Anatomy of Home: dwelling fully on Vashon


For The Beachcomber

Man must forever learn to dwell.

— Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger, the brilliant, if often impenetrable and historically controversial 20th century German philosopher (he was equivocal about Nazism) was a man possessed by the question of what it means to be in a place, to truly dwell in it.

What’s that got to do with Vashon Island? Almost everything. Bear with me for a moment.

Words have histories that are often revealing. The words “being” and “dwelling,” for example, have the same Germanic linguistic root: the word buan. So to say in German, “Ich bin,” or, “I am” also means, “I dwell.” What’s more, the Old Saxon word wuon, which is related to buan, adds a very important, if subtle additional meaning: that of “sparing” or “preserving”—that is, being in an actively caretaking relationship with the place where you live.

When we use the word “home” in casual conversation, as in, “I’m going home,” we’re generally talking about the house or apartment we live in, our dwelling. But “dwelling” is both and noun and verb, a thing and an action. When we say we feel “at home” someplace, we don’t just mean the four walls of the structure to which we return at night. No, there’s more to it than that. The place where we feel “at home,” is a place to which we attach a certain affection and for which we have a feeling of protectiveness. It not only protects us, as a refuge, but brings out the protectiveness in us, a sense of caretaking. It’s a place we care about and take care of. This, of course, is why God made vacuum cleaners: so we could take care of our homes.

But seriously: a house is inert; a home is alive with, well…living.

This is the sixth in a series of columns I’m calling, “The Anatomy of Home.” In earlier columns we’ve looked at Place, Shape, Beauty, Comfort and Delight as components of “home.” This column explores the notion of Dwelling.

Christmas has just past. And for some years now we’ve been able to scroll through the menu of cable TV stations during this season and find a channel whose entire programming consists of nothing more than music and a continuous video image of logs burning in a fireplace. Why is that? It’s because nothing quite captures the primitively comforting sense of “home” more than a warm hearth.

Houses with working fireplaces command a premium in the real estate market because the hearth is symbolically the heating source, the cooking mechanism and the gathering place of a home. Furniture is always oriented toward the fireplace for a reason: it is the focal point. When a house has no hearth, it feels not so much like a home as it does a containment vessel.

This is where Heidegger’s contemporary and philosophical opposite, the Modernist Swiss architect and designer Le Corbusier, got it horribly wrong. “A house is a machine for living in,” he said. Right. That’s why cities throughout much of the western world are demolishing modernism-inspired cell-block-style apartment buildings that were not so much dwelling places as they were soul-deadening storage units for human beings. I once interviewed a city planner outside Paris who said of the crime-ridden mid-century high-rise complexes that blighted his town, “We had a crisis in population growth at the same time as we had a crisis in architecture.”

But you don’t have to stack these storage units to the sky to make them isolated and sterile; you can achieve the same effect by spreading them across the landscape, enclosing them with a wall, and guarding them with a gate. Almost a decade ago, the 2000 Census found that 16 million people in America, roughly six percent of the total, lived in gated developments — that is, places designed explicitly to be walled off and guarded from the community in which they’re located. Roughly twice as many more people lived in subdivisions with a walled perimeter but no active security at the entrance. Surprised? Take a trip, as I did recently, eastward on Bellevue’s NE Eighth Street, or almost any other street anywhere on the east side. The woods are full of walled or gated developments.

These are not “homes” in any sense that Heidegger would comprehend, and living in these developments is not “dwelling.” Such places are often called “gated communities,” but they possess no identifiable sense of community, other than a name out front. Residents seldom know their neighbors. There are no sidewalks to encourage visiting; it’s an automobile-dominated environment (that’s why garages, not porches, face the street). About the only person who has a sense of community is the guard at the gatehouse; he knows everyone. Superficially. And he probably wouldn’t be admitted as a resident, even if he could afford it.

So far, and thanks in part to water supply limitations on construction, Vashon is still a place that retains an intact sense of home, of community, of shared caring, of preserving. The population may be dispersed across the island, but it is devilishly and thankfully difficult to spend less than 20minutes at the grocery store, the post office, the library, the hardware stores, the book stores, or any other place in town because you keep running into neighbors and friends and chatting. And as for preserving? Look at how many people and businesses are involved in raising money for the food bank this holiday season.

Is it my imagination, or is it that now, as winter closes in around us, it seems that Vashonites are gathering around an unseen but universally acknowledged hearth we might call “our home,” the place where we dwell, the place we seek to preserve?

— Will North is an Islander and an author. His most recent book is “The Long Walk Home.”

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