– Nonfiction by Lyn Baldwin –
Honourable Mention in the Dreamers 2021 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
Animals move—it’s our birthright, a gift from ancient ancestors in the form of genes that could eventually code for leg or wing or fin. But how willing or how far we go always bears the imprint of home. If where we dwell is patchy or ephemeral—say, a spring pond that dries each year—bodies sprout wings or retreat into dormant cysts that blow with the wind. If where we live is stable and continuous—a deep sea vent or an old-growth forest—limbs remain rudimentary and our wandering limited. Most animals disperse only when young; a few continue to travel long distances throughout their life. Near or far, young or old—no mobility is without risk.
It is the third day of 2005. In the murky light of a January morning, three of us—my husband, Marc, our two-year old daughter, Maggie, and me—lean into the sharp curve of an entrance ramp, headed east out of Kamloops, British Columbia. From atop the TransCanada Highway, the view of this small city is not what you’d call pretty. To the north, a moving wall of westbound freight cars flashes by, obscuring all but a narrow strip of snow-covered hills and low-hanging clouds. To the south, American fast-food outlets, low-slung motels, mini-storage buildings, and car dealerships appear and then disappear, a sprawling geography of mobility.
Not for the first time, I think how happy I would be to leave this place—if I wasn’t trying to call it home.
Part of it, I know, is just me. Mobility may be the evolutionary legacy of all animals, but today no species travels more than mine. Each year, as our planet orbits the sun—a distance of nearly one billion kilometers—we humans will travel more than twenty times that distance across its surface. Before Maggie was born, I’d travelled with the seasons, following first school and then work, east and west, north and south, across the continent.
But part of it is Kamloops. All animal mobility has consequences. Migrating birds disperse plant seed beyond its native range; earthworms tunnel aeration into soil, salmon replenish forests with nitrogen carried from the sea. In the last 500 years, as human mobility has skyrocketed, so too has our impact. But constrained by geography or history, we’ve travelled some places more frequently than others. Kamloops, I think, is one of those places where our travelling footprint has fallen particularly hard. Geographically, this small city sits at a river confluence—its name originating with the Secwépemc First Nation’s word T’Kemlups meaning “meeting of the rivers.” Today, two railroads, one national and four provincial highways converge within the city, making it the transportation hub of southern interior BC. Mobility feels cemented into the very fabric of this place.
Two months of residence in Kamloops, and what do I know? This city sprawls outward—covering the same land area as BC’s largest city, Vancouver, with less than one-sixth the population. Even our small neighborhood, near the eastern edge of downtown, feels unsettled, bisected by both highway and railroad, perforated by tunnels, paved with cement, dominated by a low-slung architecture that privileges quickness over quality. None of which makes me want to stay; all of it tempts a permanent get-away.
When the tattered edge of the city transitions into snow-covered fields sloping down to the dark water of the South Thompson River, I can feel my body relax. Outside, the air is leaden; snow, I fear, is imminent. But inside our van, the three of us are warm and contained. This trip feels like the first good decision I’ve made in months.
When the phone rang a week ago, and the familiarity of a voice echoed through time and space, my response had been immediate.
“We’re throwing Tracey a surprise birthday party. Will you come?”
Tracey Morland. My best friend during the last year of my Canadian childhood. The first friend I could bring without concern into my mother’s house. It’s her mom, Jackie, on the phone. And, of course, I said yes.
Beside me, at the wheel, Marc asks, “Does the Thompson River empty into the Fraser or the Columbia? I pull out our new map book. This question isn’t unexpected. My husband charts any new landscape through the rise and fall of its rivers. What’s new is his expectation that I will have the answers.
Last November, our move from northwestern Montana to BC—Marc driving a 21-foot U-Haul truck, me following behind in our van with Maggie and our two dogs—cast me as the expert in more than just river drainages. BC is headed into a provincial election and there is talk that a federal election might occur next year. News junkie that he is, Marc has been exploring the political terrain of his new home via CBC radio. “What’s a minority government?” he wants to know. “What’s a vote of non-confidence?” Given that I just spent the last twenty-seven years living as an expatriate in the US, it doesn’t take much to deplete my understanding of Canadian politics.
This is what I do know: be careful about what you start. Last year, the advertisement for what is now my job had seemed perfect. A position teaching university botany and ecology less than two hours from where I’d lived as a child in southern BC. Not just a job, but a chance to return to the landscape that I’d held in memory as “home” for as long as I could remember.
