Fourth of July: an excellent day to stay home

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau took the first "staycation" – and authors have been debating its merits ever since.

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    "I have traveled a great deal in Concord," said Henry David Thoreau of his decision to stay put in his tiny cabin in the woods.
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The arrival of another Independence Day is an occasion to celebrate America’s birthday, but perhaps it’s also fitting, in this season of high gas prices and tight family budgets, to remember that the Fourth of July is also the birthday of the American staycation, the much-discussed practice of vacationing at home.

One hundred and sixty-six years ago, on July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau sought a change of pace by staying at home, moving into a small cabin at Walden Pond near his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

“I have traveled a great deal in Concord,” Thoreau would famously declare in “Walden,” giving hope to homebodies everywhere that pleasure and diversion might be found not on distant mountains or tropical beaches, but by staying put.

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It’s a sentiment that promises to resonate with particular appeal in this summer of national discontent, as sticker shock at the gas pump and a sputtering economy tempt more than a few Americans to take their vacations at home.

Thoreau’s penchant for traveling in place has secured his reputation as one of our great national oddballs, but what’s striking about his stay-at-home ethic, more than a century and a half after he coined it, is how much it continues to echo in the wider culture.

In “Bird Cloud,” her recent memoir, novelist Annie Proulx offers a cautionary tale that asks us to consider when we should welcome – and when we should reject – a home’s gravitational pull. The Bird Cloud of Proulx’s title is a property she buys in rural Montana, determined to build a dream dwelling on 640 acres of wetlands, prairie, and 400-foot cliffs. After finishing the house, which boasts a beautiful library, designer cabinets, and a Japanese bathing tub, Proulx realizes that snow isolates her much of the year, and she concludes that “no matter how much I loved the place it was not, and never could be, the final home of which I had dreamed.”

Although few readers will ever embark on a domestic odyssey quite like Proulx’s, her story raises a question that can touch cabin-fevered staycationers across the country: At what point can a home turn from paradise to prison?

But there can be benefits to keeping the car in the driveway, too, as Bill Bryson reminds readers in his new book, “At Home.” An American now living in England, Bryson glanced around his house, which was once a Victorian parsonage, and realized that any home has at least as much to say as the hottest tourist destination – if only we’ll cup our ears and let the walls talk. His book is nothing less than a history of the world, written room by room.

“What I found, to my great surprise,” Bryson writes, “is that whatever happens in the world – whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over – eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house. Wars, famines, the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment – they are all there in your sofas and chests of drawers, tucked into the folds of your curtains, in the downy softness of your pillows, in the paint on your walls and the water in your pipes.”

Naturalist Carl Safina, whose “The View from Lazy Point” offers yet a third celebration of home this publishing season, travels to both poles as well as the tropics to gauge the health of the planet, but he seems to understand the world most clearly at Lazy Point, the strip of Long Island shore where he lives in a beach cottage. “I sometimes tell friends it’s possible to see the whole world in the view from Lazy Point,” says Safina, voicing a variation on Thoreau’s traveling-in-Concord boast.

Safina’s book suggests that home can be a place not of confinement but contemplation, even for those of us who live neither in an English cottage nor a beach house, but even in a city apartment or a ranch house in suburbia.

A good thing to remember, I suppose, as the summer staycation season hits its midpoint.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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