My family landed in Guilford, Connecticut, in the 1600s and never left. Growing up, my grandfather would tell me that it didn't matter how far I traveled, I would always belong to this place and would always love the farm. In my adolescence, I didn't believe him — in fact, I was bound and determined to prove him wrong. At the earliest opportunity, I left New England to attend college in Washington, D.C.
My parents referred to it as the "murder capital of the world."
I couldn't wait to get there.
While I enjoyed living in D.C., and later Charlottesville, Virginia, I never really felt connected. I tried to learn about the history of the area and adopt the culture, but it wasn't mine. New England kept calling me home with promises of ocean air, beautiful architecture and a history that I could call my own. When I moved back to New England, I found that my grandfather was right all along.
I have always had a strong sense of place, developed through personal experience and knowledge, but also passed down through the generations. A sense of place also emerges as you gain knowledge of the history, geography and geology of an area, its flora and fauna and legends. All five senses are engaged: you can see the white steeples of New England churches, hear the crash of the ocean off the coast of Plum Island, feel the snow on your face as you ski down the mountain at Sunday River, and taste the sweetness of June strawberries, August corn and fresh-off-the-boat lobster. But nothing brings me back to my grandfather's farm like the smell of all natural fertilizer — cow manure — recently spread on the fields!
Through time, shared experiences and stories help to connect place and people, and to transmit feelings of place from generation to generation. Memories of personal and cultural experiences make a place special, helping to define a place and anchor you in it. Developing a sense of place helps us identify with our region, and with each other. It builds community and leads to more sensitive stewardship of cultural heritage.
I am drawn to Newburyport because of its strong sense of place, community and ongoing preservation of working landscapes, New England architecture, history and legends. Even for those of us who are relatively recent transplants, the unique character of this community is strong and quickly brings you into its embrace. The more time I spend in my community, the better sense I have for its cultural heritage. Here, I can buy fresh vegetables at a local farm or talk to the fishermen as they dock their boats in the harbor. I can take art classes and stretch my comfort zone. I can walk through the woods and enjoy a space that will remain green forever. I can wander through the homes of our ancestors and imagine what life would have been like in the 1600s. Being a part of this community, neighbors help and support one another.
Wendell Berry once said, "You can't know who you are until you know where you are."
This is not referring to the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or street sign. It refers to the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a community or a family. It refers to the knowledge of place that comes from an intimate knowledge of the land, history and culture. The more I know of New England, the more I know about myself.
It's good to be home.