In my interview, when asked if I was prepared to teach the courses assigned to the position, I’d responded, “I don’t think you ever know anything until you teach it.”
They’d liked that. Nodded their heads. And their ready agreement let me avoid explaining that I’d never taken several of the courses that I’d be expected to teach. That day in the interview, I’d thought myself clever; in reality, I’d been at best, glib, and at worst, arrogant. Now, two months into the reality of my new home, I’d give nearly anything to skedaddle. Pack our bags, grab the dogs and the kid and just leave.
Running towards; running away: two different reasons to pick up and go. In my life, I’ve done both. Multiple times. This latest move from Helena, Montana to Kamloops—a distance of just over 1000 kilometers—has been unusual only in that it’s accompanying grief has been so hard to shed. Months ago, when Marc and I debated leaving Montana, I thought I knew how to calculate the risks and opportunities of a mobile life; when to stay and when to go. But for the first time that I can remember, I have work that won’t end, I live in a house I have no need to sell. And, still, all I think about is leaving.
Obviously, I miscalculated. Badly. Looking back, it’s easy to see that renovating our house and giving birth to Maggie in Helena wedded me to community in ways I’d not understood. My pre-natal yoga class transformed into a circle of friends. Neighbors monitored my pregnancy and ran unfinished errands when Maggie arrived earlier than expected. Here in Kamloops, I’m lonely and exhausted. I have lectures to organize, labs to write, grants to propose. I live with a constant, if low-grade, case of diarrhea. Failure, I fear, is imminent. Last week, I started imagining scenarios that could let me leave without insulting those who hired me. An allergic reaction to the pulp mill in town? A death in the family?
I can’t tell if the true kernel of my despair is that I feel incapable of resisting mobility’s pull or that we’ve nowhere to go. We sold the Craftsman bungalow that we’d just finished restoring in Helena. Marc quit his job as a wetlands ecologist—work that he loved—so that I could take this one. Last night, driving home, the lack of an obvious escape reduced me to tears. Seven minutes of solitary grief in the winter dark, before I pulled up in front of our new blue bungalow and rubbed my eyes dry.
Today’s mobility is, at best, temporary.
Out the van window, crooked cottonwood trees back up against the South Thompson River. Each one of these trees—organisms without muscle or bone or neurons—once depended upon the mobility of seeds. Released just as flood waters are beginning to subside, cottonwood seeds are tiny—only two to three millimeters long—and held aloft by a cotton of silky hairs. Snagged by shrubs or branches, many will never touch the ground; others pile in miniature drifts along road or field edge. Sculpted by evolution, the mobility of these seeds is a one-time event, an all-or-nothing gamble on the whim of wind and flooding river waters.
Just before our route turns overland, I wonder when the seeds of these trees will next disperse. Sometime between May and June, I assume, but I’m not sure how the change in latitude and longitude (North four degrees, West eight degrees) and our loss of elevation (nearly 3000 feet) will translate within the phenology of these cottonwoods.
When we turn south, driving up and out of the South Thompson River valley, I need to use our map book to give Marc directions. But the longer we travel, the more I recognize. In 1971, my hippie family wasn’t the first of our kind to arrive in Armstrong—a small farming community in the north end of the Okanagan Valley—but we were close, arriving with what could be packed into a 1954 Studebaker. My family may have gone back-to-the-land, but we lived like our annual crops: dependent upon the soil, but never settling in place. Annual crops, unlike trees, end each growing season repackaged into the portability of seed or bulb or tuber. During the six years we lived in the North Okanagan, we regularly dispersed from one rented house to another. Our last move, after my mother and her hippie husband separated, brought us into town. That rented house was a converted garage, but unlike some of our previous homes, it had electricity, running water, a phone.
Of all our new amenities, the phone—matte black with a rotary dial, hanging on the kitchen wall—was the best. A form of bodiless mobility, voices weaving me into a larger, after-school, conversation. Little did I know that before the school year was finished, this same phone would announce my family’s next move—this time across an international border.
That had been in January, too. Right after the only Christmas holiday my siblings and I ever spent with my biological father. On Boxing Day, Mom had driven us to the closest airport. When my siblings and I boarded a plane to Vancouver, Mom got on a plane to visit her new boyfriend, Glenn, in Montana.
On New Year’s Day, she’d called us. She had a surprise, she said, that she’d tell us when we got home. Maybe, I thought, Glenn, who was quiet and read books, was coming to stay. When the phone rang at home, I raced to get it, Mom’s voice scratchy and distant.
