Home, and Reconciling Suburbia

           November 2012

I am a product of Suburban America. I was raised by a town called Woodacres in Bethesda, Maryland, just at the periphery of Washington DC. I grew up in a red brick house with a backyard in a neighborhood where the cherry blossoms bloom bright pink in spring and deciduous leaves fall brown, orange, yellow, red in autumn. Only a wooden fence separates my yard from Woodacres Elementary School and a park with baseball diamonds, a playground, and a running track. Bethesda is well known for having some of the highest living conditions and most educated residents in the country. Bethesda is also overwhelmingly white, despite sharing a border with what is often called the “Chocolate City.”

            I can travel back to a time when loving suburbia was easy. As a child, I spent hours in my backyard sifting through dirt, running through sprinklers, finding hidden nooks in the bushes, digging for earthworms, casually conversing with robins. I climbed the pine trees in Woodacres Park and sat up there day-dreaming and make-believing, I went on geologic missions to find cool rocks in the areas around my school. The elementary school had astronomy nights when kids and their parents gathered in the park to “ooh” and “ahh” at distant planets in the suburban night sky. During wet summer nights I ran outside to experience thunderstorms, during dry summer nights I caught fireflies in jars and used them as flashlights in bed. All I knew was that I hated cities, because cities have people, and people are bad. I was an animal child. Or rather, I was a suburban child, I just didn’t really know it yet.  

In high school, I became an environmentalist and learned to hate the place that raised me. I went to a private school in DC and became exposed to an urban environment. I was taught the environmental impacts of suburban life and urban sprawl– from commuter car pollution, to pesticides that make lawns green, to issues of hidden segregation and inequity. Guilt set in and I rushed to get to know DC, so that I might identify with the city rather than terrible suburbia. I rapidly began to pursue an identity as an environmentalist, jumping in on youth climate activism in DC. I attended PowerShift, a giant conference of young people devoted to moving past fossil fuels and working toward a sustainable world. That was the start of a spiral of movements, values, and activism that still makes up a significant part of my life today.

Halloween is a big deal in Woodacres, and I went trick-or-treating right up until I graduated from high school. I grew skilled at carving pumpkins, and my creations became more and more advanced each year. Although the carving itself wasn’t even the best part – pulling out the goopy orange pulp definitely takes the cake. Over many years of trick-or-treating, I came to know which houses gave out the giant chocolate bars, where the haunted houses were every year, which routes would be the most efficient in terms of candy accumulation per hour. It was rare to find a house without its lights on, without parents and their family dogs dressed up in costumes, holding bowls of every kind of sugar imaginable. My parents had no problem letting me and my friends head out to the streets on our own, because Woodacres is about as safe as can be. The suburbs gave me a sort of cushioned independence from a young age.

Halloween comes at the same time as the falling of leaves, when suburban streets become living art, overwhelming in swirling, fiery color. That image you have of children in a suburban backyard, raking leaves just to jump in them? That’s me– me and my brothers. Autumn in Maryland is a time of leaf raking, trick-or-treating, apple picking at Homestead Farm, hikes on the Billygoat Trail, fleece jackets, brisk air. Every Thanksgiving, before eating loads of turkey, rolls, and chocolate chip cookies, I tossed a football around in the backyard of wherever we happened to be. Autumn is a season rich in vivid sensual memory.

In college I learned from Professor Einhorn and others that cities are sustainable and suburbs are not. I learned the historical context of the mass migration to the suburbs, I learned about red-lining and urban planning and zoning laws. New awareness that made me feel worse and worse about growing up in the suburbs. The UC Berkeley department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management as a whole does not seem to support suburbia.  What has it done to me, learning to see oppression and inequality as part of the foundation of the life that raised and sustained me? How do I come to terms with an identity rooted deeply in a place that I’m supposed to reject?

Here on the opposite side of the country from my homeland, I never know what to say when people ask me where I’m from originally. I give one of two answers: Maryland, or Washington DC. Neither gives the inquirer the real picture. Californians don’t’ know that Bethesda is five minutes from the DC border, and that in high school, I spent more time in the city than in the suburb. But I can’t claim the identity of Washingtonian. I have many friends from the city proper who are outraged if a suburbanite tries to pose as a true inner city native. And they have a right to be opposed – because I was raised by a suburb and not a city, I am not like them. Suburbia is a fundamental part of who I am, and any effort to push that away is dishonest.

Even here in Berkeley, where they say the seasons don’t change, autumn is my favorite. I sense even the slightest hint of autumn flavor – the changing leaves on planted maples, new smells on the fire trails, the much-awaited abundance of apples at farmer’s markets. Autumn in the Bay means Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park – my all-time favorite weekend. Sometime in November, the first rain falls, a joyous occasion of soaking wet frolicking. Also in November, I can pinpoint the very day when the sun sets exactly behind the Golden Gate Bridge. Bay Area autumn is a distinctively different season that autumn in Maryland, and yet I have learned to love it in same and different ways.

Whether it’s true or not, I like to think that I am from the suburbs and the city, and maybe that’s why I’ve found Berkeley to be so satisfyingly home. Berkeley does a terrific job of combining the merits of center and periphery. But as I grow to love the place where I am now, I am also reconciling my relationship with the place that raised me. Sometimes pangs of nostalgia catch me by surprise as I miss summer nights and fall colors and a neighborhood that wraps me tight in its enclosure. I wonder how long it will take to fully come to terms with a suburban identity. It’s easy to see that my love of fall, and my love of bluegrass music, have come from my childhood. They connect easily to my concept of home. But more puzzling is the connection between my current identity as environmentalist, naturalist, ecologist (what do I want to call myself?), and the suburbs that raised me.

I am proud of the person that I have become, and I know that she came from Woodacres Park. Suburban soil fertilized my growth, and that is meaningful in ways that I am just starting to know and accept. I often tell people that I am a “California convert” and that I’m never going back. I tell them that in coming to Berkeley, I have found home. And that is true. But in finding home in Berkeley, I have also begun to find home again in Bethesda.

In Reading and Writing Nature, we are making a class home in the hills, called the Speak Theater. I am puzzled at the prospect of making a home in nature – I was raised in a culture that doesn’t do that anymore. We make homes outside of nature, and are taught to love the wilderness on the weekends. I am puzzled, because I don’t know where to draw the line between wild and domestic, I don’t know how to experience home and nature in the same place, at the same time. But I’m excited to learn. I think the process of home-building here, in the oak-studded hills where wild turkeys roam and the campus buzzes with activity just below, will teach me.  I hope to learn what kind of person the suburbs have raised me into, and how I can use that nurturing soil to grow a new understanding of home, a new way of being in the world, a way of being that fits with the values I strive toward in my life.  Every piece of land on earth is made of fertile soil. To recognize that fertility is to come to terms with roots and identity – which is liberating! By finding home and creating home, I am coming home.

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