Did you grow up here?
No, I moved here about a year ago.
Oh, what brought you to Chattanooga?
I still have this conversation at least twice a week. My answers vary, depending on who’s asking: I moved for a job, I thought there were interesting design opportunities, I wanted to be able to go hiking in the mountains.
These answers are all a little bit correct.
I find the real answer embarrassing.
I moved here for a memory.
My old Rogue’s air conditioning had gone out half-way through Florida, when my brother and I stopped for lunch at a Caribbean cafe in Gainesville. We drove sweat-soaked through Georgia. Windows down. We had music blasting, but we couldn’t hear it over the highway noise.
I’d been living in south Florida for a year. Before that I spent five years on the Kansas prairies. I was accustomed to flat fire-dependent ecosystems.
Then we drove through Chattanooga. We wove through the forested hills, ribbon roads between the trees. We emerged into a city held in a bowl of hills. The Tennessee River flows through downtown. Ridges rise around. It’s a sheltered place. Lush. Green everywhere. I was in total awe at the little city.
It stuck in my mind.
So, when I’d spent my time in Little Rock and was looking for the next location - Chattanooga kept surfacing.
I’ve been here over a year now. I have a Hamilton County Driver’s License and a Tennessee license plate. (I’ll admit, I’m ridiculously over-conscientious and got those within a month of moving here.) I’ve been lucky to amass a phenomenal posse of local friends. I can now identify most of the common regional native plants. I’m on the Chattanooga 10-year Ecosystems Future Planning Committee (yes, that’s an In the Loop reference).
But moving here, to this place that I held as a fantastic memory, I’ve realized something about belonging and my relationship to place.
I’ve spent years searching for a place that felt like home. A place where I felt like I belonged. I felt a tinge of it the first time I went to Portland. In London. Later, on Bainbridge. Here in Chattanooga. Those were momentary experiences of physical environments where I felt safe and comfortable and motivated.
But now I’ve realized that home isn’t really about the physical place: it’s about my relationship to the place where I happen to find myself.
Home is somewhere that I make. It’s somewhere that I choose. Years ago, Dan Pearson gave a Sunday Sermon at the School of Life where he talked about commitment - how gardening, any act of landscape-making, is a practice of commitment to a place. To garden is to invest time and attention into a place. Whether it’s cutting back invading ivy or coaxing out the delicate twining tendrils of a jasmine vine, gardening is an act of commitment to place - devotion of time, attention, and effort. You make home, one humble act at a time. I watched the video of Dan’s lecture almost daily for two years, until it was taken down from both Youtube and Vimeo, and have been trying to track down a digital copy ever since.
I may never walk into a landscape, stumble into a place, and have it instantly feel like home.
But I’m here. Now. I can choose to live as an observer, keeping my hands clean, not getting involved. Or I can commit to this place. Get to know it closely, earn a sense of belonging. And that’s how I’ll find real home in this fantasy place.