I am not “from around here.”
Over the course of a lifetime, I have lived in 11 locales — including six Wisconsin “cities” and three national parks. I was born and raised in Racine, where, four miles from Lake Michigan, I could hear the bellowing foghorns as if they were first-Monday-of-the month test sirens. I attended school in three places — Bloomington, Ind., Appleton, La Crosse and Eau Claire. No moss grows on my college transcripts. Whatever bug it is that promotes virulent wanderlust, I carry it.
I’ve enjoyed a wonderful sense of intimacy with countless places, in 49 states, and I’m not done romancing.
I’ve connected on a spirito-emotional plane wherever I’ve landed — in wild places like the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia or Costa Rica or the Galápagos or atop the summit of the Mount of the Holy Cross in Colorado or on Mt. Margaret in the Denali wilderness. Where I go, I know. That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t love the place I’m with.
I travel because I am a curious being, infatuated with diversity. Given legs, I move, but I feel Planet Earth through the soles of my feet. Because humans, like trees, must put down roots. Because consciousness is everything to spiritual clarity.
Sure, one can be connected in a crowd, on a New York City street, in a movie theater, at Lambeau Field on game day. I’ve felt that too.
But sense of place is an uncommon mindset to Homo sapiens. To actively and purposefully reach down through one’s feelings into the rock or sand or soil beneath one’s feet — even for a few minutes — affirms the connection to Earth and life and death that humans far too easily lose all track of while earning a paycheck, or watching TV or doing the dinner dishes. Sense of place is essential to human actualization. It must be imagined, practiced, visualized and commemorated. Atop mountains. In old growth forests. In one’s own flower garden. It is, I believe, what prayer was intended for. Get down on your knees, my friend; the closer to Earth, the better. Speak to her as if she were a lover.
For 33 years now — even as I’ve forayed into the world around — I’ve called the Chippewa Valley “home.” I own a small property, 75 feet on two sides, with pin oaks and hackberries and rhododendrons that I’ve raised from cotyledons (that’s “baby” in botanical jargon). One of my sons was born here; both graduated from the same high school. I am blessed with neighbors that I love like family. If I stand in my boulevard and list not-very-far-west I can see downtown Eau Claire.
Wherever I wander, I continue to return. To the plot I call home. To the white and jack pines and big rivers. To where my soul lives. To an uncommon sense of place.
Betchkal, an Eau Claire-based author, adapted this letter from his new book, “Walk the Walk, Camp the Camp, Bird the Bird: The Fantastic Quest to Meet Every Species of Bird on Planet Earth, Spend a Year Outside My Comfortable Little House & Follow the Trail to Its Logical Conclusion.”