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Reaching Home: Reflections on Environmental Autobiography

Louise Chawla

Environmental psychologist Louise Chawla first presented the following ideas as a participant in a special 1994 Environmental Design Research Association workshop, "Environmental Ghosts: Negative and Traumatic Images of Place," organized by environmental psychologist Nora Rubin­stein. Chawla is author of In the First Country of Places: Nature, Poetry, and Childhood Memory (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1994).

The geographer Anne Buttimer (1980) has described our relationship to place as an exchange between home and horizons of reach. Home embodies our desire for rest, territory, security, community.  Horizons of reach represent movement, range, ad­ven­ture, innovation.

    Buttimer notes that these com­ple­men­tary poles of human existence func­tion geograph­ically, socially, and imagina­tively. When the home and reach of our imagina­tions and our social affiliations are fulfilled in the place where we live, we enjoy cen­tered lives. Often, how­ever, what we de­sire to be and the people we desire to be with conflict with where we are.

    The environmental psychologist Nora Rubinstein (1993) has brought atten­tion to the reality that, all too often, family vio­lence creates places where people are housed but not homed, where basic needs for secu­rity and community are violated. She has sug­gested that there is a special horror associated with victimization in the dwell­ing, a place that our culture defines as "sacred" to families.

    Considered together, the observa­tions of Buttimer and Rubenstein demon­strate the ambivalence of home. We expect the house where we live to be home to the degree that we often use these words inter­changeably. We use physical functions of home‑-shelter, rest, nourish­ment--as meta­phors for psycho­logical needs. Yet reality often frustrates us, so that the meaning of home contains within itself two poles: our longing for familiarity and comfort; and imagina­tive horizons of reach beyond where we are.

    This ambivalence regarding the meaning of home is inevitable. We need psychologi­cal comfort and rest as well as food, and physi­cal famil­iarity par­tially provides it. The settled, however, does not hold us. We also inhabit reaches of thought and imagination that trouble our rest. We cannot help but com­pare the pres­ent with the past and fu­ture, noticing change and loss. We ponder limitation and mortality. We con­ceive distant or fictional places that tempt us with total fulfillment.

    Western culture accentuates this natural ambiva­lence. This essay traces some leading cultural associ­ations with the idea of home through a few influential texts of classical, medieval, and early modern phi­losophy and literature, with a focus on major shifts in the assumptions that these texts reveal.


    In the great cultural current of Pla­tonism, "home" is an inner attainment of the philosophic mind. According to Plato's doctrine of anamnesis, our souls preexist our earthly birth; our true home is our place of origin among the gods. In this sense, we return home through a recovery of memory. But because our origin exists outside time, this recollection takes us beyond time--rather than backward through it.

    Through the medium of Socrates, Plato describes this return home in a myth in the Phaedrus. Accord­ing to Socrates, when the soul nourishes itself on beauty, wisdom, and goodness, it regrows wings and ascends to the company of the gods, "even to the summit of the arch that sup­ports the heavens" (247b). There, standing on the plain of Truth, it looks down upon the turning sphere of the universe:

It is there that true being dwells, without color or shape, that cannot be touched; reason alone, the soul's pilot, can behold it, and all true knowledge is knowledge thereof. Now even as the mind of a god is nourished by reason and knowledge, so also is it with every soul that has a care to receive her proper food; wherefore when at last she has beheld being she is well content, and contemplating truth she is nourished and prospers, until the heaven's revolu­tion brings her back full circle.... And when she has...feasted upon all else that has true being, she descends again within the heav­ens and comes back home. (247c-e)

The home that the soul returns to is the dwelling place of its ruling god, not far from this still point at the axis of the uni­verse.


After the fall of Rome, most of Plato's dialogues were lost to Western Europe, not to directly inspire art and literature again until the Renaissance. The essence of the Platonic sense of home--that it is a place of philo­sophic calm beyond the physical limits of the universe--was not lost, however. It was dra­matically popularized by one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boe­thius.

