My Sense of Place (II), Concluded

Jon Quitslund

This essay was composed in two separate time frames, beginning more than a month ago. I’ve revised the first part but some awkwardness remains.

In the bright and warm weather earlier in the month, I spent the best parts of my days outdoors – walking on the tide flats, catching up on yard work, splitting and stacking firewood, or carrying a heavy backpack up and over Baker Hill to get in shape for a long hike in the Olympics.

With my mind left free to sift through my convictions and impressions, I considered the place where we live from several points of view. What I most wanted to discuss in this essay were not our island’s natural advantages, important as they are (I celebrated some of them back in May, in Part I of this series).

No, I wanted to develop some thoughts about the people of Bainbridge Island – past, present, and future.  In tandem with the natural forces of time, tides, our long growing season, and the sun in its cycles, it is our human population, generation after generation, that has made (and occasionally unmade) the place we occupy in Puget Sound.

It’s useful to distinguish between ‘population’ and ‘community.’ Both entities are complicated here, and in flux, but over the course of decades, there are certain continuities in each. To my way of thinking, the ‘community’ of Bainbridge Island is rooted in a set of demographic facts, but on top of all the data and in addition to our day-to-day dealings with people, our hearts and minds construct around us an imagined community, rooted in our hopes and fears, that is no more than half real.

The imagined community of Bainbridge Island is, for most people most of the time, a good thing: a source of satisfaction, meaning, and value. And it’s natural to hold on tight to what we have – to fear loss, and to construe change as always likely to offer more loss than gain. So we strive, individually and in organized interest groups, to manage change to our own advantage.

I’ll bet you can see already where I’m going with this. What happens to the community when various interest groups are driven by a self-centered fear of loss – when there is no general agreement on what is to be gained through efforts to manage change?

Maybe we should set aside all talk of ‘the community,’ recognizing that there are, and have been ever since the pioneer days, several different communities here, sometimes separate and sometimes in conflict, rubbing shoulders pleasurably on special occasions, but seldom peaceably engaged with each other. We don’t have much experience, in either large or small community groups, dealing with divisive issues in search of satisfying compromises.

Several reasons for these unhappy circumstances can be identified. Some are embedded in our history; others can be traced to sources far from our shores – to ideological principles and agendas that can overpower the common sense that might otherwise prevail in our supposedly nonpartisan local politics.

These are generalizations, I know; they will have to do for now. I started writing this piece several weeks ago, and I got stuck, plagued with a debilitating case of writer’s block. I had brought a lot of mixed-up emotion to the subject, and an acute appreciation for its complexity, but it was all a muddle.

I couldn’t find a way to organize my thoughts so they would be appealing and useful to others. I wanted to write about a general loss of trust in our social / political arrangements here on Bainbridge, and I found that I couldn’t trust myself.

So I ended the incomplete first draft of this piece with this: “Some time away from the Island is bound to help, and in a few days I’ll be far away. Hiking in the high country of the Olympics, getting acquainted with a group of men whom I know only superficially, is bound to clear my mind and reorient my spirit. On my return, I’ll either pick up my thoughts about this place where I left off, or make a fresh start.”

II

Now here’s another essay, another run at the subject of our community and its discontents. (The word ‘essay’ means ‘attempt’ or ‘trial.’) I’ll try to be constructive, but I have to be honest.

I feel revived. The trip to the High Divide and the Seven Lakes Basin was strenuous, an occasion for nine men with different backgrounds to stretch out, going their own ways and then coming together, sharing stories and emotions at a level that men don’t often reach with each other.

On my first day back in Winslow I happened to meet a recent Bainbridge High School graduate, someone I greatly admire, who has already stepped into an activist’s conscience-driven life. We sat for a while outside the Blackbird, comparing notes on ‘what’s up.’ She’s ready for college, and she has the weeks before heading off to Bellingham planned too.

I thought: this is someone who really ‘gets it.’ I just wish more people twice her age were as clear about themselves and the world’s big issues as this young woman.

I’ve had other positive experiences lately. As a member of the Planning Commission I’ve been involved in a couple of public meetings where some good work got done: people aired their differences amicably, thought twice, and avoided both rash actions and an excess of caution.

In the middle of a sunny Saturday morning, my wife and I joined the crowd at the Farmers’ Market and then did some shopping along Winslow Way. It was just an ordinary day, and how could it have been any closer to perfection?

Then there’s the other side of the picture. The time available to citizens for sending comments on the Shoreline Master Program update came to an end a few days ago. Copies of several comments showed up in my inbox – most of them from the Bainbridge Defense Fund, a prolific generator of email that I sometimes take seriously but seldom find persuasive.

The comment on our SMP that most concerned me came not from a shoreline property owner on Bainbridge but from the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a California-based organization that seems to be active wherever property rights are threatened, or (as with ‘Obamacare’) a case can be made that big government has, once again, gone too far. The 11-page brief was signed by an attorney named Brian T. Hodges, who works out of the PLF’s Bellevue office.

I was moved to write a comment of my own – a non-lawyer’s attempt to rebut, in a few pages, some claims that I found extreme, intellectually shabby, and at odds with a common-sense reading of the SMP regulations.

The ideological agenda of the PLF has carried a great deal of weight with the self-appointed leaders of our local shoreline property owners in their battle against the regulatory regime of the Shoreline Management Program. And those leaders worked persistently, with a simple message and some organizational skill, to gather and hold together a loyal following. How much they accomplished remains to be seen: we may have months to wait for the Department of Ecology’s response to our SMP. In the meantime, I believe, the program’s harshest critics have done a great deal of damage, arousing antagonisms that won’t settle down any time soon.

At the end of a long, frustrating process, many people are more convinced than ever that the SMP update was flawed from the start and made worse along the way. This is due in large measure to the uncompromising attitudes and exaggerations of property rights advocates: they have never acknowledged the many concessions to their interests that were either present in the SMP’s foundation or introduced in the course of its development and revision.

It has been difficult for me to articulate my objections to opinions held firmly by a significant number of Island residents.  I don’t want to impugn the interests of shoreline property owners: I’m sure that for the most part they are as reliable stewards of their property and the environment as the rest of us. So this is not about a lack of trust on my part, or a lack of respect for fundamental property rights. I think other proponents of the SMP’s regulations would say the same.

It’s the ideological objections to environmental regulations that cause problems for me. I hate seeing Bainbridge Island – this beautiful place, made more attractive by so many forms of generous civic activism – turned into a beachhead in the tedious cultural war being waged by the Pacific Legal Foundation and like-minded organizations against legitimate environmental regulations.

 

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