From people losing their homes or traveling ‘home’ for the holidays during a global pandemic to indigenous peoples fighting for their stolen homeland and beavers given the right to have permanent homes in Devon England, home has been in the news a lot lately. This got me thinking about what home is, where to find it, how to get there, and what it means to be without one.
The concept of home as a structure, a physical place where we rest our weary selves, hang our hat so to speak, is an important one. Often when we think about homelessness, this is what we are considering. To be without the safety of shelter and all that it provides is traumatizing and stressful in ways that you cannot imagine unless it has happened to you. Right now, millions of people are living without the very real security of having a place where their basic needs can be met. We are not the only ones that rely on a central place, structure, or location where we can be safe, seek shelter, and return to after a long day working. From burrows and nests to mounds and lodges, one component of home for other animals is also a structure they call home.
Mound building termites may not put blood, sweat, and tears into building their homes, but they do put saliva into it. Mixed with clay, a community will build a towering, well-ventilated, well-draining, skyscraper that can be as high as thirty feet. Their true home though is beneath the surface. This is the heart of the colony, where they collectively work to cultivate food, raise the next generation, and mount an effective defense against intruders.
As important as it is, an external structure, like the mounds of these termites, only scratches the surface of home. For many people and cultures home encompasses an area, a location where there is a familiarity, not just of people, but also of resources and activities. It is tied to self-identification. I’ve often wondered if urban development in the United States that relies so heavily on recapitulating the familiar chains and stores from one location to another is driven by an unconscious need and desire to feel at “home” with surroundings no matter where you live.
Like us, other animals have larger areas, ranges and territories that are considered their homes. This is where they know how to survive, commune with others if they are social, and have an identity and function in the landscape. Urban development has and continues to steal the homelands of other species. Now, many find themselves in unfamiliar environments, forcibly evicted from rightful occupancy of their homelands.
The beaver, for example, has suffered greatly at the hands of us humans. The core to a beaver’s life is its home, it’s lodge. Painstakingly built, the lodge is the hub, it’s where the kids are born and taught all the beaver things they need to learn before striking out on their own, and it’s their refuge in the winter months. Reviled by some and revered by others, one thing remains true, beavers help control flooding, restore ecosystems, and teach humans all about engineering. In a rare win for beavers, 15 families of beaver have been granted the right to occupy the River Otter in Devon, England. As wonderful as this achievement is, the caveat is that this right to return to their homeland after a 400-year absences can be stripped away as quickly as it was granted.
Recently, I was tracking a beaver and watching as s/he began constructing a lodge, store winter food, and move about the small narrow stream that was home. One day I arrived to find all of it cleared away. Humans, via a “landscaping” company in a single day, probably under 30 minutes, destroyed the beaver’s work, rendered it homeless, and threatened her/his survival. I cannot imagine the shock, confusion, and potentially grief this beaver experienced. Now, as winter approaches, s/he must scramble and search for another place to call home. I was devastated for the beaver.
I have spent a large chunk of my life searching for home. I have had periods where I did not have a physical place of my own to call home, I have lived the stress of not knowing if I would have a place to sleep. The wounds of homelessness run deeper than merely failing to meet the physical needs we have. The sadness and despondency that we experience when we are adrift, without an anchor is real. The trauma of being evicted from the place that defines you is magnitudes greater than simply a house. Indigenous peoples know this trauma all too well.
The society we have created has disrupted the connections and identities we have to home. As a result, we fracture and destroy the sense of home for others, including other species. Slowly, and hopefully not too late, we’re starting to acknowledge the rights of others, including other species to exist, have identity, and fulfill their needs for home. perhaps this is why so many have been moved by the elephant Kavaan’s plight. Kavaan the “loneliest” elephant made headlines when he was recently rescued from a sketchy zoo in Pakistan and moved to a new home. Like us, Kavaan is social being who was alone for the past 8 years. Even if his physical needs were mostly met, his loneliness resonates with us. Now, he is at a sanctuary in Cambodia, able to experience open space and develop relationships with other elephants. We cannot undo the damage of having stripped him of his right to his original home, but giving him this new home is not enough. We must stop stealing the land and resources of others, including other species, and acknowledge for ourselves and for them the need and right to home.
In my own relentless search for my home I have discovered that home is a sense of belonging, of being accepted, and being supported by others. I now know where that is and I can't wait to get back there. If you are connected to a place, a community, and have a physical home you experience safety, security, and comfort even in the face of adversity. Home, it’s the difference between surviving and thriving.