Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Sense of Place

What we owe the people of the past
     Eating lunch in Astoria, Oregon

We live well on gifts from the past--our enormous infrastructure of systems and designs. Do we owe the people who prepared these gifts for us anything? Yes. We owe them understanding.

Some places in Montana make it clear that we have been invaded. The mansions sprawling across the mountains at Big Sky, the gates of the Stock Farm in Hamilton. Though I can imagine people who build 23,000 square foot houses with Olympic swimming pools and shooting ranges that they will inhabit only occasionally, during a golf tournament maybe, I have no real way to check what I imagine against reality.

Already the West is filled with places that locals have lost. Sun River, Aspen, Whitefish. Visiting such places, I already feel myself becoming a part of the past, part of something that is being lost.

My home landscape becomes a backdrop for meals enjoyed by strangers. The place I live along Mission Creek on the Flathead Reservation was once a camping spot shared by tribal people now long gone. Their descendents are more like me than like them. In some cases (my grandchildren) their descendents are also my descendents. And in some ways, I feel closer to them than to these newcomers.

What do new arrivals owe those who were here before?

I wondered about that over a bowl of clam chowder at the Cannery Café in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had spent the day exploring the lower Columbia, made sad by how much had been lost. I had intended to meet a friend for lunch, but a family emergency called her away, and being alone intensified my sense of transience, walking with a camera along the sandy beaches of a vast river.

The warehouses along the river, faced with brilliant signs bearing the names of large Japanese corporations, seemed small recompense for vanished salmon and vanished people, who once moved together in the rhythms of camping, fishing, and cooking.

The cafe itself was built on the site of one of the salmon canneries that once gave Astoria its reason for being. It was clean and gentrified, with good views of the harbor and seals swimming near the docks. Photos of the canneries, and the people who worked there, hung on the walls.

I had just come from the museum with my notebook and was enjoying a meal with the ocean and seals as a backdrop. It was very good.

I was acutely aware that the people who had worked the cannery, or fished the river, didn’t have it nearly so good. Their lives were spent in struggle for food and shelter. I knew enough of trudging to work in cold dawn, of hands rubbed raw by labor, and of a clock moving ever so slowly, measuring out my endurance against tasks that could never been done, to at least imagine my kinship with those haggard-looking people staring out at me from tastefully framed sepia photos.

I was also aware that it was their struggle, the struggle of earlier generations, that had freed me from a similar struggle. Food and shelter now come easily because of the stored wealth of infrastructure and design that is my heritage. I live well on the gifts of the past made by those who lived there.

Now, I have time for other struggles. It seems to me that one thing I owe all those people, the strange creatures staring at me from from lives that are so hard to imagine, is understanding. To the extent that I can feel what they felt, sense what they feared, and appreciate again what gave them joy, I think I can still help them. What we all want is to be recognized, and listened to, and empathized with. I can give them that.

Sometimes, listening to old-timers talk about moments far in the past, I sense how it is that moments of time do not ever really end. The people of the past are gone, but they are not gone away, just as the children we ourselves once were are gone but not gone away. Time is haunted.

At the end, we see what the world always was: a story just beginning.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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Place and narratable moments
     Longing for a sense of place

The phrase “sense of place” has migrated to the commercial world, where it is linked to the decor of kiosks and fast food counters. But it became popular because of a longing people have for narratable moments--events that have meaning, and that we cannot recall as separate from the places they occurred. It is those meaningful events, rather than the geographic spaces that evoke them, that are of human importance.

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops – food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc. – aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related� to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.

This provides a “sense of place,� the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through some total administrative state of loudspeakers and no smoking, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts give us a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere in which we have locked ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the charm of a custom retail environment without sacrificing the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not the real thing, I suppose, but a sense of it like the after image of a blown out candle. A sense of place haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century London.

With such thoughts in my mind, I hesitated when an editor called and asked me to write a piece on “teaching and a sense of place.�

“Let me think about it.”

In most ways I don’t mind the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money. That certainly doesn’t make her worse than me or my friends and family. Most of the time I don’t do anything more ennobling than turning my time and skill to what pays. And really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over those old Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who didn’t care what sort of feelings a space gives us.

Still, I suspected that an editor asking for a piece on “sense of place� was expecting something more profound than marketing. Her audience was no doubt hankering after something more authentic than moods evoked by plastic signage. We use “authentic� much as the optimists before World War I used “progressive,� as an all-purpose term of praise, part accolade and part prayer.

No doubt the editor thought I was a natural to write about a sense of place since I still live in the western Montana town where I grew up – a little place of about a thousand people nestled at bottom of the west slope of the Mission Range in the Northern Rockies. Surely one who has stayed in place could write authentically about place.

As I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my 21-month old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me.

“Campin?� he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmellow. He had associated the “camping� he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him.

“Campin� had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The “place� we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson. His mother had gone there with my wife and me. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass by that little place on Wounded Buck Creek without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road.

But it had become a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place but what had happened there that he wanted.

In a word, it was story that mattered. Not a story we have told but the story we have lived.

There are significant dangers in misunderstanding what it is that one wants. I worry that sometimes people who are pursuing a sense of place are not clear about what they want. All our airports and shopping districts might get prettier and we might be just as lonely, just as full of longing.

What we want are stories and hugs.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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