Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The paradox of a sense of place in America

Radoje, since you know the benefits of place, how do you mitigate the lack of sense of place while living in anywhere America? And since any mitigation short of rural intentional community is probably token at best, why don't you live in Serbia since you seem to think of yourself (identify) as Serbian?

I am unique among most of the people I know, in that I have lived almost my entire life in one place. Aside from half a year in Serbia, and half a year in Alaska, I have live on the same one acre lot in Edmonds, Washington since my parents brought me home from the hospital. Every day, as I go about my daily routine, I walk in places that I walked as a child, places that my father and mother and brother lived worked and played. I retain memories of the changes that have occurred to this property since my childhood. The house I live in was not always here, and even the shop that I do my woodworking in, which my father ran his electrical business out of before me, was once a patch of ground with a huge old cherry tree on it. I intimately know the neighborhood and patches of woods around my house, and the shoreline only a mile off. Were the change happening outside of our property line to take place as slowly, and as (for lack of a better term) humanly as it has where I live, I would probably be content to live here the rest of my days and hopefully see both my sons live here as well.

However, I increasingly feel as though instead of having left my place, my place has left me. The entire pattern of the landscape around me has changed, and changed rather quickly. I juxtapose this with my father's village in Serbia, where most of the same houses and landmarks that existed in my grandfather's time, are still there for my son to see. Unfortunately, Serbia is not my place. While it is the ancestral home of my family, I realize after sending time there, that I would not fit in to that place. I am a son of the Northwest, I grew up among the tall forests (that become fewer every day), the rain in winter, the interplay of land and sea that is Puget Sound, the sun rising over the Cascades and setting over the Olympics, the pine and sagebrush country of the Eastern Cascades, where my mother grew up and where I go hunting. Serbia is the place I am from (and Scotland), but this is the place I am. In 1999, when the NATO bombing began, my father decided to head to Serbia with the thought that if he was going to die, he wanted to die there, and if it was under an American bomb, that would be his final act of renunciation to his adopted country. The day before he left he said me down and told me, "Son, this is your country, you were born here, this is where you grew up. Fight and die for this place, it is yours, just don't fight and die for some idiot politician."

So how does one cultivate one's place in a land where most people are placeless? I am a poor person to be offering an opinion, as it would be the opinion of a hypocrite. My wife and I, along with our son's Godparents have bought ten acres of woods out on the Olympic Peninsula. It is only a ten minute drive from the wonderful OCA church there, in an area of small farms, pastured cattle, and the largest center of wooden boatbuilding on the West coast. In "The Unsettling of America" Wendell Berry writes about the oft maligned counterpoint to American expansionism as being the philosophy of "This far, and no further." My wife and our Kumovi all of whom have moved around quite a bit in their lives, have taken this idea to heart. But for me there remains the unease of leaving the place of my birth, a nagging feeling of betrayal.

Our attitude about where we live is just as important (possibly more so) than where we live. To live a grounded existence means fundamentally "checking out" from the American Dream and the Pursuit of Happiness. When we were making the decision to buy land out on the peninsula, I remember telling the others, "We need to decide where we want to live, period. Once we've decided that we'll have to figure out the rest of it, like jobs. If we move to a place, it is because we want to be in that place, nothing else." Ultimately, we need to be able to make the conscious choice of, "This far, no further." A choice that many of our forebears did not have to struggle with. One of the real estate agents we met with, when explaining the details of two couples jointly buying property, told us it would be like being married. Of course she is not Orthodox, so her understanding of marriage is different, but we took the point anyway. Our zadruga (the Serbian term for an extended family farm) will will be a small "intentional community", but with an Orthodox understanding of the bonds between us. We must work out our salvation together, regardless of the personality obstacles that arise. Finally, and most importantly to my thinking, is our attitude towards our children. If we don't instill in them a sense of place, something monumentally difficult when the surrounding society is actively hostile to such efforts, then all our work is in vain. It matters little how well we are grounded in a place if we buy into the modern notion that our children will grow up and move away. If we look expectantly for the day they will leave the nest. My mother and father never even implied that my brother and I should move out and move on upon reaching adulthood, this was simply our home. My father even tried to get me to become an electrician (and I often regret not becoming his apprentice). Because of this my son now gets to see his great-grandmother and grandmother on an almost daily basis. If we cannot reach into the past to anchor our sense of place, then we are at least obliged to set and anchor for our children.