Native and Invasive Species

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Before I came home, I emailed a friend to say I was coming into town and ask if she was busy this past weekend. She emailed back to say, "Yes, I am busy, and now you're busy too." She took me to a couple of really cool events, one of which I plan to write about more. At both events, there were plenty of people I didn't know, and she was very gracious about introducing me to her friends and colleagues, but she kept saying, "This is my friend Holly, from Pennsylvania." And I would have to say, "No, I'm not FROM Pennsylvania; I just live there right now. I'm FROM Arizona--Thatcher, Arizona, to be exact."

I realize this isn't a big deal to everyone, but it's a big deal to me. In a way that is deeply important, I really truly am FROM and OF the Southwest. I was born in Arizona and raised Mormon at a time when Mormonism was still in many regards a regional religion, and my sense of self is thoroughly tied up with a sense of place, as well as a sense of community and spirituality that derives quite specifically and literally from the place I was taught to call both "zion" and "home." It MATTERED that I was not only born in Arizona, but born in Arizona because my ancestors walked the distance from Illinois to Utah, then headed south for various reasons. Frankly, it matters to me still.

So to introduce me to people by saying that I'm FROM some place without no real mountains to speak of and a great lake and lots of rivers instead of pervasive and profound aridity is akin to introducing me as "Heidi" or "Heather," both of which I get called from time to time: even though you can see how people make that mistake, it's just not right, and it's annoying to have to correct someone on this.

And then there was what happened when I asked other people where they were from.

I realize I'm being proprietary and finicky, but really, is it so hard to understand what it means to say you are FROM somewhere? I asked one woman, "So, where are you from?" and she answered, "Here."

"Cool," I said. "What part of the valley did you grow up in?"

"Oh, I grew up in Chicago," she said. "But I've lived here for twelve years, and that qualifies me as a native."

"Actually, no, it doesn't," I said. "Three of my four grandparents were born in Arizona before it became a state, and they lived here their whole lives. Spending twelve years here doesn't make you a native when there are people who are born here and die here 80 years later."

She was miffed by my response, and while I can see why, I also think I'm right. And I don't see what's so hard about saying, "I grew up in Chicago, but I've been here for 12 years and I really love it--it felt like home as soon as I got here." OK, it involves more words than just answering "here" when someone asks where you're from, but it's A) more accurate and B) more informative.

My brother-in-law was born and raised in Gilbert, which when he lived there was a farming town but is now on of the fastest growing areas of the valley. He has a job that involves meeting a lot of people, most of whom are shocked to realize that someone in his late 30s could actually have grown up in the Valley of the Sun. It's true that natives of a certain age and generation are relatively rare, which is one more reason we prize our status and grow resentful when others usurp it.

And I also realize that although *I* might be a native, my race is not, and that white western culture has imposed a way of living on the southwest that isn't the least bit sustainable or wise. One reason I have always preferred to Tucson to Phoenix is that Tucson has always had less water to irrigate with, so it's more deserty--people in Tucson just couldn't manage the lawns people in Phoenix could, so Phoenix has always felt to me even more artificial and fated to die a miserable death than Tucson does.

I wish people wouldn't move here if they aren't really willing to deal with what living in the desert involves. Living here doesn't just mean that you don't have to own a coat; it means you can't use a lot of water. But swimming pools and golf courses abound, and increase.

I hope someday to move back here, and I hope that when I do, it still feels like home.

5 Comments

I can understand being annoyed at the lady who said she was from Arizona. Personally I've felt more at home in Bordeaux than anywhere else I've ever lived, yet if people ask me where I'm from, I'm obviously not going to say "Bordeaux" -- that would just confuse everyone! (Unless the question was more like "Where are you visiting here from?" as in "Where do you live?")

But past that, the question "Where are you from?" can get pretty complicated pretty fast. My family has significant roots in Illinois -- and I was born there -- but we moved away when I was a baby, and I don't remember it. After that we moved a bunch of times, and then settled in Minnesota where I passed my teen years (less than ten years in all), but that's the place where I remember growing up. Then there were the BYU years, after which I moved to New Jersey for eight years -- which I really liked, and made me think of myself as kind of an East-Coast person -- and after that, off to France. When people ask me where I'm from, I usually say Minnesota, but sometimes I say New Jersey if the person seems to ba asking more about my professional background. I could try to explain all that each time, but in most conversations the person isn't looking for a dissertation in response to this question... ;)

It's kind of like how I almost always respond to the question "Why did you move to France?" with the statement "Because my husband is French," even though that's far from being the whole story. I fill in the blanks if the person seems interested.

But at least I'm shooting for the closest accurate approximation the the right answer in each case. ;)

Yes, where we think we're from is a complicated question. I have several answers for that question, usually beginning with "Most recently?" Ultimately for me, though, it's not as much about fitting into a landscape as a culture or way of thinking. I'm a second-generation San Diegan but don't think of myself as belonging there, and I live in Wyoming now but don't really belong here, either.

Complex.

I've lived in CA, UT, OH and TX, but I will always be *from* Los Angeles. No matter how homey I find other places or how long I've lived in them, I wouldn't ever claim to be from them.

If I won the lottery and bought a house in Sedona, I would be tempted to call myself a step-native, which is what they call plants that thrive outside their original environment.

I think it's different for Westerners, who feel connected to the land, mountains, ocean or deserts in ways that other people don't.

Hi everyone--thanks for commenting. It is complex to answer that question if you've moved around much, and these days, plenty of people have. I agree that it's important to have a reasonably correct answer that isn't TOO long and involved.... I like the term "step-native," and can think of a few places where I'd be a happy step-native. And if I ever end up in one, I'll be careful to explain that's how I think of myself.

Hi Holly, just catching up on your blog from the last while (as I promised that I would). I figured that this entry, while over 3 weeks old, has had comments recently enough that I could still add one.

I have been explaining a lot recently about "where I'm from" as I have changed jobs (though within the same corporation). What makes it more complicated is that I moved from a very small town (where I lived for 8 1/2 years) back to the city where I was born and grew up, but people who hear that I moved from this small town say things like, "Wow, this must be a big change for you," or "I guess you're not used to this much traffic" or "How are you adjusting to life in the big city?" To which I have to respond: "I'm not from there, I'm 'from' HERE. I grew up here, I know all these streets like the back of my hand." or just "It's good to be 'back' [where I'm 'from']." Even on my facebook page where it asks for "Hometown" I always had it as the place where I was born, with "(now living in...)" after it. So I totally empathize with what you're saying about being "from" a place because, although I got accustomed to living in that small town and even enjoyed much of my time there, it was never the place I was "from."

Now I'm back living in the city where I grew up, where much of my family still lives, and it "feels like home," as you put it. They say, "you can never go home again" but, as someone who has made this happen, I hope that you too are able to bring to fruition your desire to move back to Arizona, to the place you're "from" to "go back home again."

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on November 20, 2007 10:20 PM.

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