By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


As a child I was fascinated by the idea that everything about a person could change, and somehow it would still be the same person. When I learned about cells, and how we’re constantly shedding them and regenerating new ones so that almost everything we’re made of turns over and over and over, I wanted to know: why am I still me?

Later I found it in Heraclitus, credited with observing that “You could not step twice into the same river.”

I think about these things as I work on this project of starting from scratch. It began, quite literally, as a blank slate – a page with nothing on it, and a patch of land that had no structure at all. What will make it my home, then next in a string of homes, other than the fact that I eventually move into it? Sleeping somewhere, even for a while, doesn’t make it your home; you could be a guest for months. Or a place could become home even if you only occupy it for a couple of weeks. Nearly all of the elements can differ – the State, the street, the size, the materials, the colors, the furniture, the layout – but it can still be recognizable as my home.

I’ve seen my parents do this; last fall, they moved from the house in Pennsylvania where I grew up to a house here, in the desert. They brought two trucks’ worth of furniture and boxes across the country, unloading them into a house that was as different from the last one as could be, a single story instead of two plus a basement and attic, cactus instead of lush green, neutral colors for days. Some of the furniture and art came from their old house, some of it from my grandmother’s house, and some they bought here. There are plenty of familiar objects, but overall, it’s really quite different. Yet as soon as most of the boxes were gone, it felt like their house. Even with things they never would have chosen and things that had never been theirs before, it was unmistakably theirs.


There are a few touches that have followed me from house to house over the years. I saw a color scheme in a magazine once that I liked enough to implement in the first house I had in Tucson. In California all my homes were rentals so I couldn’t do it again, but in my house in Montana, I brought them back. It was just one room in each house, and nothing too bold. It didn’t make the (vastly different) new room feel like a copy of the last one; instead it felt like I had transferred a certain mood. Another room in Montana had a new paint color, one I loved so much that I think I will find a home for it in the new house.

In every home since 2006 – from Cambridge Avenue to Matadero in Palo Alto to Calaveras in San Jose to Flowerree in Helena to here, on Linden Street in Tucson, I have kept a small framed photo of Ernest Hemingway in the bathroom.

It’s not just the fact the colors are literally the same, or that many of the same possessions occupy subsequent spaces (indeed, coming here from Montana in the midst of a divorce, the profile of what I owned shifted dramatically), but rather the role certain objects play in each space, whatever that space may be. It’s not just that I have a lot of books, and most of the same ones are here that I had in my last house. It’s that books always have their own wall, with the TV among them as an afterthought, so that the sofa is facing the element that is my own primary form of entertainment.  It’s not just that the photo has traveled from house to house, but that it always goes in the same place.  

There are still a lot of unknowns about the new house, and about my life there. There are choices till to be made, and realities still to be realized. There will, I’m sure, be surprises and disappointments. But this I know: however it all comes together, Papa Hemingway will be there, keeping an eye on us all while we pee.



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.

Photo credit: pick a colour via photopin (license)

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.