The surprise? She’d gotten married. No, not to Glenn, but to a man named Charlie. The last thing I heard before I handed the phone to my sister was, “We’re moving to Montana.”
The day my mother called to tell us she’d married a stranger, I couldn’t bear to hear my sister’s reaction. Instead, I grabbed my coat and ran away from a house made strange with impending loss; towards the Morland’s house.
Theirs was another hippie house. When Tracey and I met in fifth grade, I’d gone through the hippie-kid ritual of parsing any paraphernalia I found in her house. Bead curtains hanging in doorways; macrame plant hangers crowding windows. Finally, I’d copied the lyrics from Dr. Hook’s “Freakin at the Freaker’s Ball” and handed the words to Tracey as we walked home from school. It was enough. On Christmas Day, Tracey brought her family over to my house and the adults got stoned before we all went sledding.
That night in January, Donnie, Tracey’s dad, came upstairs when he’d heard my entrance and all three Morlands sat with me at their square kitchen table as I sobbed out my story. After I’d calmed down, Donnie, in good hippie fashion, wondered if I shouldn’t consider this new move not a tragedy, but an adventure.
Mobility, dispersal: opportunity, risk. Good or bad, you trade familiar for strange, known for unknown. When my family left BC in 1977, it was easy to list my losses. The only home I could remember. The kids I had gone to school with since first grade. The comfort of a best friend with hippie parents. But it took me years to understand how one move can lead to others.
As a plant biologist, I chose to study a group of organisms who root in place. But I also chose a profession—university teaching—that assumes, even rewards, long-distance mobility. In his essay, “Rootless Professor,” Eric Zencey argues that post-secondary education is largely provided by a transient class of intellectuals who owe no allegiance to a geographical territory. Against all odds, joining the professoriate has allowed me to return to the landscape from which I was exiled twenty-seven years ago. But today, I wonder about my allegiances. Do I have any real loyalty to the plants of this place: this valley, this watershed, this country? Or is my loyalty more to the ideas, the practice, of my discipline?
This is what I want to know. Do those cottonwood seeds who fail in dispersal—piled in drifts, suspended in the air—mourn the roots they will never know? Do the proteins in seed coats know their thirst as they reach for water—the first step in germination? Is the risk of mobility easier if you never have a choice, if you go by chance or by the desire of another? Or is the true cost only known when it’s you who makes the decision when to go, when to stay?
In the van, Marc wants to know if we should turn left onto the Salmon River Road. “Yes,” I say, already opening the map book, expecting his next question.
“So, does the Salmon flow north into the Thompson or south out the Okanagan?”
Before I can decipher the blue lines on the map, there are more directions to give. I guide him onto Deep Creek Road, and then another left and a right and then there’s the Morland’s house. Emerging from the side of a hill, the low-slung wooden house—built after my family had already left—is not one I know. The Morlands may have not been the first hippies to arrive in this valley, but unlike us, they stayed.
In the life of cottonwoods, dispersal is easy; establishment is far more difficult. Within twenty-four hours, seeds that land on sunny, moist riverbanks will split open to produce a sticky-haired foot. Once the foot stabilizes the seed, the embryonic root, the radicle, expands outward, making contact with the soil. And then, over the next few weeks, it’s a race. To maintain contact with receding flood waters, root tips must push down through the soil as much as a centimeter each day. Bank position matters. Too high on a stream bank, and juvenile roots will wither from thirst. Too low, and stems will be scoured by next winter’s ice or drown in spring’s flood. Of the seeds that disperse from a tree, only one in a million successfully roots.
In the entryway of the Morlands’, it’s a bustle of hugs and hellos. Donnie and Jackie are older versions of the gracious hosts I remember. As we settle into the living room—woodstove radiating heat, windows overlooking snow-covered lawn—I sense Donnie trying to read Marc’s disposition. Refreshments differ in kind and impact; it’s important to get it right. Marc’s short, nearly crew-cut hair, full beard, worn jeans and faded work shirt is the attire of a field ecologist, but collectively the different pieces have left Donnie guessing. Finally, Donnie errs on the side of ambiguity.
“Marc,” he asks, “How can I alter your consciousness?”
