"No matter where one lives, there's always someplace else more glamorous, with more nightspots to visit, more dollars to grab, more glittery names to drop. Part of me hankers to try new places, new jobs, new dogs; to light out for the Territory, head for the mountains or the metropolis. I wouldn't be a born-and-bred American if I didn't feel that hankering. Which is not to say that Americans invented mobility. If there weren't a wanderlust in our whole species, all of humanity would still be camped in our aboriginal valley in Africa. But we Americans do have some of the itchiest feet in history. Motion comes naturally to us. We brag about the number of places we've lived. We look with suspicion or scorn at people who stay put.
"It is rare for any of us, by deliberate choices, to sit still and weave ourselves into a place, so that we know the wildflowers and rocks and politicians, so that we recognize faces wherever we turn, so that we feel a bond with everything in sight. The challenge, these days, is to be somewhere as opposed to nowhere, actually to belong to some particular place, invest oneself in it, draw strength and courage from it, to dwell not simply in a career or a bank account but in a community.
"Once you commit yourself to a place, you begin to share responsibility for what happens there. When PCBs leak into the water or dioxides into the air, it is your water and your air that is polluted. The parks, the schools, the hospitals, the government, all are yours to fret over. When kids knock at your door, requesting donations for the band or the debate team or the purchase of a limestone rhinoceros, you have to reach for your wallet. Entangle yourself in a place, and you become attached to your neighbors as to kinfolk. When some of them pull up stakes and leave, as friends from down the street have just done — to Washington, D.C., where the husband will work at the Smithsonian, the wife will teach Spanish, and the two daughters will sprout into mysterious teenagers — you grieve. If a local woman is raped, a child goes hungry, a man is denied a job because of the shade of his skin, you are implicated. You must answer to the needs of a community, and if you neglect those needs, as I too often do, slipping back into the hammock of private life, you eat the sour bread of guilt.
"No wonder our songs tell us we gotta keep travelin' on. Who needs to shoulder the weight of a community when our own skins weigh so heavily? The impulse to hit the road is not only a hunger for new territory; it is often a flight from trouble. Daniel Boone is famous for having moved on whenever he could see the smoke from a neighbor's fire. Many of us move on to avoid cleaning up the ashes from the fires we ourselves have set.
"Local matters; the local matters. We shouldn't take too narrow a view of the neighborhood. Astronomers speak of the Milky Way and a few nearby galaxies as the 'local cluster.' Remember how Thoreau, nagged by his friends to venture out and see the world, replied that he had no need of such journeying, for he had already traveled extensively in Concord. My feet are itchier than Thoreau's, my character is muddier. Hit the road if you're so inclined, I say, and explore distant parts. But then go home again. Pick your own Concord, and travel there. If your eyes are open, you'll see more than you have brain for."