Commentary We shape our homes

and they shape us

I carry with me, in a backpack that serves as my purse, a tiny inch-high replica of a thatch-roofed African hut. It is a favor from a wedding, which I was honored to attend several years ago.

The wedding was a joyous affair, held at Camp Pinnacle in the Helderbergs. The tables were spread with bold African prints. At each place was a hut, fashioned, I believe, by the mother of the bride.

I had written a story about the bride who was raised in Guilderland and, as a young woman, went to Namibia to work, without pay, feeding and caring for children left alone in a country ravaged by AIDS. There, she fell in love and, after her wedding and honeymoon, was returning to Namibia with her bridegroom and would live in a hut.

When I asked her how she would manage, she replied, “It has everything I need.”

What do we need from our homes?

I pondered that question this week as we wrote stories for our annual Home & Garden edition. I have long been interested not only in how people shape homes but in how homes shape people.

Ellen Zunon writes a straightforward account of the homes she has lived in. She spent her first 21 years in a Cape Cod in Albany built by her father, which taught her the value of a job well done. She gained her independence in a series of Albany apartments until she married and moved to a high-rise in Cote d’Ivoire, which expanded her idea of family and community to include her husband’s many relatives and the diverse range of people living in a large cosmopolitan city. She and her husband now own a home in suburban Guilderland.

I wrote this week about a young family — Dana and Ben Sela and their two children — who have rescued a crumbling Guilderland landmark, the home where Henry Rowe Schoolcraft was born and raised. I read as much as I could find about the life of young Schoolcraft, who went on to document the fading culture of American Indians in the 19th Century. I wondered how his house had shaped his mind.

I looked at eight-month-old Luca Sela bouncing merrily in a swing from a beam on the porch his father had restored and I watched 21/2-year-old Gemma Sela race around the massive fireplace in the open room her parents had designed, and I wondered how her life would unfold in this carefully wrought house.

Do people have a nesting instinct like birds? Cornell ornithologist Robyn Bailey told reporter Zach Simeone this week, “Birds don’t have to learn how to build their nests; they’re just born knowing it.” Although birds may learn their songs from their parents, she said, they are born with nesting instincts. “They have a search pattern, and they know what they need for their nest,” she said. “Even if you take them away from their nest, and they never see their parents, they know what to do.”

Bailey also said that the materials used for a nest would change, depending on the resources available, but the structure would remain the same. “A screech owl that would nest in a cactus in Arizona, would nest in a tree in New York State…but they will always nest in a cavity,” Bailey said.

I brought from home, from the many nests we have collected over the years, an oriole nest to be photographed for the newspaper. I marvel at the elegance of the silken woven sack that kept the nestlings safe.

I looked up The Poetics of Space, a favorite book from my youth. It was written in the 1960s by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard and considers how people experience intimate places. In nests, Bachelard finds a primal image.

But, he writes, an old nest becomes an object. “As our collection of nests grows, our imagination remains idle, and we lose contact with living nests….of the nest found in natural surroundings, and which becomes for a moment the center — the term is no exaggeration — of an entire universe, the evidence of a cosmic situation. Gently I lift a branch. In the nest is a setting bird. But it doesn’t fly away, it only quivers a little. I tremble at having caused it to tremble…”

Each of us has a life centered in its own nest, as it were. Unlike birds, we humans must learn to build our nests. We must learn to use the tools that shape or decorate our homes. A bird is a worker without tools, Bachelard writes, that uses its own body to press the circular shape of its nest.

Zunon writes this week of the home-making tools her father taught her to use. And reporter Anne Hayden writes of the extended home she found in her father’s garden. Ben Sela says he and his brother learned to build by helping their father. And Hilltowner Keith Armstrong, who is now 67, says he built his first piece of furniture when he was 11 years old, learning from his father. He’s still building furniture today — artful chairs and tables — made from trees he’s planted himself.

A phenomenolgist, Bachelard believed there is a dynamic interplay between an active mind and its surroundings. He believed that most meaningful relationships with buildings take place in domestic space, the home.

Bachelard posits that the house can be used as a tool for analysis of the human soul. “With the help of this tool, can we not find within ourselves, while dreaming in our own modest homes, the consolations of the cave? Are the towers of our soul razed for all time?” he asks and then goes on, “Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are ‘housed.’ Our soul is an abode. And by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them….”

The chief benefit of a home, Bachelard argues, is that it shelters daydreaming, allowing its resident to dream in peace. He sets out to show that the house is one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind. “The binding principle in this integration,” he writes, “is the daydream.”

As I wrote an obituary this week, I talked to a new widow who does not want to leave the home she made with her husband; her memories are harbored in that 19th-Century farmhouse.

“Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed,” writes Bachlard, “and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives, we come back to them in our daydreams.”

In the cellar, Bachelard writes, darkness prevails both day and night, and even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the dark walls. But in the attic, the day’s experiences can always efface the fears of night.

The house we were born in, Bachelard maintains, is physically inscribed in us. Twenty years later, after leaving the house, on return, “We would push the door that creaks with the same gesture, we would find our way in the dark to the distant attic. The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands.”

He concludes, “The word ‘habit’ is too worn a word to express this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgettable house.”

Our house, writes Bachelard, is our first universe, “a real cosmos in every sense of the word. If we look at it intimately, the humblest dwelling has beauty….a primitiveness which belongs to all, rich and poor alike, if they are willing to dream.”

And so we finger the wedding favor, the African hut, and wonder if it holds all we need.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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