Monday, February 15, 2010


Today’s trenchant question asks whether words interfere with our understanding of where we are — with our sense of place?

The query is prompted by the group-guided course I’m taking through the Northwest Earth Institute. Its title, appropriately enough, is “A Sense of Place.” The eight-session course with its carefully selected readings invites us, its ten enrollees, to become intimate with where we live.

A recent required reading urged us to stay put. To resist the restlessness that afflicts so many Americans.

Another assigned article called on us to recognize, explore and celebrate our bioregion, a place that defies and transcends political boundaries.

The course also asks us to consider the slippery concept of ownership of place. Do we own the land? As we know, Native Americans found the whole idea alien, literally beyond comprehension. The European settlers and their ancestors have based much of the economy, and many of our burdens, on private ownership of land. The notion defines our values, our legal system and our lives.

Native peoples would no doubt be amused that much of our “ownership” is now “underwater,” submerged in debt accumulated in a frenzy of consumption and greed.

I’ve concluded that so much of what determines our conception, and misconception, of where we live has to do with names. “Where are you from?” I’m asked in my travels. “Portland, Oregon,” I say without giving my answer much thought.

Do I know what I’m saying? Have I been honest? Or is this simply a cursory, but readily understandable shorthand for a foreigner?

My answer conjures up in the listener some media image of Portland. Bikes, coffee, bridges, rain, perhaps the iconic profile of Mount Hood on a clear day.

And what does my answer mean to me? Portland is a proper noun with a multitude of associations. I can’t begin to put into words all the things Portland means. Nor can my fellow Portlanders.

Limited by words and labels, is it possible to express our sense of place? The spirit of cedar and fir, of bird, beaver and coyote; the distant laughter of children; the pulse of days and seasons; the power that pushes daffodils through the soil at this time of year.

We are part of it all, but when we put names on the pieces, as I have just done, they become “other.” Naming is distancing, whether we like it or not.

If someone elsewhere in Portland asks me where I live, I say “Hillsdale,” which is my neighborhood. We Portlanders identify our places by named neighborhoods. If I told a German or a Kenyan I lived in Hillsdale, I’d rightly get the answer, “Where’s that?”

Where indeed? It is beyond words.

Swiss dairy families inhabited these hills and dales a century ago. They called it “Hillsdale” too, but it had no set boundaries. Nor did it have commuters, parking lots and Starbucks. It was both the same and a very different place in time.

Imagine one of those farm families returning to Hillsdale today. Where cows grazed, soccer teams dribble on Astroturf; where a machine shop stood there is now a Papa John’s fast-food pizzeria. The pig farms in the gully have been filled in and replaced by a four-lane highway and multi-unit apartments; The muddy tracks are paved. The pace of life has quickened. And where wood lots were there are now ranks of ranch houses built in the post-World War II boom years. The site of a windmill now is home to the Hillsdale county library.

What would our time-traveling family’s sense of this place, “their place,” be after witnessing what has happened?

What if we could be taken on a similar time journey to this place one hundred years hence? What would we find in 2110? And to what extent would we bear responsibility for it — for better or worse?

Perhaps the destiny of this place will be determined by events far, far away. By federal government fiat, by a terrorist’s bomb, by rapacious, polluting corporate interests. If we think our neighborhood is our place, we would do well to think again. We live in a much larger place, even as we inhabit this little one.

A memoir written by Margaret Graf, who lived here in Hillsdale 100 years ago, describes the red-tinged dusk of a sultry summer’s day. The hills then were a patchwork of dairies that served the little city at the bottom of the Tuality hills. Portland was a cluster of civilization hugging the Willamette River. And Hillsdale was country. The road connecting city and farmland was a washboard of dirt and rock and logs.

The days on the dairy began early and lasted deep into the afternoon and evening. But at dusk, Margaret wrote, a sound defined the place for her. It was a man-made sound but it carried no explicit meaning as it echoed across the hills and dales. It did not consist of words. It was the primordial sound a beast might make in celebration of life and place.

The sound she heard from the dairies was yodeling.

Half in jest, I suggested to my classmates that we might consider yodeling again in Hillsdale. Yodeling would take us beyond our word-defined world and into the spirit and joy of being here.

Hearing us warble and ululate in the dimming hours of the day, our time-traveling farm family would recognize instantly that all had not been lost.

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Anonymous Walter Money said...

Words do indeed distance us from our place, but they also paint the picture of that place, as your words have done. I was for a time a member of that place. And here is my clue. Place is also people, or more properly, inhabitants. Life on this world moves, sometimes, as you say, with afflicting restlessness. Not always without purpose, though darkly at times...
I have seen those daffodils rising from the soil, the mountain gleaming sunnily, smelled the coffee, and more. The people are also the place, and you, as one, inhabit that place well. The words you use do not do the people enough justice. In fairness, my wife and I miss so much of that place, but more than the views, more than the smells, more even than the incredible food, we miss the love of the people.
It was in Portland I first saw the driver of an automobile stop in the street to let another autmobile enter that street from a driveway. It was in Portland I first saw a car stop in the road to let a dog and leash-holder cross. It was in Portland that I came to learn more of the peace that I will seek for the rest of my life. Yes, there is history there, and more, there is a real present there, a time that is now. Hearing the past, breathing the present, you build the future. And your words that paint such beauty, that call forth so much joy, are a real part of that building. Yes, that distancing is there, but more, it is like the space between bricks, into which the mortar of growth is laid.

8:42 PM  

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