I grew up on the edge of the Great Plains. To this day, there is a smell that comes with the arrival of summer that is unique, I’m in awe of a thunderstorm as it rolls in, and I am a bit uncomfortable when there are too many trees around. The plains are home. So, when did “home” become embedded in human consciousness? Is our sense of home instinctive, or is it learned? Are we as a species nest builders, or are we fundamentally nomadic? For most of the human experience, home may have been nothing more than a fire and the light it cast on the familiar faces of our family, band, or clan. Home was defined by things other than structures. For all people, home is the center of the world and a place of order that contrasts with the chaos elsewhere. When asked to draw a picture of “where you live,” children and adolescents worldwide invariably center their drawings around the home, making it the anchor for everything else. However it entered our consciousness, it’s a way of organizing space in our minds and finding meaning. Home is home, and everything else is not.
Not that you can’t feel “at home” in other places. But there’s a big psychological difference between feeling at home and being home. Feeling “at home” on the Sahara or in Seattle or in Paris is simply a way of saying that the not-home-ness of those places has diminished since you first arrived. Some people, as they move through their lives, rediscover home again and again. Some people never find another after once leaving home. And, of course, some people never leave the one home they’ve always known.
In a study by Pew a few years back, they asked participants to identify “the place in your heart you consider to be home.” 38% of the respondents did not identify the place that they were currently living to be “home.” 26% reported that “home” was where they were raised. Only 22% said that it was where they lived now. 18% identified home as the place that they had lived the longest and 15% felt that it was where their family had come from.
The idea of home almost completely displaces the idea of habitat. It’s easy to grasp the fact that a vireo’s nest is not the same as her habitat and that her habitat is her true home. The nest is a temporary annual site for breeding, useful only as long as there are young to raise. But we are such generalists that “habitat,” when applied to humans, is nearly always a metaphor. To say, “My home is my habitat” is true and untrue at the same time.
Yet our psychological habitat is shaped by what you might call the magnetic property of home, the way it aligns everything around us. Perhaps you remember a moment, coming home from a trip, when the house you call home looked, for a moment, like just another house on a street full of houses. For a fraction of a second, you could see your home as a stranger might see it. But then the illusion faded and your house became home again. That, I think, is one of the most basic meanings of home—a place we can never see with a stranger’s eyes for more than a moment. And yet, there is something compelling about the geographies we hold in our memories. The central point being that while habitat isn’t the defining aspect of the concept of home, it still evokes an emotional, primal response. We curate those memories and react when their triggers are put before us.
Ultimately, “home” is the place where you feel in control and properly oriented in space and time; it is a predictable and secure place. In the words of Robert Frost, “Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” “Home” is both the defining point of differentiation and the primary connection between a person and the rest of the world.