Marc looks stunned and I grin. My American husband has nothing against a finely malted scotch or a good porter, but he’s generally comfortable with his consciousness just as it is. It’s also mid-morning and we have to drive back through the now-falling snow to Kamloops. I can see Marc wondering where the boundaries of this particular culture-shed are.
“Coffee will be plenty,” is his considered reply.
It’s a good party. There are a few faces I recognize and more that I’m told that I once knew. When it’s nearly over, I hear Donnie’s voice boom out from the kitchen, “Well maybe I threw away my vote when I supported the Marijuana Party in the last election. Don’t know that I’ll do that again.”
Marc, standing nearby, asks “A Marijuana Party? Did it run candidates province-wide or just here in the Okanagan?”
I’m disappointed not to hear more when Maggie calls me down to her level.
But on the way home, Marc only has to say, “The Marijuana Party? Really?” before we erupt into giggles.
Welcome to my history, Babe.
In the van, we are back alongside the Salmon River. I reach for the map book. From here, the Salmon River flows north into Shuswap Lake, which in turn is drained by the South Thompson River. Tracing the blue lines on the map, I realize that there’s a divide—a barely distinguishable uptick in elevation—between here and my childhood home. I thought moving to Kamloops would be a homecoming. But I was wrong—both geographically and culturally. The home I was exiled from as a child drained south down the Okanagan Valley, into the Columbia River. The terrain of our new house, my new job, drains west into the Fraser River before spilling into the Pacific. And culturally? I might carry a Canadian passport and two graduate degrees in botany, but I am like a cottonwood seed caught in a shrub—isolated by my time away, by my ignorance of Canada’s most basic civil traditions, by my lack of intimacy with this place.
Back along the South Thompson, cottonwood trees braid twig into branch, branch into main stem. I can’t see it, but below ground, cottonwood roots reverse the process, branching from main stem into increasingly smaller tributaries. Trees are mirrored rivers, their form collecting from both sky and earth.
But only if they remain in place. Once rooting occurs, further mobility risks everything. Large plants like trees get transplanted only with extreme intervention. To move a tree, a gardener must trench through the outer periphery of the tree’s roots months before the move. The trench, in isolating the tree’s roots from its extended community, forces the tree to grow new feeder roots in a much smaller root ball—a truncated form of rooting that can be moved, albeit with front-end loaders and cranes.
Even then there will be scars.
In our animal mobility, we humans assume we can bounce around, forsaking community; calling one place home, the other not; going back to the “land” without learning the plants native to its soil; relying on generalizations to make sense of the world’s vastness. But mobile doesn’t always mean rootless. As we drive into the eastern edge of Kamloops’ sprawl, it occurs to me that my grief might reflect not failure but success. I may think of myself as a transient professional, a rolling seed, but isn’t my persistent sorrow a sign that we’d begun to root in Montana? As we pull up in front of the bright blue bungalow on Pine Street that we paid too much for and that I have yet to love, I can feel the first trickle of grief slipping into question. What, I wonder, would it take to be as rooted as a tree?
Rooting, I know, rarely occurs alone. Belowground, embryonic radicles survive only in relationship. Carbon-rich molecules drip, squeeze and pass across root cell walls, and in doing so, they feed microbial multitudes. In return, root growth is modified, regulated, defended, orchestrated. In their rootedness, few trees can abandon community and survive. As I open the back door of our van, unbuckle Maggie’s car seat and feel her sleepy body settle into my arms, this is what I think—beginnings matter. Even if they’re hard to articulate, even if they consist of more question than answer.
What would it take to be as rooted as a tree? Years later, driving up to this same blue bungalow and worrying about how close we came to leaving, I will remember this question as the first sticky foot of rooting. In both rivers and trees, it is said, small things lead to big things. What starts with the painfully slow slip of water molecules across membranes, from one pore to another, coalesces into columns of water linking earth with sky, mountain with ocean. In the reciprocal relationship between people and place, stories do the same.
This is one.
About the Author – Lyn Baldwin
Lyn Baldwin is an interdisciplinary plant biologist who uses creative writing and illustration to help alleviate the impact that society’s plant blindness has on the conservation of species and ecosystems. Lyn teaches botany and ecology at Thompson Rivers University amidst the sagebrush steppe and inland coniferous rainforest of southern British Columbia. Lyn’s field journal art has been exhibited in art galleries and science museums and her essays published in journals such as Terrain, The Goose, Cirque, Hamilton Arts and Letters, and Camas.
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**This story by Lyn Baldwin received an Honourable Mention in the 2021 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
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