    A sixth-century Christian, a scholar of Plato and Aristotle, and a leader of the Roman senate under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, Boethius was at the height of his power and fortune when he was falsely accused of treason. He wrote The Consola­tion in exile in prison, awaiting torture and execution.

    As the book begins, he lies on his bed in his cell, prematurely aged, shaking with grief. Suddenly the vision of a tall imperious woman, Lady Philoso­phy, appears to him. She scolds him for his anxieties and tells him that she knows the real cause of his despair: he has forgotten himself and his true coun­try.

    "You have not been driven out of your homeland," she tells him, "you have willfully wandered away" (Book 1, Prose 5). What disturbs her, she says, is his atti­tude, but given his former devotion to her, she makes him a promise that echoes the Phaedrus:

I...show you the path [to] take you home. And I... give wings to your mind which can carry you aloft, so that, without further anxiety, you may return safely to your own country under my direction, along my path, and by my means (Book 4, Prose 1).

     The path home proves to be the practice of philos­ophy, by which Boethius is convinced that true happiness is perfect goodness. Though only God is per­fect­ly good, human beings can dwell in the proximity of God by sharing godly qualities.

    The theme of returning to the soul's true home, to God, echoes through the centuries, and still rings in church hymns. This tradition contains two competing claims. One is that the soul's home is a place, paradise, vividly imaged on church walls. It is this tradition, that the soul's true home is heaven, a place never reached until after death, that persists in conven­tional liturgies.

    But in the Neoplatonic tradition pre­served by Boethius and revived in the Re­naissance, home is a practice, philosophic contemplation, achievable in this life when a virtuous soul secures a point of calm from which to survey the ever-turning cycles of the universe. As an em­bodied practice, it is tempo­rarily entered into; as Lady Philosophy reminds Boe­thius:

No one is so completely happy that he does not have to endure some loss. Anxiety is the necessary condi­tion of human happi­ness since happiness is never completely achieved and never permanently kept. (Book 2, Prose 4)


    In the seventeenth century, with the spread of middle-class wealth and the secu­larization of society, home became a pres­ent place of earthly comforts (see Ryb­czynski, 1986). First celebrated in Dutch paint­ings, then spread throughout Europe and North America by the fashion of fami­ly portraits posed in the library or garden, these domes­tic images of material fulfill­ment are now marketed worldwide by the housing and home products industry.

    But perhaps because total earthly happiness is "never completely achieved and never permanently kept," the Platonic search for an inner security that transcends tempo­ral change has not been lost. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Roman­ticism, it was assimilated into another transformation.

    As Boethius joined a Platonic sense of home to the Christian search for salva­tion, Romanticism joined it to modern secu­larism. After early adulthood in Cam­bridge, London, and the European Conti­nent, Word­sworth returned to the place that was home to him, the Lake District of his childhood. He did so with the intent of consecrating "the simple produce of the common day" ("The Excursion," line 55) as he first knew it in childhood. Nowhere else, he said, could he regain life's funda­mental sensa­tions:

Tis, but I cannot name it, tis the sense
Of majesty, and beauty, and repose,
A blended holiness of earth and sky,
Something that makes this individual Spot,
This small Abiding-place of many Men,
A termination and a last retreat,
A Centre, come from whereso'er you will,
A Whole without dependence or defect,
Made for itself; and happy in itself,
Perfect Contentment, Unity entire.

("The Recluse," Part I, Book I‑-Home at Gras­mere, lines 142-151)

   The "Perfect Contentment, Unity entire" that Plato associated with the plain of Truth at the axis of the universe, the still center of the turning world outside the limits of the earth itself, Wordsworth grounded in a personal geography.

