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Know the West

"To feel at home, stay at home."


"To feel at home, stay at home."
- Clifton Fadiman, writer and radio personality

Simple words, but I've taken them to heart. So have a lot of Westerners. The crummy economy and the "keep-it-local" movement have kept many of us from roaming as much as we usually do. One friend of mine went so far as to give herself a "hundred-mile habitat" -- this year, at least, she isn't traveling more than 100 crow-miles from her home.

It's a good thing, I think. Instead of going cross-country, explore what's close by. Learn about the places where we live, and the people who were here before us.

Unless we have Indian ancestry, our roots in the West seldom stretch back further than our great-great-grandparents. Most of us don't live where we were born, and that can make us feel a bit unmoored. I grew up just west of Denver, Colo., with a father born in nearby Brush and a mother from a South Dakota farm. But go back two more generations and you're in Europe -- Sweden, Denmark, England. The same is true for Contributing Editor Michelle Nijhuis. In this special books and essays issue, she describes how she gained a stronger sense of home by delving into local history, learning about those who lived on her Colorado mesa long before she saw it.

But even as some of us seek to know our home ground better, it is shifting beneath us, faster and faster. As climate change takes hold, seasons and landscapes are no longer reliable. Here in western Colorado, huge groves of once-green aspen now stand dead and brown. Snow disappears from mountaintops weeks earlier than it did. Writer Ana Maria Spagna notes similar disruptions near her Washington home, with melting glaciers and destructive winter rains. 

Most of us have had to adapt -- to change ourselves, however subtly, to better fit the place we live. Now our home is also changing, becoming something we may not recognize. We'll have to adapt in ways we can't even predict. And yet we can still love where we live, saying with essayist Christopher Cokinos, "Here, in the West, we know ourselves to be home."