Back to native ground for a family Christmas…southwest Washington where I spent the first sixteen years of my life. For decades I have been returning to this patch in the Willapa Hills that is shaped by the south fork of the Chehalis River. It’s as familiar to me as my own skin; I can recognize a Douglas-fir with my eyes closed. The place is green. The green fountains of sword ferns are one of the first shapes I learned–when I hear the word “fern”, it is the image of sword fern that comes to mind. The damp of rotting alder leaves, the croak of a raven, the raucous scolding of a Steller’s jay, the sound of water running. I know these things from the depths of my cells.
But how long can you be away from a place before you don’t belong to it any more? As much as a hundred year old cedar stump in a thicket of third growth fir is a reality that I know and understand, it is not one I confront on a daily basis. I know myself as a visitor to a place I used to be from. I belong somewhere else now.
So it is with relief that I cross back over the Cascades after Christmas in a stream of traffic to land oh so gently under a frozen gray sky and ponderosa pines. Light from snow reflects into my house. Winter here is more black and white, and any colors glimpsed are more of a whisper than the green shout of the west side. Ravens fly over the house and speak in a slightly different dialect than their coastal kin.
I suppose this is how life unfolds–the natal place is a deep memory, but most of us move on. I speak the same language that I have always spoken, but with a different turn of phrase now. In a way it is a kind of expansion, the adoption of a larger territorial range. It fits.