An Existential Need for Place

Roots are foundational. In plants, roots initially define their place in the world. Roots supply a majority of the plant’s nutrition. In short, roots are the foundation upon which plants thrive. We all need roots. We are all rooted in a physical location and our feelings toward that location are incredibly important. If I hate where I live, my roots wither because my inner being yearns for something other. If I am happy in a place, then I am firmly rooted and have a platform on which to thrive.

I used to discount the physical. Bolstered by a Philosophy 101 understanding of Plato, I eschewed the imperfect physical manifestations of the world and devoted my thought to the spiritual ideals in my mind. I felt that I was a microcosm within my own head largely unaffected by my physical location. I have discarded those naive trappings of youth in exchange for wisdom that is only illuminated by time and experience. I now realize that my physical place bears a great influence on my happiness and outlook on life. My physical “roots” greatly affect my spiritual and mental wellbeing.

Two places largely define my own life. The first is my birthplace in the southern Appalachian mountains. Being born into a close knit family on a farm in the mountains, the ethos of that place has gone a long way in shaping my character and behaviors. Gordon Sawyer describes the people of Georgia’s mountains as “stubbornly independent, fiercely self-reliant, and even a bit rebellious.”[1] When I first read those words, I felt like he was describing me. I had long since moved away, but the bedrock of my being was established in that culture.

I have a deep and abiding passion for those mountains. I could spend days driving on mountain roads with my windows down and folk music on the radio. I love the damp chill of the morning when you are camping beside a bubbling stream. Give me winter views on the trail when the leaves have fallen from the trees and you can see the seemingly endless array of green and purple mountains beyond.

I took those hills for granted in the earliest days of my childhood. It was not until I moved away that I realized how much the place meant to me (this will become a theme in my life). Now, when I want to recharge or recenter myself, nothing does that better than a trip into the hills.

The other place that has defined me is the Athens area. I moved from Cleveland, Georgia to Watkinsville when I was 11. Watkinsville and the surrounding Oconee County is a great and wonderful place. Our current plans are to raise our family here. However, Watkinsville itself is largely devoid of character. Any character it has is largely derived from neighboring Athens. If your home is Watkinsville and someone from out of state asks where you live, you are likely to just say “Athens.” Athens is a multifaceted town. It is the home of the University of Georgia, which adds greatly to its character because of opportunities associated with a large research institution and the people it brings in. Being a university town, Athens has a large frat boy/sorority girl scene that I was never interested in. There is also the impoverished Athens where some studies show that almost 23% of the non-student population of Athens lives in poverty.[2] I know little of that Athens.[3] Then, there is the bohemian side of Athens that I am most enthralled and defined by. Athens has infused me with a love for the creative arts and a devil-may-care attitude. That side of me is balanced by my academic inclinations that were fostered at the University of Georgia. Athens is an incredibly fun, exciting, and interesting place to live.

Athens is also only about one hour away from the mountains. If I need to recharge, all I need is a free afternoon. My two nurturing mothers form a kind of yin and yang in close orbit to one another. They are both within arms reach when I need them.

Just like I took the mountains for granted before I moved to Athens, I did not truly realize how much Athens meant to me until I left. At 30, I moved with my wife to Wake Forest, North Carolina to attend seminary. The Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill is a really great area. In many ways it feels a lot like Athens. In fact, in the beginning, I felt like I had left Athens for good. I remember telling a friend the first time I came back to Athens to see family that it no longer felt like home. I was caught up in the euphoria of making a move. The Raleigh area was full of new things and new experiences.

I would not feel the same way in a couple of years. It was too far from family. The deciding factor for me was ultimately that it was too far from the mountains that I loved. In Wake Forest I was four hours away from any meaningful mountains. I could find suitable replacements for many aspects of Athens, but I could not change the geography. Understand that I do not take a trip every weekend up to the mountains now that I am back within an hour of them. But I know they are close by when I need them. It was disheartening that I could not just pick up and leave on a moment’s notice to go hiking. It took planning, and I am not very good at planning. Being out-of-synch with my physical location began to wear on me and even depress me. It was not only my address, but also the place I was at in life that got to me. I was not happy in general. Those feelings were compounded by the fact that I had no place to escape to.

Now that there is some distance between the present and my time in North Carolina, I wonder if I will ever long for that place like I have Athens and Cleveland? I definitely miss some things about Wake Forest. I miss the friends we had there (although many have moved on). There are restaurants I miss. I liked having three REI stores within easy driving distance. North Carolina will always be the place where we had our first child. I have a lot of happy memories of North Carolina, but it was never truly home.

I think I understand now something about those insipid bro-country songs when they pine for the dirt roads, women, and tractors of their hometowns. We all want a physical home that suits and nurtures us. For some people like me, it is our actual hometown or somewhere very close to it. I think I am ultimately happiest in the Athens area. My wife and I benefited from the time away in North Carolina. Severing our lifelong connections to Georgia forced us to grow as a couple. We forged friendships that I hope will never completely fade. Also, I no longer take my location in Athens for granted. My life here is not perfect, but the location does not add to the discordance in my life.

However, home does not have to be one’s actual hometown. I have friends that have found adopted hometowns that make them much happier than their birthplaces. It reminds me of the saying that friends are the family that you choose rather than the ones you are born with. Some are fortunate to find a place that resonates with them the way that I have described Athens resonating with me. That harmony between person and place greatly contributes to overall happiness.

I believe others find their place in travel. Their home is transient in essence. My evidence is the numerous travel blogs I run across and TV shows. The modern mobile world has opened up new possibilities so that someone from Chicago might find their spiritual home touring through southeast Asia.[4] It does not seem that home has to be a static location. There just needs to be a correlation between your desires and your physical location. The correlation builds a positive feedback loop that I am convinced contributes greatly to overall happiness.

I do not have any psychological studies showing a correlation between happiness and place. I am sure that someone has studied it. I know that plenty of studies have shown that many people are happier when they spend a little time outside. Physical place matters. My evidence here has been anecdotal and based on my own experience and observations of other people close to me. Even though I have not gathered any quantitative data, I am convinced that life is too short to spend it in a place that make you unhappy. It is far to easy in our era to go somewhere else. My own short move to North Carolina would have been a major upheaval just a century ago. As it is now, FaceTime is a pretty great way to communicate with displaced loved ones and Interstates make for quick travel. So, find that place (or transient lifestyle) that resonates with you and plant roots there.

[1] Gordon Sawyer, Northeast Georgia: A History, in The Making of America Series (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2001), 8.

[2] http://oneathens.org/poverty-data

[3] I should find more ways to care.

[4] I’ve noticed that a lot of people seem to “find” themselves in southeast Asia. I find that curious and sometimes wonder what the draw is. I know that many Westerners are enrapt by eastern religions as an alternative to an often stale western Christianity. The food is apparently awesome. I would like to go there myself. I have always thought that I was meant to be born in 16th century Europe (where I would likely die an early death as a peasant).

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