“To be rooted is perhaps the most important but least understood need of the human soul.”
“Of all the memberships we identify ourselves by (racial, ethnic, sexual, national, class, age, religious, occupational), the one that is most forgotten, and has the greatest potential for healing, is place. We must learn to know, love and join our place even more than we love our own ideas. People who can agree that they share a commitment to the landscape/cityscape—even if they are otherwise locked in struggle with each other—have at least one deep thing to share.”
I have an old friend, now in his 80s, who has lived since he was a child on the same piece of land in a beautiful valley of a western state framed by mountains. I once wrote a letter of congratulations to him “For remaining rooted in place….There are few people in our culture who have this sort of good fortune, and having such deep roots has allowed you to grow in certainty from young agile boy with a smile looking for the next adventure to old, bionic-kneed man with a smile looking for the next adventure.” During the years from childhood when his home was nearly 10 miles outside town to the raising of his children to playing with his grandchildren that town has grown and surrounded and made a cityscape of the landscape of his youth. Still, his sense of place has allowed him to keep his priorities in order, his integrity intact and his sense of humor in operating shape. He has retired from a teaching career and has a sufficient but not extravagant lifestyle, and when a real estate developer offered him $14 million dollars for his property he turned it down. My friend said to me, “What would I do with $14 million? Move to Sun Valley and buy a condo? I like it here. I always have. This is my place.”
My friend’s wisdom is both informative and inspiring, as are Weil’s and Snyder’s.
A person rooted in place has a different experience and understanding of that place and thereby the larger world than one who is passing through to make the next step on the ladder of upward mobility, looking to crash as gently as possible after falling off that ladder, moving to the next job, following the restlessness of disaffection to the next layover or being pushed off place by rising prices. Place as used here is not to be confused with property and it need not be a particular dwelling or tiny or humongous parcel of land within either landscape or cityscape. Roberta McKercher’s place was Hailey, Idaho in the home where Ezra Pound was born. Mary Jane Conger’s is Ketchum, Idaho where her family has lived for three generations. John Muir’s was the Sierra Nevada. Another old friend, writer/photographer Peter Miller’s is Colbyville, Vermont. Jane Goodall’s is Tanzania. Han Shan’s was Cold Mountain. The Dalai Lama’s is the Potala, which he has not seen since 1959. And Gary Snyder wrote of his place, “I set up my library and wrote poems and essays by lantern light, then went out periodically, lecturing and teaching around the country. I thought of my home as a well-concealed base camp from which I raided university treasuries. We named our place Kitkitdizze after the aromatic little shrub.” There are those who are only at home and at peace with themselves (and committed and attuned to place) in the mountains, others on the sea and still others upon the rivers that connect them. For Wilfred Thesiger it was the southern Arabian Desert. In the late 1940s he was one of the first Europeans to even see what was then known as the Empty Quarter, and he titled the book he wrote about his experiences and sense of the place “Arabian Sands.” One description of Thesiger’s work reads, “It is a book of touches, little things—why the Bedouin will never predict the weather (“since to do so would be to claim knowledge that belongs to God”), how they know when the rabbit is in its hole and can be caught. It is written with great respect for these people and with an understanding that acknowledges its limits. With humility. Fail the humility test, and the desert will surely kill you.” Today the Empty Quarter is filled with oil wells, Land Rovers and people passing through with a notable lack of sense of place or humility.
It might be said, Fail the humility test of sense of place, whether the place be a plot of land, a river, mountain, sea or neighborhood and it will surely kill at the very least some essential part of the soul.
If you have a sense of place, treat it with respect. If you don’t, start looking.