Just a few weeks ago, I picked the last of the tomatoes — a handful of tiny, bright-red Sweet 100s and three big, meaty heirloom Cherokee Purples. The extended harvest was made possible by a makeshift greenhouse concocted from old windows, discarded lumber, plastic and duct tape, and warmed during the 20-degree nights with a small heater. Picking those tomatoes made me happy to a disproportionate degree. It wasn't just food, it was food grown in my own soil.
Digging in the rich dirt of my backyard, pulling weeds, running the irrigation pump, and then harvesting spinach, kale, tomatoes and even catnip — it all gave me a sense of belonging, of rootedness. In Spanish, it's called querencia; author Barry Lopez defines it as "a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one's strength of character is drawn — a place in which we know exactly who we are …" The word comes from the verb querer, which means to desire, to want.
We can find querencia in many places — a much-loved chair, a favorite coffee shop, the swing on the porch of a 100-year-old house. But for many of us, the most powerful sense of connection comes from the outdoors — a windswept mountain, a sun-warmed rock by a stream, a shady garden. And doing some sort of necessary work, like building trails or growing food, deepens that connection even further.
In this issue, writer Julene Bair realizes that her querencia was found on her family farm, the Kansas dirt she once worked with her parents and brothers, raising wheat and sheep. After the farm is sold, she struggles to regain that lost intimacy with the land. Angela Garcia takes us to New Mexico, where Chicano heroin addicts use needles to fill the empty space left by the loss of their ancestral lands. Following up on her previous story, "Land of Disenchantment," which appeared in the April 3, 2006, issue, Angela finds that an innovative recovery program now helps addicts heal through gardening — rediscovering querencia by growing chile peppers and corn. Ernest Atencio explains how archaeologists in the Four Corners area came to realize that contemporary Native Americans hold essential pieces of the puzzle of prehistory. Working together, they've helped reconnect the Santa Clara people of New Mexico with their querencia, the original Santa Clara homeland, Teguayo, in southwestern Colorado.
The people in all of these stories have a link to the land that stretches back over generations or even centuries. They've been able to pick up those threads, frayed and faint though they might have become, to find a sense of home. But many of us in the West don't have that long-standing history in a single location. Jobs, loves, families and chance slingshot us from one place to the next, making it hard to sink roots of any sort. If we're lucky, we have a patch of dirt where we can plant a few seeds, or we find that café or meadow or backyard where we know we belong.
Thanksgiving is now past; I hope you got to spend it in a place you felt at home. For me, that was in a tent staked to the buff-red dirt of southeastern Utah, eating those garden tomatoes in a pot of spicy chili.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.