The most powerful word in the English language is…
This past spring, I joined a group of friends to cycle the Natchez Trace Parkway, 444 miles from Nashville to western Mississippi. On day 2, we arrived near Florence, Alabama and stumbled on Tom Hendrix, an older gentleman who has dedicated the last thirty years of his life to building an incredible meandering stone wall through a peaceful woodland – a monument to his great-great grandmother, Te-lah-nay.
As a young member of the Yuchi tribe in the early 19th century, Te-lah-nay was part of the what we now call the Trail of Tears, a forced 1,000-mile march westward of native people to Oklahoma, a painful chapter of ethnic cleansing in American history and more accurately described as a death march. Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 “re-appropriated” millions of acres for use by white settlers by nullifying any native right to the land and banishing wave after wave of original people to an unfamiliar world. Though thousands perished on the freezing cold trail, Te-lah-nay survived the brutal trek.
Te-lah-nay believed she would die anyway, living so far from all she loved and one day simply walked out of her camp to return home to where her heart still lived, near the singing Tennessee River. Against all odds, and despite deadly conditions, she succeeded in walking for five years until she arrived at her beloved homeland.
Te-lah-nay’s great-great grandson, Tom Hendrix, built the wall we saw in Alabama as a memorial to her – one stone for each step she took to come home. It is a very, very long wall. This sacred space has become a place of sanctuary for many. People from all over the world send stones to add to the wall, which has a mystical, otherworldly quality to it. Even my sweaty, bike-geared group -mostly scientists- fell into hushed voices while meandering around the woodland gardens that surround this unlikely memorial to the sanctity of home.
Many miles north, and much less remarkably, the cottage above has belonged to my family for four generations. We have fished and paddled and swum the waters, watched a thousand sunsets, spent time with dying parents, celebrated birthdays and babies and tended broken hearts and occasionally limbs. It is the heart of our family life. It is home to us.
Everyone has such a place, and we can become truly heartsick when removed from it.
Ask anyone and they will tell you about the place that nourishes them. Where is your sanctuary- that particular special spot where it all makes sense? As Maya Angelou wrote in All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes, “The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
There is not a single building or place that the preservation or conservation worlds care about that does not mean home in some way, to someone: a place of worship like the First African Meeting House in Boston, Thoreau’s cabin, a lighthouse in Maine, a row house in Baltimore, an old movie theater, a family farm. A place for which one would make sacrifices to return, like Te-lah-nay.
I worry that the field of historic preservation too often “re-appropriates” properties and sites to fit one version of history and that we too often miss the organic, native connection between heart, home and place. Perhaps we have become too academic – floating too far away from the hearts of most people and loftily telling them why “this place matters” when there are others who can tell us so much more about why it does matter, why it is home, to them.