I’ve written before about a ‘sense of place’ as something of value, both in the inner lives of individuals, and as an element in the social contract that brings people with different backgrounds and interests together in a settled and stable community. Your own way of making sense of Bainbridge Island and your place in the community will be different from mine, but the distinctive place where we live gives us something in common.
We all know, perhaps from our own experiences someplace else, that many people don’t enjoy the connections with an authentic place that we (and the people who came before us) have formed here on Bainbridge. The word ‘conurbation’ was invented, it seems, to describe the drab predicament in which masses of people find themselves, when the basis for a sense of place has been lost and nothing has been created to replace it. Many places – urban, rural, and suburban – have lost the coherence and vitality that they once had; that trend, inexorable as a glacier, has been working its will around the world for decades.
The concept of ‘place’ has been celebrated and investigated for more than thirty years now in Orion magazine: the keywords “Nature / Culture / Place” appear on each issue as a subtitle. And in another place on the cultural spectrum, the Front Porch Republic website (my favorite source for authentically conservative opinions) carries the watchwords “Place. Limits. Liberty” just below its masthead. (If you aren’t already acquainted with the Front Porch folks, take some time to eavesdrop on their conversations: they’re not from around here, but we on the left coast can learn from them.)
I mentioned in another post that in the book group I’m part of, ‘sense of place’ has guided our readings for the year. Jerry Young, one of my closest friends in the group, has compiled an extensive bibliography on the subject, and I have my own long-standing interest in it. An acute awareness of local landscape, country houses, villages, farms and gardens is present throughout English literature, and I once organized the readings in a seminar for English majors around the ‘sense of place’ theme.
Long before that, I grew up on Bainbridge Island, and that experience predetermined many of my interests and choices later in life.
Having relocated here after many years when I lived in other places and grew somewhat attached to them, I often recall my experiences growing up here in the late 1940s and the ‘50s. Although I have gone through many changes and the Island has changed too, some things remain the same, and my deepest sense is of continuities in my impressions, although the continuity is fragile.
Much of what’s new is not unwelcome; I have no interest in living in the past. But the spirit of the place as I experience it inheres in things that have been here a long time: in our geography, our weather, the woods, open spaces, beaches, and Puget Sound.
That spirit of the place is present both in transient moments and in stretches of time. The other day, driving along Sportsmans Club Road toward the head of the bay, I flushed a pheasant from the field on my left. My heart leapt up! Pheasants were seldom seen here in my early days, and I was startled to see that they aren’t gone for good.
Walking along Sunrise Drive or on the tide flats around the middle of the day in spring or summer weather, when the sky is cloudless and bright blue, I can still marvel at the contrasting colors and textures where the topmost branches of tall Douglas fir stand out against the sky.
I have one extraordinary experience etched in my memory from a Sunday morning one summer. I think I was around sixteen at the time. We had a 16-foot canoe, made in Old Town, Maine, that my father had bought second-hand. I loved to go out in it by myself, sometimes with a book and sometimes just to be on the water and feel the breeze or the heat of the sun.
On this morning, still quite early, the tide had already exposed some of the sand bars. I half-carried, half-dragged the canoe out to the water’s edge. It was very still, hardly a ripple in the water. The sun was low in the sky, a mist was rising off the water. I paddled out slowly, steadily. Everything around me was at peace. The mist and the glassy surface of the water created a perfect equilibrium. Nothing was bright, everything was illuminated equally. I felt perfectly at ease, in the moment, and the moment went on and on.
I plan to continue thinking about my sense of place, reflecting on memories and relating my experience to things that I’ve been reading. Through Eagle Harbor Books, I have ordered a new book, The Ecopoetry Anthology, and I’ll review it here, perhaps before the end of May. (My wife is in Massachusetts on a meditation retreat for the month, so I’m on my own spiritual journey.)