    Honored in 1843  as England's Poet Laureate, Wordsworth combined the Ro­man­tic effort to spiritu­alize the secular world with Victorian sentimentali­ty and domestic­ity. Like the Neo­platonic tradition he consciously in­herited, Words­worth identified the soul's true home with mature meditation. This home that was now a physi­cal place of personal origin could never be under­stood and attained until one returned to it sadder and wiser, rediscover­ing it after "years that bring the philosoph­ic mind" ("Ode on Inti­mations of Immortal­i­ty," 10­.19).

    Nevertheless, this Romantic home was now an earthly place, associated with recollection as much as reflection, and fundamentally with impressions of child­hood. "Spots of time" is what Wordsworth called memories of formative places and events that "retain/a renovating virtue" (Prelude 12.208-210).

    Not coincidentally, he chose this term at the same time that landscape paint­ing, which permanently fixes visual spots of time, was becoming a popular art form. In paintings, engravings, soon photographs, and poetry more pictorial than philosophic, this conjunction of home, memory, and childhood be­came, quite literally, a Victo­ri­an cottage industry.1

    But the Romantics also passed on to the Victorians another side to these happy images: the doppel­ganger, the double, the Gothic novel in which sinister ghosts haunt the halls and byways of home.

    In the 20th century, this em­pha­sis upon memory, childhood, places of fear behind masks of nostalgia, ghosts that must be exorcised through reason, re­clothes itself in psychoanalytic theory. In the work of Freud, spots of time became screen memo­ries--indelible detailed images from child­hood, usually neutral or benign‑-that signal repressed sexual experi­ences (Freud 1960). Home, in the 20th century, has become a suspect site of child­hood trauma.


    Explorations of home in design research have assimilated this complex cultural legacy. Following the example of Wordsworth and landscape painting, resi­den­tial and environmental autobiographies com­monly involve detailed narrative and visual images. Autobiog­raphers assume that it is necessary to recover the past in order to understand the present, and that keys to self-understanding can be found in geographic spots of time.

    Following secular material conven­tions, home is commonly assumed to coin­cide with a house, domes­tic habits and comforts. Anticipating the emergence of either "renovating virtues" or Gothic ghosts, designers justify environmen­tal and residential autobi­ographies on the grounds that they will reveal how people seek to recreate, or avoid, childhood places in their adult houses and gardens (Cooper Marcus 1978, Hester 1979, Ladd 1977, Rubenstein 1982).

    Nora Rubenstein (1982) notes that analyses of environmental autobiogra­phies emphasize positive, even nos­tal­gic images, while negative experiences have gone largely neglected. She sug­gests this failure to acknowledge that the house often harbors violence and abuse may be encouraged by our cultural desig­na­tion of the house as a sacred place of do­mestic intimacy (a home both secular and spiritual).

    To expose this deception, psycholo­gy provides tools similar to those used to create it: a focus on recovering and elab­orating visual images from the past, flash­backs, screen memories. Again, the as­sumption is that spots of time contain keys to our self-identity.

    The unsettled ambivalence of the word home, in which we tenuously seek to dwell, persists in this effort to more accu­rately explore different dimensions of envi­ronmental autobiography. If the idea of home expresses a basic human need for rest, territory, and  securi­ty (Buttimer 19­80), then we will seek it in a still point, a stable spot of time. Even when we protest that the reality of home impri­sons us and denies us the hori­zons of reach nec­essary to find our true identity, we seek to expose the illusion through alternative imag­es, frozen frames of haunt­ed time.


    What other ways do we have of understanding, expressing, researching the meaning of home? In the EDRA workshop sessions which reopened the subject of environmental autobiography, Leanne Rivlin suggested that memory itself is a motion, an ongoing commentary in which we repeatedly readjust past, present, and future, rather than a stable archive.

    Clare Cooper Marcus proposed that we would be wise to exchange the Platonic and Christian desire for a still true home that transcends time for a Buddhist accep­tance that everything is in change and mo­tion and we are part of this larger fluid unity. Jerome Tognoli reminded partici­pants that the goal of trauma counseling is to provide a safe relationship in which people can acknowledge the realities of past pain so that they can subsequently "get on with their lives."

