Updated: Jun 29
Ten years ago, I knew that my family was going to leave Florida because of my spouse’s need for employment at a new congregation. I had advised him before he began interviews, “Don’t pick anything north of the Mason Dixon line,” which runs along Pennsylvania’s southern border with Maryland, and later referred to the line that demarcated those states who enslaved people and those who did not. I felt hesitant admitting that I had preferences on where to live, for isn’t every place and moment a chance for wonder and awe? But being a biologic creature, I am not so enlightened.
For instance, studies have shown how humans are socialized to appreciate particular landscapes. Where we grow up and have lived previously matters. My family was from the Midwest and South and I had spent my childhood in the Southern states of Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia and recently lived in Florida and North Carolina. I had also spent my young adulthood in the far west, spending as much time as I could in the deserts and mountains there. These places were more like “home” to me than anywhere in the Northeast.
Our past home nestled in a pine oak forest in Florida, before we moved to New York
Studies have also shown that our brains are wired to appreciate and thrive in natural landscapes. The simpler the ecosystem and the lower the biodiversity, such as in congested and urban areas, the more our connectedness to nature diminishes, resulting in lowered health and satisfaction. The authors of one study found, “that landscape simplification, especially if rapid, negatively influenced human–nature connectedness and particular relational values such as social relations, social cohesion or cultural identity.” They postulated, “that human–nature connectedness might have a balancing influence on preserving relational values, buffering negative impacts of landscape simplification. Losing connections to nature could potentially foster conflicts among actors with different values." Other studies show that urban noise might cause cognitive disorders, and aircraft noise increases the risk for depression.
Even without research, I knew in the deepest part of my being that I flourished in wild areas with high biodiversity and so it was with some dismay that my spouse informed me he had an employment opportunity in White Plains, just north of New York City. It was a great opportunity for him, and hence for me as well, so I agreed we would go and I would make the best of it.
This was not always easy to do. It was quite a culture shock. On our first day in White Plains residents hurled epithets at us because we were walking where we shouldn’t have been. Errands were a challenge because people honked, yelled, and criticized, and I wasn’t accustomed to this demeanor. I thought I was used to traffic, having learned to drive in Los Angeles, but during the first year I cried while stuck for hours on the George Washington bridge, the busiest bridge in the world.
I was eventually able to reach some equanimity while here because the house the congregation provided for us was on an 8-acre wooded lot owned by the congregation that my spouse, who is also a board member of One Earth Conservation, served. Even still the highway noise never drops to zero and our street, which is a thoroughfare, is relatively busy with passing cars except for a few hours late at night and early in the morning. Traffic lights shine in through our bedroom window as do the many street lights. The stars, the few that can be seen, do not shine as bright as in other locales.
Our home, The Parsonage, in White Plains, NY.
This house is so full of windows you feel like you are living in a tree house.
But I have loved it here. On the cusp of us now moving to another state, I find that I have much gratitude for my years in this place. I keep relearning that beauty is everywhere, even in places where so much has been lost. Along the groomed woodland trails and parks that are riddled with stone walls that map out where trees and wildlife had been removed to make way for farms, homes, and towns, there is still ample evidence of the wonder of nature.
Though one has to work a bit harder to see a variety of species as you get closer to New York City, there are always birds that inspire and welcome one. Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Starlings in Winter:"
Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
they are acrobats
in the freezing wind…
they are this notable thing,
Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,
even in the leafless winter,
even in the ashy city.
I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.
Enjoy these starlings in their wondrous murmuration
I give thanks for these city birds, and also for the more suburban ones near our home of the last ten years. The deer, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, owls, eagles, falcons, turkeys, and so many more species of flora and fauna have welcomed us warmly to their ecosystem, even in the deepest of winter. I give thanks for the abundant rocky creeks, the wide Hudson River that courses along colorful stone-faced cliffs, and the Long Island sound where sea birds reside year-round. The birds that come and go, along with the colorful autumn leaves, dazzle without end, if not in the moment, then in everlasting memory.
I give thanks for the memories of the wonderful people here in this region, especially those in the congregation that complemented the biotic community with graciousness and commitment. Together we traversed these lands on bird walks, learning and loving together. I learned so much history, which in this part of the world is long and riddled with suffering and oppression. By being here, the stories of those who came before became part of me, which too completes one’s soul, for the wounds are there even if we aren’t aware of them. New York gave me an awareness and I leave here better for it.
Our first bird walk in White Plains, NY at the Community Unitarian Universalist Community.
My final thanks I give to Gail Koelln, Co-director of One Earth Conservation. Because we moved here, I met her, and without her One Earth would not exist, nor would it have served so many. Her hard work and toil have been an inspiration, which also created for both of us a structure in which we could live out our dreams of being in solidarity with all beings as conservationists. The world is a better place because of her and I am glad.
Gail and me at one of our Bird Walks in Central Park, NYC
It is then with deep gratitude infused with sadness that I say goodbye to New York...and hello to Des Moines, Iowa, to which I go with beauty before me, behind me, and all around.
The family farm, where many generations of my mother's family were born and she herself, is but a short drive from where we will live. So I will be coming home, seeking to have a home in homelessness, for the whole earth is my beautiful blue boat home.