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The Good Place: A society to match the scenery (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and neighboring)


The writing teacher
   Lunch at the Cannery


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? It’s a question I ask students often, and one I keep trying to answer better for myself.

Some places in the West 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 descendants are more like me than like them. In some cases (my grandchildren) their descendants are also my descendants. And in some ways, I feel closer to them than to these newcomers.

Do new arrivals owe those who were here before?

I wondered about that over a bowl of clam chowder at the Cannery Cafe in Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. I had spent the day exploring the lower Columbia, made nostalgic 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 be finished, to at least imagine my kinship with those haggard-looking people staring out at me from tastefully framed sepia prints.

I also knew a little of how their struggle, the struggle of earlier generations, had freed me from a similar struggle. Food and shelter come easily for me because of the stored wealth of infrastructure and design that is my heritage. I live well on the gifts of the past. I have time for other struggles.

One thing I believe I owe all those people, the strange creatures staring at me from old photographs, 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. We experience it as story, always just beginning.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey

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