    Perhaps stages of recovery from trauma provide the best guide to how re­searchers and teachers who use environ­men­tal autobiographies should proceed into this risky territory.

    First, as the trauma counselor Judith Herman (1992) has described, there is a need for safety. This need includes physical safety and safety within personal relation­ships. For people gifted with restor­ative spots in time that appear "a Centre... made for itself and happy in itself," the creation of environ­mental autobiographies may be a safe prelude that enables them to hazard other, troubling memories and a changing self-identity.

    Not knowing what the process will initiate, how­ever, it is critical for teachers and researchers to communicate safety within the classroom or research setting, interrupt memories when it ap­pears that unmanageable pain may surface, and be prepared to recommend opportuni­ties for therapy.

    According to Herman, the second stage in healing is remembrance and mour­n­ing, when people recon­struct the story of their lives with appropriate emo­tion. In this case memory functions, as Leanne Rivlin has suggested, less as still pictures and more as an adaptive narrative. In the final stage of recovery, personal memories are acknowl­edged to testify to larger histories of exploi­tation and abuse in which the individual is one of many. By speaking out as a witness to this history, people can accept that loss, even major trauma, as much as happiness, unite them to the hu­man community.

    To apply Buttimer's terms, in this stage of wis­dom, we integrate home as an ideal of security and rest and as a pain­ful reality with our horizon of  reach, whereas we risk movement and new identi­ties. In this centering, the achievement of home turns out to be, once again, more of a practice than a place--and, like the exam­ples of Plato, Boethius, and Wordsworth, a reflective, philosophical prac­tice.

    Unlike the meditations of Plato and Boethius, this contemporary practice no longer seeks to transcend the universe. If we begin to expand the boundaries of envi­ron­mental autobiographies by inviting memories of pain as well as pleasure, we initiate a process of remembrance that commits us to the goal of healing. In doing so, we become part of a larger history of current cultural transformation.

    Like the Platonic soul at the axis of the world, we survey ever-moving gain and loss, but we no longer seek to escape this world of transience. Within the resources of this universe, we commit ourselves to creating the temporary stabilities of home in real earthly places.


    1. It was often pure nostalgia. Con­sider, for example, Thomas Hood: "I remem­ber, I remem­ber/The house where I was born,/The little window where the sun/Came peeping in at morn" ("I Re­mem­ber, I Re­member," lines 1-4).


Boethius, 1962. The Consolation of Philoso­phy. NY:Mac­millan.

Buttimer, A., 1980. Home, Reach, and the Sense of Place. In A. Buttimer & D. Seamon, ed­s., The Human Expe­rience of Space and Place. London: Croom Helm.

Cooper Marcus, C., 1978. Remembrance of Land­scapes Past. Landscape, 22: 35-43.

Freud, S., 1960. Childhood Memories and Screen Memories. In J. Strachey, The Stan­dard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 6. London: Hogarth Press, 43-52.

Herman, J., 1992. Trauma and Recovery. NY: Basic Books.

Hester, R., 1979. A Womb with a View. Landscape Architec­ture, 69: 475-481.

Hood, T., 1980. Complete Poetical Works. West­port, Ct: Greenwood Press.

Ladd, F., 1977. Residential History: You Can Go Home Again. Landscape, 21: 34-43.

Plato, 1961. Phaedrus, Collected Dialogues. Prince­ton: Prince­ton University Press.

Rubinstein, N., 1982. Residential Reminis­cences. Metropolis, June

Rubinstein, N., 1993. Environmental Auto­biogra­phy and Places of Trauma. Proceedings, 24th Annual Meeting, EDRA. Oklahoma City: EDRA.

Rybczynski, W., 1986. Home: A Short History of an Idea. NY: Viking.

Wordsworth, W., 1949. Poetical Works, vol. 5. Oxford: Clarendon.