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.