Today I am reading essays from a discussion course on Discovering a Sense of Place published by the Northwest Earth Institute in Portland, Oregon. My interest in this issue comes from my desire to feel at home and rooted in the Pacific Northwest after just four years of living the Wet Life. Since I do not have a lifetime, or even half of one left to become a native or "old timer," I am grateful for any short cuts that come my way.
The discussion course features thirty-five essays, a scattering of poems, discussion questions, quizzes, and some lovely illustrations tucked in here and there. One of the essays is an excerpt from Wallace Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings (Random House, 1992). The excerpt is less than three pages long, but it has taken me most of the afternoon to read because it contains truths worth pondering.
Stegner writes about being a "placed persons," people who live where they grew up and where their families have lived for generations, "lovers of known earth, known weathers, and known neighbors both human and nonhuman."
In America, there are "placed people" and "displaced people"--the traveler, the explorer, the adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial person who is always in motion.
"I know about this," writes Stegner. "I was born on wheels...I know about the excitement of newness and possibility, but I also know the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness. Some towns we lived in were never real to me. They were only the raw material of places, as I was the raw material of a person. Neither place nor I had a chance of being anything unless we could live together for a while. I spent my youth envying people who had lived all their lives in the house they were born in, and had attics full of proof that they had lived."
The discovery of a sense of place (at least in the discussion course book I have) is accomplished with particular tools. Some people make maps, others plant trees, walk or ride a bike everywhere. Others explore their valleys, local watersheds, backyards, or empty lots in their neighborhoods. Some track migrating birds, seasonal weather changes, or logging plans. No one seems to use clouds as a tool. Which is just plain wrong.
Being a displaced person myself (by choice and/or whim), I am finding clouds the best teachers for learning how to be settled, still, and rooted. Clouds have none of these qualities. They epitomize restlessness on a grand scale. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? You don't. But to appreciate how dynamic clouds are you have to be still. You have to sit still, stand still, lie still. Even walking or biking or driving while watching clouds diminshes their essential quality: movement.
Sure, you can stand still anywhere on the planet and watch clouds. But unless you stand still in all those places for a month, a season, a year...you won't learn much about your local clouds.
Now that the leaves of the bigleaf maples, alders, and oaks have succumbed to the nip, bluster, and drench of the October and November, I am seeing--as if for the first time--the pattern of bare, branches against the soft white clouds. I look out my front window and contemplate the light and the dark, the restless and the rooted, the source of the rain and one of its beneficiaries, the mist-like droplets aloft and the hair-like hyphae underground, the displaced and the placed.