February 21, 2009

sense of place

... no place is a place until it has had a poet. And that is about what Yeats was saying only a moment ago. No place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place-loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own.

I doubt that we will ever get the motion out of the American, for everything in his culture of opportunity and abundance has, up to now, urged motion on him as a form of virtue. Our tradition of restlessness will not be outgrown in a generation or two, even if the motives for restlessness are withdrawn. But after all, in a few months it will be half a millennium since Europeans first laid eyes on this continent. At least in geographical terms, the frontiers have been explored and crossed. It is probably time we settled down. It is probably time we looked around us instead of looking ahead. We have no business, any longer, in being impatient with history. We need to know our history in much greater depth, even back into the geology, which, as Henry Adams said, is only history projected a little way back from Mr. Jefferson.

History was part of the baggage we threw overboard when we launched ourselves into the New World. We threw it away because it repealed old tyrannies, old limitations, galling obligations, bloody memories. Plunging into the future through a landscape that had no history, we did both the country and ourselves some harm along with some good. Neither the country nor the society we built out of it can be healthy until we stop raiding and running, and learn to be quiet part of the time, and acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging.

“The land was ours before we were the land's,” says Robert Frost's poem.
from Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

I was born in San Francisco; I grew up in Texas.

I returned to California, to Fort Ord, on the Monterey peninsula, for boot camp when I enlisted in the Army in 1963. After boot camp, I remained on the Monterey peninsula to attend Hungarian language classes at the Defense Language Institute at the Presidio of Monterey.

An aside: the Monterey peninsula, with its Monarch butterflies, its gorgeous view of the Pacific Ocean, its windswept trees. the early morning fog (thickest just as we stand inspection in the seal-barking predawn of another day of Magyar language instruction), and evenings spent on Cannery Row, may be one of god's gifts (no suitable link to 'god's gifts', it tends to be all jibber jabber faith-based nonsense) to my youth (I'll maybe get around to discussing another such gift at a later time).

I have, on my own, forged a somewhat tenuous, but to me substantial-enough, connection between my birth place and my coming of age place. In 1972, a poetry anthology published in Berkeley, California by Thorp Springs Press, self-styled, The San Francisco Bark, a Gathering of Bay Area Poets, was put on sale and included a couple of my poems. In 1974, the Texas Center for Writers Press published the Bicentennial Collection of Texas Short Stories, edited by James P. White, and included "Gato Malo," one of my short stories. I was in both cases, and in all due modesty, flattered to be placed in such company.

My roots seem relatively clear to me, but my sense of self, my sense of place has been a little more troubling. Even though I came of age in Texas, the state is large enough to offer an abundance of locales and my family took advantage of this abundance. My schooling covered virtually the entire state (google the widths of Texas and you may sense some of my early vertigo). I started school in Antelope, moved to Windthorst and then Archer City, followed by Seth Ward and Plainview and then, in Odessa, back and forth across the landscape of the 'oil capitol of the world' (a title contested by Tulsa, Oklahoma), I attended several different schools: Crockett Junior High (some districts call these middle schools), Bonham Junior High, Odessa High, Permian High (in its inaugural year) and then back to Odessa High for graduation. Of course, lots of grand things happened during this time, but one of the grand things happening was not the necessary fermentation time for the forming of long and lasting friendships.

Wallace Stegner reminds me that our sense of place is in part a state of mind, but it can also be an inner compass, even a destiny. I'm not fully comfortable with Robert Frost's quote that "[t]he land was ours before we were the land's." I'm no more comfortable with Woody Guthrie's line: "This land was made for you and me," though I may better like his politics. They are not talking the same thing exactly, but they are both referencing, in their individual oblique manners, the terrible myth of Genesis that humans were gifted by god with dominion over the earth and its creatures.

We need a sense of place to know who we are in relation to those around us. I remember that Gandhi, as part of a distinct minority, was first effective in South Africa before he returned to India. His sense of place may have shifted somehow, in South Africa, he seems more Indian, and then in India, he becomes more international, more the everyman.

I feel, though long gone, a member of the San Francisco bay area tribe. During my 'return' years to the bay area, where I met she-beside-whom-I-have-awakened-lo-these-many-years (though she is actually from the other coast - another story for another rainy day), I never felt displaced or out of my element. I was at home.

But, oddly enough, I am at home in Texas as well, though god (with ample assistance from his Republican children) has visited upon our lone star state an unholy swarm of the worst national politicians imaginable. And these gnats are harder to bare with Molly Ivins gone.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in eulogy for Thoreau, tells us,
Mr. Thoreau dedicated his genius with such entire love to the fields, hills and waters of his native town, that he made them known and interesting to all reading Americans, and to people over the sea. The river on whose banks he was born and died he knew from its springs to its confluence with the Merrimack. He had made summer and winter observations on it for many years, and at every hour of the day and night. The result of the recent survey of the Water Commissioners appointed by the State of Massachusetts he had reached by his private experiments, several years earlier. Every fact which occurs in the bed, on the banks or in the air over it; the fishes, and their spawning and nests, their manners, their food; the shad-flies which fill the air on a certain evening once a year, and which are snapped at by the fishes so ravenously that many of these die of repletion; the conical heaps of small stones on the river-shallows, the huge nests of small fishes, one of which will sometimes overfill a cart; the birds which frequent the stream, heron, duck, sheldrake, loon, osprey; the snake, muskrat, otter, woodchuck and fox, on the banks; the turtle, frog, hyla and cricket, which make the banks vocal,--were all known to him, and, as it were, townsmen and fellow creatures; so that he felt an absurdity or violence in any narrative of one of these by itself apart, and still more of its dimensions on an inch-rule, or in the exhibition of its skeleton, or the specimen of a squirrel or a bird in brandy. He liked to speak of the manners of the river, as itself a lawful creature, yet with exactness, and always to an observed fact. As he knew the river, so the ponds in this region.
Sense of place for some is geography. San Francisco is not merely geography. Texas is not merely geography. I would argue that sense of place is much more than geography. So much more that sometimes the geography becomes almost irrelevant. Almost irrelevant. Only almost. But it is the people - really the family, the culture of the family, that finally shapes the relevance of the geography as much as the geography shapes the sense of how we see ourselves.

Anyway, Wallace Stegner is exactly correct to say that we need to "acquire the sense not of ownership but of belonging."

No comments:

Post a Comment