A friend who has lived in many places pointed me recently to an article in The Atlantic about “topophilia,” the love of place – especially the place we consider “home.”
My friend spent his early years in Eastern Europe, survived World War II and eventually made his way to the United States. “I've lived in a refugee camp, a grimy steel mill city, rural Pennsylvania, three seminaries, Erie, Detroit, San Jose, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, Minneapolis, Mankato, the farm in North Dakota, a small Iron Range town, and lastly, the northern Minnesota wilderness, which I like best,” he wrote.
In the Jan. 14 Atlantic piece, Arthur C. Brooks defines topophilia as a person’s ties with the material environment. “It is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections.”
I have lived in fewer places than my friend. My first 18 years were spent in Valley City, N.D., a pleasant enough town of about 7,000 people, the sort of place people say was “a good place to grow up” but which young people tend to flee at first opportunity. Grand Forks was my home from 1967, college days, to 1987, except for a single year in Oslo, Norway. I migrated to the Twin Cities in 1987 and stayed for 20 years, returning to Grand Forks in 2007.
Where is my heart? Which of my places fills me with topophilia?
I’m still fond of Valley City and visit once or twice a year, mostly to see an old friend. I check out the skating rink, the high school and the stone wall near the Dairy Queen where I would sit for an hour, hoping a certain girl might walk by. I drive by houses where I lived – including the one where my brother Jerry helped me build a tree house, the one we had to leave when my father was unable to keep up with the rent, and the one we moved to after that, where my mother died.
It was all so long ago, and so much has changed. I savor good memories, but it hasn’t felt like home for quite a while.
Brooks acknowledges that our love of place might not be associated with our childhood home. He was raised in Seattle, but he broods over Barcelona, “the city where I lived in my 20s, where I got married, and the only place I have returned to year after year (except for 2020, due to the pandemic). In my life here in the United States, smells and sights will sometimes remind me of my neighborhood in Barcelona and the first home my wife and I shared there.”
Sometimes when I’m out walking in a light snowfall in Grand Forks, the kind that comes softly and flows at a gentle slant through the light of street lamps, I remember when Oslo was home and I walked in the snow. I had my favorite shops and stalls where I bought newspapers, strawberries, shrimp or wine. I sat on a bench in a favorite neighborhood, Majorstua, and read Hamsun and Ibsen. I wrestled with the language, aided by dear friends. “I could live here,” I often thought. “This could be home.”
When I stayed in Grand Forks after attending UND, it was in many ways home for me. I started a family, bought a house and went to work at the newspaper. After the year in Norway, I came back to Grand Forks. Then, after the Twin Cities – which despite its attractions never really felt like home – I returned once again to Grand Forks, to family and friends. If I broaden the definition of “home” to include the prairie to the west and the forests to the east, this can feel like the place for me.
Not that I don’t occasionally daydream of looking for home elsewhere. I’ve often wondered what might have happened if I had stayed in Norway, or if I had looked for a newspaper job in Oregon, or New Mexico, or Maine. I’ve been in those places. I liked them.
I’ve also imagined myself in a simple cabin in the woods, a sanctuary stocked with books and music, food and wine, with a garden and a dog or two. Could I be happy there? I think I could, if a few certain people visited.
The pandemic and quarantines have many folks rethinking their ties to a place. Now that their jobs can be performed remotely, people consider whether they might migrate to a place that feels more like home, a place they could love.
Not everyone can do that, of course.
I’ve been thinking about home, about the love of a place where you feel you are safe and belong, as I read about the desperate plight of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, the displaced children of Syria, the “caravan” of Honduran families stopped by soldiers in Guatemala this week as they fled violent crime and the devastation left by hurricanes.
“We have nothing to feed to our children, and thousands of us were left sleeping on the streets,” Maria Jesus Paz, mother of four, told a Reuters correspondent this week before she and her children and thousands of others were halted and sent back to Honduras.
“This is why we make this decision,” she said, “even though we know that the journey could cost us our lives.”
As I daydream about my options and choices, I think, too, of the homeless in America, and I think of a noble agency, Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, that tried to help people into safe, happy homes but declared last week that they cannot continue.
Locally, nationally, internationally, we have to do better. We know what home means.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.