Monday, March 9, 2015

Get to Know One Place Really, Really Well or Not


By Bob Ferris

I remember a professor at UC Santa Cruz (yes, home of the banana slugs) giving the class a list of life goals by way of advice during one of his closing lectures.  I think that there were five or six, but the one that stuck with me was: Get to know one place really, really well.  In this sense he was talking about getting to know the physiognomy, vegetation, geology, history, culture, weather patterns and all else that contributed to making that place what it was and was going to be.

I think about this as I realize that I have gotten to
Fanny Dam Falls
know a lot of places pretty well over the years including Santa Barbara where my wife and I met and married.  I even made a little map for Carlene of our favorite places that were associated with events in our courtship, though I did miss a place we called Fanny Dam Falls which was a rock chute pouring into a swimming hole on Matilija Creek above Ojai where your posterior could basically stop the entire flow of water into the pool.  We were mindful of the native steelhead trapped similarly by Matilija Dam.  But I seriously digress and my point is that knowing it pretty well is probably not the same as being connected.

That is not to say that either of us has avoided this connectedness or deep familiarity.  With each place we have lived we have immersed ourselves aggressively in the people and places, but we have been nomadic moving seven times in our little more than ten years of marriage.  Our itchy feet and circumstances have benefited us greatly in terms of breadth of experience and visual diversity, but there is something to be said for depth as well.

Smith Island Cake by Jane Thomas [CC BY 2.0]
via Wikimedia Commons
I think belonging, comfort and familiarity are involved in this equation also, but I am fully aware that there may be danger and delight in the gaining.  In this I think about Smith Island in the Chesapeake so excellently portrayed by my one-time kayaking buddy Tom Horton in his book “Island out of Time: a Memoir of Smith Island in the Chesapeake.” Here the islanders have very few surnames and speak their own insular dialect pulled from the Olde English spoken by their ancestors with words like “turkle” rather than turtle.  Certainly the Island can lay claim to 12 (or 10) layer cake  and oyster pie that is positively too good, but the 12 miles of water have proven more than sufficient to close them off from much of what the world has to offer.


In the above I also think about Warren, Vermont and the Prickly Mountain Community.  Carlene and Yestermorrow Design/Build School. Here the Mad River Valley is about the size of Manhattan but with 7,000 people rather than 7 million, only one chain store and no traffic lights.   It is insular in many respects, but they seem to recognize that and do much to attract culture, creativity and diversity.  The result is a playhouse like the Phantom Theater, an architecturally amalgamated establishment like the Pitcher Inn and arguably the most irreverent 4th of July parade in the nation (see above video and if you look closely you will see the below "Ferris Wheel" designed and built by Yestermorrow's interns).
Me next to the infamous "Ferris Wheel."
I had a “temporary visa” in this special place while I was at

A Covington patch from when it was a junior high school.
It is now an elementary school.
My point in all of this is that I remember this advice more than thirty years hence and often wrestle with its role as benefit or burden in my own life.  There is a pang here because I once knew my home town of Los Altos well from the train station to Russell-Huston’s and from Clint’s Ice Cream (simply wonderful peppermint stick ice cream crafted from leftover chunks of candy canes) to Covington Junior High School.  Most of this is now gone—absorbed in time and Silicon Valley onslaught—so all sense of place for me is gone as well.  But I find that I long for "it" and I suppose that after some 40 years of wandering that I find that it might be significant and wish to regain some sense of it somewhere.

Clint's Ice Cream as I remember it.
But then there is the analytical side of me that wonders about the genesis of the longing.  Are these shadows of some irrational need, like the twinges we who elected not to have children experience when we wonder whether we made a mistake opting to be uncles or aunts rather than munching on the parental enchilada?  And—what the heck—am I pursuing this idea wholly because of a long-retired professor’s remorse over his own gypsy pathway?  It is truly complicated to be a human.

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