When I arrived in Haines Junction a decade ago, it was not long before I was organizing two “educational” sessions on the role “home” plays in our daily lives.
At one of those early gatherings, a woman who was born here in the late 1950s suggested, in her own polite way, that I would be wise to live here a bit longer before I gave home much serious thought.
With a smile she then went on to suggest it would be best if I first stuck it out here 13 years.
While I still wonder what magic there could have been in the number 13, I do know time does make a difference. A sense of place, the feeling of home, does not happen overnight.
Even though I was new to the community back then, I still feel much of the material I presented had deep and important meaning. I remember opening with a series of quotes from folks who felt at home in their particular places.
Here are a few:
N. Scott Momaday: “Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, to dwell upon it.”
Gretel Ehrlich: “To see and know a place is a contemplative act. It means emptying our minds and letting what is there, in all its multiplicity and endless variety, come in.”
Richard Nelson: “What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it’s flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame.”
Helen Norberg-Hodge, on life in Ladakh high in the Himalaya: “In Ladakh’s human-scale communities, people know that helping others is in their own best interest.”
Clive Doucet, on being Acadian: “This is the magic of Acadie and its gift to the world: a notion of inclusivity, of peaceful community, of caring for your neighbours.
As for me, in the end, all I can say is I am Acadian. My name is Clive — Fernand a William — Arséne — Magloire.”
Bruce Chatwin, speaking in the voice of one of his characters in his book Songlines: “You’re saying that man makes his territory by naming the things in it?”
Roger Bacon: “The things of the world cannot be known except through a knowledge of the places in which they are contained.”
Stan Rowe: “What the Home Place needs from us is more modest furnishings, less extravagance, more tender loving care.”
Linda Hasselstrom, speaking of western ranchers: “During summer’s dry heat, I have heard ranchers say, ‘I ain’t had no rain on me since May; there ain’t enough grass on me to feed a bird.’
Referring to their land in the most intimate terms possible, ranchers mourn, ‘If I don’t get rain on me pretty soon, I’m going to blow away.’”
Novelist James Galvin, writing poetically about an old homesteader: “The history of the meadow goes like this: No one owns it, no one ever will. Only one of them succeeded in making a life here, for almost 50 years.
“He weathered. Before a backdrop of natural beauty, he lived a life from which everything was taken but a place. He lived so close to the real word it almost let him in.”
There may be no common theme emerge from all these writers. It is still not clear to me if 13 is the magic number, or if after 50 years one weathers enough to rightfully call a place home.
I am not even sure if taking a place to “heart” is enough. I do not know if some deep act of contemplation or serious reflecting will do the trick.
What I do know is that Haines Junction looks different to me now. A decade of shaking hands, telling stories, listening to neighbours has made a difference.
I recognize people now by the cars they drive, by the way they walk. I have a sense of what is right with them by how they look at me, or turn away.
In a town this size there are few I don’t know by name. I have, mostly by accident it seems, come to learn many of their middle names.
But even as we manage to begin to feel at home we cannot forget we are all, to some degree, exiles from some other place.
Even First Nations peoples who now staked claim to the Yukon are drifters. While calling this place home for the last 10,000 years seems like forever, in the scale of human evolution, it is still a rather brief stay.
People are much like wind and rain in this sense, moving across the landscape in fits and starts. In our bones we are still nomads, hunters and gatherers, momentary drifters.
We come together in some place, root in for a while, make neighbours, move on over time.