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Writing Home

By Associate Professor Camille T. Dungy


Associate Professor Camille T. Dungy. Photo by Lisa Sze.Photo by Lisa Sze.

WHEN I WAS A GIRL-CHILD, home was a street called Bluff View, the uppermost block in a terraced neighborhood of Southern Californian houses. In the summer, when I was young and untired and forced to bed before the sun went down, my lullaby was the view my bedroom window afforded of the hills behind my house. Desert oak, prickly pear, eucalyptus, sage: I fell asleep cataloging this place. In the daytime, I would scramble over one bluff and up the hill behind it, playing teacher in the caves my neighbors and I found, scratching lessons in the chalky sand that lined the walls. We played doctor with the stethoscopes fashioned from rocks and the necklaced stalks of wild mustard. We knew the contours and passages of those hills like we knew the halls and classrooms of our other, inside, school. Walking down a slope is different than walking on flat land, and each part of my legs recorded required positions until they could move as correctly up and down those bluffs as my tongue might move over the alphabet. My body memorized its place in those hills.

But even while I lived at the center of everything I knew, everything I knew erased itself. Before I entered high school, construction had begun on summit estates for our town’s growing mogul class. The hilltop was leveled and two of my favorite caves lost. From my bedroom window I could now see the red tile roof of the pizza king’s palacio. Less desert oak. A weaker scent of sage. When my parents bought the house on Bluff View, our backyard marked the edge of human landscaping. It was not uncommon to find tumbleweed resting in our lounge chairs, to leave wild poppies blooming along the margins of cut grass. Now the hills were asphalt and ice plant. The wild dogs we called coyotes moved down into our backyards, fighting with raccoons over scraps from overturned trash cans and preying on small pets.

Development, in California, means the building of homes, the imposition of landscaping, the digging of pools. Development in California means controlling what exists and creating something new, something only the diversion of rivers for the maintenance of reservoirs can sustain. Development in California means the mass irrigation of newly planted lawns. Houses, houses everywhere and not a wild mustard field to see. Not even the acres of organized agriculture that first moneyed the region survive. The City of Orange in Orange County kept an orange tree in a fenced area, one skinny-branched specimen saved to represent the fields for which the region was named. I grew up on a street called Bluff View in the midst of California’s ambition for development. When I write poems about nature, I am writing poems about loss. I am writing poems about discovering home where home has been replaced by structures I do not recognize. The place I was born into no longer exists. I don’t have a town I can call home. Unless language is home. Unless, when I write, what had slipped away is found…

--Read the rest of this essay in “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry” (© 2009 by the University of Georgia Press). The anthology, edited by Dungy, includes writing by Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde and Richard Wright.


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