Home in a Backpack
Sarah Johnson talks about displacement, borrowed time, and carrying a sense of home with her wherever she goes.
There is a red-eared slider marooned on the tarmac at Philadelphia International Airport. I, too, carry home in a backpack. I travel between terminals on my way to nests that have already pushed me out, away from homes that do not yet recognize me. The shuttle takes me to my gate, and I board my connecting flight carrying in my backpack my wallet, an issue of The New Yorker, a pack of gum, my baby blanket, cell phone charger, glasses case. What else is there? I use the term “going home” flying both East and West.
A good friend is researching homesteading in her new house at the terminus of the Oregon Trail. From this vantage, she can look across time and prairie to the ones making their way along the ruts. They make their way toward a home that does not yet exist. A home that is still just an arrangement, an exchange of goods, a handshake. Meanwhile, they have packed essentials in a wagon. The leftover room is dedicated to items to make a home. I read the Wikipedia page on homesteading and it is surprisingly sparse, merely describing a “back-to-the-earth” approach to living. There’s a vague mention of the Homesteading Act, linked to a far more in-depth page, but it proves largely unhelpful. My friend is not researching the passage of a law, nor is she attempting to get into new-age, tiny-home, back-to-the-earth living. At least, this is not the sense I get. The sense I get is that her research goes deeper, seeking out a frame of mind and a style of homemaking that is largely extinct in our present cultural climate.
The red-eared slider does not belong on the tarmac, that goes without saying. It doesn’t even belong in Pennsylvania, as it turns out (I read this on Wikipedia, as well). The particular species is native to almost nowhere, yet has been transplanted nearly everywhere. It is one of the world’s worst invasive species, particularly bad in Australia. The red-eared sliders cannot know this, only that they are seemingly constantly displaced. Ending up in tanks in childhood bedrooms and shallow pools at science museums, possibly yearning for an ancestral homeland that does not exist. But this is all speculation.
In extreme circumstances, the red-eared slider does not hibernate but merely becomes motionless. This is called brumation. Playing dead, more or less, to avoid becoming really dead. The red-eared slider is not native to Oregon, but I’ve seen them there. They cannot know that they toe a literal line with disaster from which brumation will in no way protect them. How do you prepare from inside plexiglass? How do you make real an impending rupture of the earth, separated so completely from it by borrowed time?
My good friend who is researching homesteading borrows from covered-wagon concepts. She floats between eras, darning socks and playing Fleetwood Mac albums until they scratch and warp. The kinship she feels is clear. The modern application of the term to back-to-the-earth subsistence is maybe not as unrelated as it seemed at first. Filling space with necessities, adding in home to the leftover crannies. I visited this friend and saw her home filled with half-finished projects, spices strewn about counters, nautical maps decorating the walls. She lives in a perpetual state of comfort-in-progress.
I am traveling toward homes that do not exist anymore. It’s not due to disaster but rather planned obsolescence. Leases were up, graduations had, camps outgrown. I go back and skirt the edges, anchoring myself to people rather than to places. My home is my backpack and the car I borrowed. My home is my mother buying me ice cream and ironing my clothes as I sleep in the guest room of her new house. Her new home? My mother is living alone for the first time in her life, having divorced my father and launched both of her children. At 60 years old, she curates a space that is shared with no one and is wholly hers. When she gives me the tour, it is with a sense of pride and content that I have never before seen.
I move into a new apartment and live by myself for two weeks. I steal coffee beans from my workplace and grind them in the morning before I leave for another shift. I meet my other friend for breakfast, and she tells me she has stopped looking at the Wikipedia page for the Cascadian Fault Line. It stays on her mind long after she closes the tab, and it preoccupies her every movement. She dances in shakes and ironed-out jolts. We meet for coffee and discuss how to put this writing into a new piece, such that the audience cares a little bit more or at least has some text to read.
I visit my friend in Portland on her second-to-last weekend in the city. I adopt her old dresser, and we fit it neatly into the back of my car to take home. As a field ecologist, my friend is ruled by seasons and inquiries in serpentine soils. She heads to a new corner of rural Oregon to live in government housing and collect samples, practice loneliness and eke out purpose. She writes me letters about her days beside the Rogue River and the languid first impressions of summer.
If we are doomed, the red-eared slider does not know it. If we are to be swallowed whole by the earth, it will merely be another foreign land for the turtle to inhabit, by which to become domestic. It may seek out cracks in seething magma for its new home, continually liquified and reincarnated ad infinitum. It may settle into native land with everything it needs encased in its exoskeleton. It may fossilize in carbon and the caffeinated dregs of urban waterways. It will all pour into itself. We will go with the red-eared slider, but we will not stay.