Places define much of what we become and in myriad ways determine the things we do.  Far from a “backdrop” to the drama of our lives, the places we inhabit, grow to love, defend fiercely as we would our children, are intimately a part of us.  We breathe their air, drink their waters, eat from the table of their mantles until they form our flesh and blood and point of view.

My family history begins in the Smoky Mountains where many Irish, Welsh, and Scottish immigrants settled.  Though I was born there at the tail end of WWII, when my father – a native of east Tennessee – returned to the States, I was whisked up into 20 crazy years of military assignments and reassignments that took my family from coast to coast in the U.S. with one gentle, magical time in Honolulu at Hickam AFB.

Changing places frequently lends to a sense of loss and confusion precisely for the reasons that place is not  a location but is the font of our biological and psychological lives.  I am only now beginning to appreciate this phenomenon, now looking back, and frankly savoring all the rich, diverse places on my “dance card” in life.

I believe that as a child I innately understood this essential relationship and became a great explorer of natural places, lithe and intentional about getting to know each new place.  From laying on my tummy watching the miniature world of grass forests to the thrill of rolling down a leaf covered hill letting the Earth pull me to her breast – I longed for that intimate attachment.

Reading books like Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood is a powerful testament to the influence of land on our lives and livelihoods.  She describes like no other the long leaf pine communities that she has defended since early in her life…a community that once covered millions of acres in southeast Georgia and northern Florida and is now only little islands left to behold.

As Ray describes in poetic narrative, this community evolved with fire as its renewing element.  The canopies of long leaves are high up on the straight trunks wrapped in thick bark. The community of wiregrass below waits for fire to open its seeds and renew the land.  Among these towering pines animals and insects of unique character inhabit the land, air, water, and trees.  I recently visited the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, not too far from where Ray grew up.  When I shared this fact with friends recently, one remarked that she had no use for visiting swamps.  I thought to myself how wrong she is and how that is precisely what has destroyed so much of this land I now inhabit called Florida.

Okenfenokee lake normally receives 60 inches of rainfall each year and is the source of two rivers – the St. Mary’s which drains into the Atlantic, and the Suwannee which drains all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (280 miles).  Rangers at the refuge told me that the swamp has only received 8 inches of rain for each of the last two years and it has been on fire for one whole year.  Even as they spoke, the fire was still raging in some areas.  At the bottom of the swamp is a thick layer of peat which produces methane gas that bubbles to the top and lifts up soil and debris.  Seeds land on these natural flotillas, take root and grow.  That’s how the swamp had “grown” islands and isthmuses that provide critical habitat for birds, alligators, and fish, beavers, and deer, bobcats and before they were forced out, panthers. Because of this watery origin, the land “trembles” when you stomp your foot.  Okefenokee is the remnant of an old sea.

In my hometown of Pensacola, in northwest Florida, we are surrounded by oak and pine hammock and privileged to live by a barrier island network that stretches from Mississippi to the Great Bend of Florida.  Marshes once thickly lined these islands and dunes towered as high as thirty feet.  Development of the landscapes has radically altered these protective barriers to our natural renewing element: hurricanes.  Now when they come on shore, there is little to stop their ravaging ways.  But, forward thinkers – lovers of their home-scapes – have acted to save little slices of what once was a great Turtle Island, America.  In P-cola the main man is Jesse Earle Bowden who spearheaded the campaign to protect the islands by establishing the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

What places have formed an integral part of who you are?  How do you experience that relationship?  What are your concerns and your joys about the places where you live and breathe and go about your day?  Please let readers know so that we can share your experience here.

Meals on Wheels: Food truck dining in Florida – from Florida Trend, Florida’s Source For Business News

Another way to adapt to changing times is to – as PBS suggests – GET CREATIVE. Not only are overhead costs lower, but people don’t need to get in a car to go to lunch or dinner. They can just step off the curbside and dine!

Meals on Wheels: Food truck dining in Florida – from Florida Trend, Florida’s Source For Business News.

Thriving is not just surviving!

In 2008 I moved from Tucson, Arizona to Pensacola.  I’d spent 20 years in the Sonoran Desert, writing and photographing the beauty of the high desert with its myriad cactus sculpture which bloomed in psychedelic orange and magenta, brilliant red or pink flowers each winter.  From the driest, withered-looking plant, desiccated by the hot summer, emerge magnificent blooms that feed the birds, bats, and bees. It always seemed miraculous to me until I  understood how plants adapt to the dry lands.

The famous saguaro cactus is pleated so that on hot days a shadow is cast to keep the plant cool, and the structure is such that when it rains, the saguaro sucks up surface rain across a wide area through its shallow root system.  The pleated trunk expands like an accordion, gradually releasing the water to its cells over the dry season until the monsoon rains bless the landscape once again.

Dr. Mark Dimmit, Director of Living Collections at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum exclaims, “Desert plants do not just survive, they thrive through their seasons.”

How can we as a community living through hard times thrive instead of just coping, just surviving?  This is on my mind today as we set out into the year 2012.  How can we thrive?  There is something spirited about this approach—enabling us to bring forward all that is best in us, clever, joyful and resourceful.

What would that look like?  The new Admiral Mason Park storm water reclamation pond is a good example of what we can do to turn a site into a multi-use location with beauty and outdoor exercise tied into it.  Dedicated in 2011 adjacent to the Veterans’ Memorial Park, it now serves as a beautiful entrance to the city, a place to read, meditate, or just walk and bike.  As the eight live oaks grow and cast their shadows on the 3.5 acre pond, it will season into a place of beauty to honor our veterans.  After building the Aragon community the need to mitigate storm water became evident.  We combined ecosystem function with the human need for places of inspiration and physical exercise.

Another example of what we can do is the children’s recreation area at Lucia M. Tryon Branch Library.  Now that the playground, trees, and pond are in place, it will evolve into a natural habitat that attracts birds and bees and people to its lovely walking paths and to the many opportunities for kids to practice rock climbing, pretend play in the big pirate’s ship and watch fish and ducks through the tall reeds that line the pond.  It will become a place where children and parents are immersed in nature.

At UWF President Judy Bense is planning to build residential halls that are models of sustainable energy design with ecosystem services leading the design.  Living in an energy smart building is a teachable moment.  The UWF School of Science and Engineering was built to foster interdisciplinary collaboration.  Its design is the highest LEED standard for construction.  The environment stimulates creative thinking.

We might also think about going further by shaking off standard incremental improvement to design buildings that act like ecosystems.   Jason McLennan, architect at Kansas City-based BNIM Architects, is known for “living building” design.  To be certified as a living building (park or street) criteria in seven areas must be met:  site, water, energy, health, materials, equity, and beauty.  With Gulf Power’s support for geothermal energy designs, we have an opportunity to build something revolutionary next time we begin the design process.  We’ll save energy, restore environment, improve our health, offer good jobs to people who are most in need and involve students in learning futuristic planning while creating a surrounding that makes us feel great.  What could be better?

In 2012 I challenge myself and my fellow Pensacoleans to stop, wait and consider with each decision before us, how could we plan and act together to thrive- not just survive-in the New Year and decades to come?