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.
7 thoughts on “Places”
I love this blog. You are so right. Places have personalites just like human beings, and the animals. Well put Susan.
Kim, thanks. The implicit message is that the health and vitality of the land where we live is OUR health and vitality. I really enjoyed your blog this morning. Thanks for your vigilance and active protection of the ocean. Good energy!
When I was a child, we played outdoors all of the time. As small creatures, so close to the ground, agile enough to climb trees and crawl through small spaces, we had an initmate relationship with our natural surroundings. A childhood friend of mine I recently connected with on Facebook sent me a message stating that she wished we were back in the woods building our forts and secret hideouts. We had a subconscious visceral connection with our environment and we needed to be close to it to be healthy. I still remember taking our dolls and other toys up to the “big tree” – a giant oak at the end of our street – to which all of the kids were drawn like a shining beacon. I still remember the way the bark smelled after it rained, the feel of the branches on my hands and bare feet, the deep green smell of the leaves in summer which provided a cooling respite, the gorgeous shock of autumn colors we snuggled among in the fall and spent many days raking and juming into, the cold snow lined branches in winter, rescuing baby birds that fell out of nests, resting underneath it after riding bikes for hours….and that was just ONE tree and ONE memory of many adventures spent outdoors in my childhood. I believe without that connection I had then, I would not even be the same person I am now.
There was a giant granite-type rock out in the field behind the tree that I dubbed my “think” rock. It’s where I went to be with my own thoughts and quiet. I could look upon the sumac-colored mountains that surrounded our town, onto the neon green of a golf course in the distance, the abandoned car in a thick hedge, sometimes serenaded by the incessant “york” of my beagle pal, Josie, as she chased rabbits, only the white tip of her tail beating in the tall grass.
As you see, I could go on and on about the way the lightning bugs came out at night that we tried to catch in our jars just to see their tails blink on and off, the chorus of crickets that meant endless summer to us, and the way tap water tasted so sweet after a long day of playing hard. I can identify at least 15 kinds of wildflowers, trees, and clover, at least 10 or more species of birds.
At no time was our deep connection with our natural world more apparent than after Hurricane Ivan. When 80% of the trees were wiped out overnight, and much of the beauty scarred in our town, we felt as if we had been attacked, beaten, injured. The wildlife suffered and that hurt us a lot. Every living thing was disoriented. It took a long time to come back from psychologically and as our environment began to repair and heal itself, the people did too and eventually we recovered.
The same with the oil spill. Remember the pictures of our residents on their knees and weeping on the oil-ravaged beach?
But I digress. I love this article and I love you sis.
I wondered why Okefenokee was called the land of the thundering earth!
As a child of a father in the military, we moved every 2-3 years and have lived all over the place. I agree that that moving does create a sense of loss and confusion. It also helped me appreciate different cultures and adapt quickly to change. Great article Susan!
Lori, please share some of the places that made you who you are, perhaps the Muir woods and the old growth forests.
Kathy, this is an outstanding piece of writing on its own that deserves to be published. Your passionate connections to the out of doors in East Tennessee brought back a flood of my own memories. Thanks for taking the time to share with all of us.
Anyone else? I want to read these testimonies that affirm the organic nature of our natural relationships because we cannot forget or let them dim lest nature dim as well….
This came from Cirelle, my dear friend, via a Facebook request for favorite places in nature and why:
Here they are: 1) Franklin Canyon – ’cause it’s where I met you all those years ago and that it’s still a little gem of peace and tranquility tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains just above Beverly Hills. 2) Borrego Springs where the sky is amazing day and night and is the quietest place I have every been, and 3) Big Sur where magnificent Santa Lucia Mountains (the Southern most stand of the redwood) meets the mighty Pacific.