The Roots of Hometowns

When I was a child there was a tree that grew just outside my front door on a thin strip of grass between the sidewalk and the road. Each year the roots of the tree would disturb the sidewalk a little more, pushing up through the concrete. The result was a small mound in the sidewalk that my brother and I used as a ramp from which to launch ourselves into the air on our bikes, racing down the rest of the street in a carefree abandon that only the young enjoy. In fall leaves would collect on the sidewalk, and the ones over the bump looked as if it was covering a small body, like that of a child, hiding from friends. In the winter I can remember cursing the bump because my shovel always became caught in the crumbling sidewalk, stopping me in my stride and hurry to finish the chore so that I could then move on to activities that were more fun. During the spring and summer, once the snow had melted, the bump always seemed to have grown, slight, but not imperceptive. As an adult I might never have noticed, but as a child I still carried within me the wonder of a changing world.

I’ve always considered the roots of that tree coming up through the sidewalk a metaphor for my life in my hometown. I’ve always thought it the most unfortunate of accidents that I was born and grew up in the place where I did. There is not much to say about its good characteristics, and even less to say about its future. The roots coming up through the sidewalk, or so I’ve always thought, constituted an undeniable need for me to break away from my hometown, not only to leave it behind, but to forget it completely, to erase it from my consciousness. That old adage that one should never forget where one came from, is, in many respects, a pathetic attempt to stay attuned to a nostalgia that can only be dangerous and upsetting for those wishing to make something of their lives. Of course, not all hometowns are as dreadful as mine. Still, those traditions and the hold they have over us can sabotage our innate desire to wander, to err into life, which is something we should always strive for. Roots, for better or worse, and in this case I am arguing for worse, keep us moored to our pasts, unable to move forward.

I’ve just returned from a trip to my hometown, and that old tree is no longer there, but was replaced years ago by a new tree when the street was redone. I looked closely and discovered that the roots of this new tree, now more than twenty years old, is also breaking up through the concrete. The metaphor still lives and nature, our essential human nature, which is to wander, remains stubbornly alive. Not all of us make it out of our hometowns alive, and if I’m being honest, there are those who choose to stay. For me, the earliest impulse, one might say, the evolutionary impulse, was to get as far away as possible from the territory of my childhood and young adult life. I finally left for good when I was 36 years old. I never thought I would escape, and I nearly perished there. 36 years is a long time to live in one place, and far too long for someone to remain in one’s hometown.

Perhaps it is a mistake to think of our hometowns as geographically specific places only. I can honestly say that I grew up and came of age in the wonderful library that was downtown, a Carnegie library that was sadly closed years ago for a new, modern (boring, lacking in any imaginative sense of place) building. That wonderful old library remains vacant to this day, slowly decaying and becoming increasingly irrelevant and forgotten. That library has become a metaphor for my hometown, a forgotten backwater on the banks of the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers. Of course, there is also the university, the only shining star in an otherwise dark sky, but I’ve never felt nostalgia for my alma mater, only a deep-seated sadness that I didn’t go elsewhere.

If we allow ourselves to think of trees as a metaphor for what ties us to the past, to our essence, then there are all sorts of trees in our lives. What is far beneath the surface may be too painful to explore, or too much work to dig up, but dig them up and plant them elsewhere we should. The image of the roots of that tree outside my childhood home, those roots that refused to be contained, domesticated by the nostalgic impulse, hold for me a secret to my essence that I have yet to discover. I know the answer, to wander, but I have yet to stumble upon the question. Perhaps someday I’ll find it, out there in the distance.

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