The meaning behind the places we call home

Learning about a place’s history deepens our connection
the book "The Painted Forest" on a table

A book can transport you to anywhere in the world, but reading about the place you call home offers a certain kind of enlightenment. It can challenge your perspective on things you thought you knew in a way that feels so personal.

Our annual local reading list features one book in particular, “The Painted Forest” by Krista Eastman, that had me examining my sense of place from every angle.

In her book of essays, the Madison resident explores the meaning we give to where we’re “from” and where we call home. She describes the beauty of the Driftless region, Sauk County and Wisconsin Dells, offering stories that explain and dissect her own connections with these lands.

It made me consider the places I’ve put on my own map. I perked up with recognition and pride at Eastman’s mention of the Wisconsin River — I’ve attached my own meaning and history to that beautiful waterway.

I’ve swum in its brown water, dug my toes into its sandbars and received my first kiss on the flat sandstone rocks along its bank. I’ve intertwined my story with a place I know, but don’t really know.

The earth beneath our feet is inextricably tied to our way of life and the meaning we give it. Learning about a place’s history and the people who stood here before us deepens our connection to where we plant our roots.

The backdrop of Madison looks different for everyone. But in this magazine, we try to build a sense of community and belonging in every story we write, often characterizing Madison as our place and our city.

In this month’s cover story featuring historical artifacts, we don’t attempt to plot the city’s definitive timeline or tell our story (as if there was just one to tell). Instead you’ll find a selection of objects, photos and documents that are just a few threads in the large tapestry of Madison’s story. I think Christian Overland, the Ruth and Hartley Barker Director and CEO at the Wisconsin Historical Society, gets to the heart of it when he says we all have to feel connected to these pieces of our past. “So you come at it from the point of view, ‘What does it mean for me?’ ” he says.

From archivists at the state historical society to families passing stories down from generation to generation, we’re all in the process of creating and keeping sacred our legacies and footprints — forever working to document this beautiful life we share together, here, in this place.