Photograph by Dai Nguyen

10 Ways to Make Your House a Home

Listen to the author read this Enumeration:


  While the lenders and realtors and brokers circulate their dreary forms, while your only claim to the house is wonder, get the seller to let you till and plant before the closing date. All those buds and shoots will spell welcome in the green language of the garden.
  Get to know your neighbors. Learn their names, even if you have to look them up: the snowberry brushing against the backside of the outbuilding; a purple finch flitting its shadow across the creek where brook trout scatter; a bushy-tailed woodrat hunched in a corner of the garden shed; stink bugs crammed in every conceivable crevice around every door and window.
  You won’t like some of your neighbors. That’s natural. Mutual, even. Learn all you can about them, then attack. Pull so much knapweed from the packed earth that its shapes pinwheel before your closed eyes when you look for sleep. Buy a BB gun for the starlings, and watch the BBs bounce harmlessly off their oily plumes. Know fear at their dark intelligence when a decade passes and you realize they never tried your feeder again.
  Figure out what your land would like where. Plant some natives with the many nectar-lickers and berry-gobblers in mind. When your red osier dogwood grows tall enough for a Say’s phoebe to perch in it, you almost wince at the spindly clutch of her talons. And when two yellow warblers build their nest in the black cottonwood you planted by the creek, you have an inkling of what it is to be a father.
  When your daughter is born, brave the odd looks from the nurses and ask for the placenta. Take it home in a sack marked BIOHAZARD, and plant it in the soil where two saplings grow. In three years, when your daughter climbs into your car to play with the stick shift and the car starts rolling toward the steep bank above the creek, those lodgepole pines will be just strong enough to bend, bend, and hold.
  When your daughter, hopping from foot to foot, asks if she can go potty outside, say, “Sure.” After she calls, “Okay,” try not to exclaim when you turn to find two logs steaming on the lawn, but take your shovel, scoop her scat, and toss it into the thimbleberry bushes. You’ll have forgotten all about it next summer when you pick and eat those rosy, seedy berries.
  When you hear the great-horned owl calling, take your daughter out into the night. Listen with her, and let the certainty of a second child bloom in the whos.
  When your daughters run to you, calling excitedly about a frog or praying mantis, push aside whatever work lies before you, and show them by your keen interest that what they have discovered is the real work. Let them take down your field guide and flip the pages. Let their wonder feed your own.
  Among all the tasks the place asks of you, don’t forget to hear it asking you to simply be in it. Let your children drag you out to the lawn for a picnic. Lie down and feel the knobs and dips of the ground against your back. Every time the train blows its horn, gather your family in your thoughts and feel more fully where you are.
  And when circumstances make you leave that home, rise at dawn of the last day it is legally yours, shovel into a five-gallon bucket that placenta-rich soil that now includes your dog’s ashes. Let it help you begin again. Let it help you be what your new home needs.


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Derek Sheffield’s collection, Not for Luck, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize judged by Mark Doty. His other books include Through the Second Skin, finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and A Revised Account of the West, winner of the Hazel Lipa Environmental Chapbook Award judged by Debra Marquart. Coeditor of two collections, Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy and Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry, he lives with his family in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains near Leavenworth, Washington, where he birds, hikes, plants, fishes, and forest bathes. As a professor of English at Wenatchee Valley College, he teaches poetry and ecological writing and serves as co-chair of the Sustainability Committee. He is the poetry editor of


  1. Your daughters are lucky to have a dad who knows what the real work is, Derek. Lovely list.

  2. A list like an elegy for your first house (aka home). We speak of closing on a new home when what gets neglected is closure on leaving the last one. This article is a well-crafted and honest reminder of that. Bravo!

  3. Beautiful, wise, moving, delicate, transcendent, true. If John Muir were alive, he would bow because he had found a spirit in touch with the reverence that knows what matters and cares.

  4. Yours is the only “10 Ways To” list that celebrates life and speaks to the things that really matter. A moving, beautiful piece of work, Derek.

  5. Derek,

    The list as wave. Taking me into the morning.

  6. Love especially the listening in nine and the parts taken in ten, the temporary sense, the caretaker you continue to be.

  7. Or

    Celebrate when the 20 year shingles, which you thought would last forever as you nailed them down, are replaced in the too-hot October weather by 30 year shingles. You have arrived!

    Vegetable and flower gardens are great but fruit and nut trees last longer. Act like there is a tomorrow.

    Be sure to dream-up too many “wouldn’t-it-be-nice-if” projects for the house, the land, the gardens, insuring that some day you can recall where the barn or porch or raspberry patch might have been.

    Remember, woodchucks need to eat too, but not the carrots! Find the entrances to your closest neighbors and lovingly barricade them with stones thrown from the garden. They’ll live.

  8. At the age of 53 (and starting at age 18), I’ve now moved my home more than 35 times. Your recommendations are spot-on and sublime.

  9. Many of your ideas are lovely and useful. I was very disturbed, however, by your advice to use bb’s to scare starlings away. First of all, bb’s CAN kill starlings so your inaccurate advice could lead someone to kill, when they thought they would only frighten. Second, despite their being a non-native bird, they are living creatures and for me, a house becomes a home as we learn to co-exist. I have had no issues with starlings and other birds at our house.

  10. Show respect for the critters that you see and even the ones you don’t see when you drive to town by removing them from the road and onto the roadside when they are run over. That makes them easy dining for hawks, magpie, etc. and it always makes me feel that I’ve done something that recognizes the value of their lives. I show that similar respect for the animals I take as a hunter and a small stock maven. Somehow makes me feel a part of where I live.

  11. Having earth under my nails , from where I call home, my heart sings. Thanks for your words.

  12. Excellent Derek. This perspective comes to mind:

    “We can give up hoping to be eternal and quit fighting dirt. We can chase off mosquitoes and fence out varmints without hating them. No expectations, alert and sufficient, grateful and careful, generous and direct. A calm and clarity attend us in the moment we are wiping the grease off our hands between tasks and glancing up at the passing clouds. Another joy is finally sitting down to have coffee with a friend. The wild requires that we learn the terrain =, nod to all the plants and animals and birds, ford the streams and cross the ridges, and tell a good story when we get back home.”
    – Gary Snyder [Back Home, The Etiquette of Freedom, The Practice of the Wild]

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