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Reflections On Homelessness And Nature, From Crissie McMullan And David Allan Cates

David Allan Cates

Crissie McMullan, the executive director of Mountain Home Montana, considers the connection between homelessness and the environment. The absence of a warm bed and warm meal can trump the healing potential of time spent in wildness, writes McMullan:

"I first started caring about the natural world in my late teens, a time where I felt confused about who I was and who I wanted to be. Sometimes I was so tangled up inside that I couldn’t breathe. I sought air in the most literal way: outside, among trees, between mountains, beneath a big sky. I became an environmentalist in part because I wanted to protect the places that helped me heal.

But here’s the thing: I always came back from the wilderness to a warm bed, a warm meal, and sometimes even someone who was glad I’d come home.

My job, Mountain Home Montana, provides that home, a safe base for young mothers and their children. From here, they go to school and find jobs. They feed and clothe and bathe their kids. Sometimes I look out my window and a few have gathered outside, taking a break from chores, chatting beneath the mountain ash, or picnicking within a tiny patch of sun.  

A safe and healthy home environment: we humans need them both to live, and to feel alive."

McMullan pairs her essay with a passage from "Tom Connor’s Gift," by David Allan Cates. It's a novel about one woman's retreat into wilderness and solitude, where she mourns the death of her husband. Like McMullan, Cates makes the connection between a healthy environment and a safe home, and the potential of both to heal the mind and body. In this passage, the main character reunites with her grown children, returning to the home where her husband, Mark, died:

"We step back, and even though they tell me the wood box inside is full, I insist that as long as we are out here we each carry in an armload of dry oak that Mark split and stacked in his last months of strength. I think about this, and I think they might be thinking about it as well, but none of us says anything except to exclaim over Puppy who is scampering along behind us, under us, almost tripping us.

They tease me for my obsession, and though our faces are shiny with tears we’re all laughing as we carry the wood inside. I smell the house again for the first time and it smells of something good cooking, my son’s wet shoes, my daughter’s hair, and even still of Mark and Mark’s disease--the great carnival, the whole beautiful disaster.

Through the living room windows I see the same view, the bottom pasture, white, now under snow, and cut by a curving creek lined with naked box elder and cottonwood.

We fill to overflowing the box in the corner, then stack what doesn’t fit on the brick floor next to the stove, a few sticks to keep us warm until morning."

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 3/30/16 and 10/05/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)