07 March 2011

Seeking Roots

I'm reading a lot of ecocriticism. Some of it focuses on human connections to place, and this is always something that has been troublesome for me: I don't know where I belong, and I never have.

And this, the ecocritics say, is precisely the problem with our era, call it late modernity, call it the industrial age, call it the age of reason -- ecocritics point to dislocation from place as one of its causes and symptoms and problems.

My father's family has been rooted in Maine for generations, and a few cousins still live there -- but not my father, an academic laborer and thus a migrant. My mother was a war child, a refugee, uprooted with her family from East Prussia to (West) Germany. East Prussia had ceased to exist before I was born, yet when I speak German, I'm told it's with a Prussian accent. West Germany, where I was born, has similarly ceased to exist, absorbed into the (not so newly) re-unified nation.

My mother tongue? German, apparently, though I have never spoken or written or read it with the facility with which I read and speak and write in English. In German, I struggle for words, struggle for grammatical constructs, lose track of the verbal particles as they swim across Twain's sea to emerge at at the end of the sentence.

In Germany, which has changed drastically from the place of my mother's youth, I struggle with the right levels of familiarity; I speak "without an accent" yet struggle to get my mouth and my mind around the language.

But in the United States, too, I'm an outsider. I don't "look like an immigrant," because I'm Caucasian. I don't "sound" like an immigrant, because I use English like a native speaker; I "don't have an accent." But I speak a language other than English at home; I maintain ties to another country; my passport says "Butzbach," and it seems to me that at border crossings the INS agents always pause to note my place of birth.

I feel the shame of the immigrant, the shame of difference, the shame of family ties in another place, the shame of ancestors who behaved truly badly.

I'm most at home in New York, a city above all of transplants from other places. I feel at home among migrants, immigrants, people with a million different stories of hyphenation and hybridity. Yet, some ecocritics say, that very condition of transplantation/translation is the symptom of modern dislocation and the trouble with modern life.

Since I moved away from my parents, I've lived in six different towns and cities on three continents. After twenty-three years in New York, I've lived in seven apartments in four different neighborhoods. At the moment, I'm committed to staying put until The Offspring gets out of high school in ten years. Will that be long enough to put down roots?