot dust snowfield beargrass trout stream college town Big Sky. My family roots are wet flat windmill tulip time Afsluitduijk black cows church steeple bike bells pasture land proud flags Frisian lakes. And now, home is reindeer lichen breakup far north Solstice stars bright June caribou windy scents big valley confluence wild park coal mine lynx tracks cranberry tundra nest yurt roof Healy ridge sled dogs gravel road.

    Eva, thanks so much for this, the piece and the offering. You are amazing.

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