I make my fiancé pull over so I can look at the ocean and cry.
We’d almost passed it — one of those “scenic overlooks” labeled on the highway. This one sits on Oregon’s highway 101 between Cannon Beach and Manzanita; perched atop a cliff, it gives a panoramic view of the ocean. The water often glints grey, but this is a sunny August day, and the sky and the water are all blue. The only difference between them is that the water sparkles as it moves, showing off its dynamism in a way the sky can’t echo.
I cry because I am a Northwesterner engaged to a Midwesterner and we will be staying in the Midwest when we marry. It’s worth it, I reassure him. I’d been in the Midwest for most of my adult life, but it strikes me now that I’d always moved to or for something while never really considering what I was leaving behind. Part of me, I am realizing, had always assumed I’d be back.
Whenever I visited the Northwest, I always experienced a deep, unspeakable sense of home. The drive from the airport offered views of grand hills covered in Douglas firs, very different from the Midwest landscape that I was becoming accustomed to. Something about the towering evergreens and the thick mosses reached inside and grabbed part of my heart that I didn’t know how to access otherwise. Visiting the ocean, too, connected me to my childhood self — not any specific memory, necessarily, but just a profound sense of simple wonder that I couldn’t often access as an adult.
I later learned that there’s a name for this. Topophilia — literally “love of place” — is a term used by poets and philosophers for this sense of feeling both affection for and deep connection to a particular place. A certain amount of topophilia often develops naturally in childhood. When we are young, our hearts are primed to be shaped by what surrounds us. We trust easily and we form attachments readily.
In adulthood, it’s not so easy. When our hearts are older, it takes longer to form these bonds. In the same way many of us struggle to make friends as adults, we can struggle to really connect with the places we find ourselves. When I realized what a unique relationship I had with the land where I’d grown up, I had to mourn the loss of it. I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel the same way about the home of my adulthood.
But eventually, two things came along that started to sink an anchor in my heart. When I started birding, I began to realize that noticing specifics was key to developing an adult sense of topophilia. Within a few months, I could quickly and confidently identify the regular visitors to my backyard feeders.
The next time I visited my parents, I was eager to check out the birds because they live on the other side of the Rocky Mountain barrier that significantly changes the fauna. But I found that I knew almost none. As a birder, it was great — I pulled out my field guide and checked off new birds left and right. As a human, though, it was a little unsettling. The firs were there, but home wasn’t quite home anymore.
The other specific that got me was the sugar maples that we take for granted here in the Midwest. We don’t have these in the Northwest, but I’d always heard stories about them, and when I realized that one of my county parks hosts a big sugaring operation, I dragged my husband and kids to observe the collection and processing of sap. I delightedly bought pints of the resulting syrup, thrilled that local trees would be contributing their sweetness to our weekend breakfasts. I watched with wonder as these woods, beautiful even in their winter bareness, reacted to the temperature patterns of early spring by offering their winter reserves of energy to make our lives a little sweeter.
Recently, I took my kids on a little hike. Snow was on the way, and I wanted to soak up the last of the days where I didn’t need to hunt down seven pieces of outerwear per person and wrestle my toddler into mittens and boots. I took them to that county park that does the maple sugaring, hoping that the maples would still be giving us some color.
They were — the path we walked was glimmering yellow. The leaves nearly glowed, offering cheer on an otherwise cloudy day. I walked my kids toward the sugar house, my 5-year-old running ahead and yelling back to me what he remembered of the last time we were here. He’s native to here, I realized with a start.
I wondered if the sugar maples would be his Douglas firs — if they would stir up recognition in his heart if he ever leaves the Midwest. And I realized that this place that was once so strange and bland to me had become home after all.