Copyright 1997, 1999, 2000 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711
Perhaps the poet is uniquely qualified to consider this issue of place. When Martin Heidegger attempted to understand "place" and "home," he turned to poets like Friedrich Hölderlin. Similarly, we can read poems and essays by Gary Snyder --- for instance, The Practice of the Wild or A Place in Space --- or N. Scott Momaday --- for instance, The Man Made of Words. Wallace Stegner's Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs is a collection of essays about "living and writing in the West." John Brinkerhoff Jackson takes us on a tour of American landscapes in his book A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. And Wes Jackson's Becoming Native to This Place is based on his personal experiences of settling in a little formerly abandoned Kansas farm town, to establish his Land Institute.
Virtually all of these writers share a common feeling that mainstream American society has lost its roots. With our extreme mobility we have lost connectedness with the land. We tend to avoid what is unique and defining of landscapes and to look for what is common or universal. When we drive through small communities, we stop to eat at the Burger King or McDonalds instead of investigating Aunt Sue's Loggers' Cafe. In a way, we have invented "everyplace" by universalizing the common things that we expect and seem to need --- familiar motel facades, common fast food menus, universal cable TV access, etc. But what these authors question is whether "everyplace" is really a "place" at all, hence, whether it serves the needs of being grounded in a place, knowing a landscape, feeling the history of habitation, belonging.
Here are some personal observations. When Mammoth Mountain was aggressively developed as a ski resort, in the early 70s, traffic began picking up on US395, running through the town of Bishop. Bishop was (and is) the last big town heading north until you get to Carson Valley, in Nevada. The town was dotted with little L-shaped motels, like The Town and Country Inn, dominated by some huge old cottonwood trees and with a fish-cleaning sink out back, cranky wall heaters that moan and click in the middle of the night, and a porch, out front, where mom and pop could sit and watch traffic pull slowly through the north part of town. If you wanted a good BBQ lunch or dinner, there was a place with long, varnished pine tables down the block. For something finer, you went across the street to Whiskey Creek. Best bread in Owens Valley was baked a few blocks south at Sheepherder's and you could buy a good cup of Java to keep you awake while heading toward LA, too. Of course, the town's mainstay was a host of sport shops that hardly knew what Nikes were but sold live crickets and worms for bait, carried good lines of hand-tied flies, and could tell you what time the hatch might come up, in Pleasant Valley, that week. In the fall, the same stores carried chest waders, #4 duck shot standard loads, and sad stories about the loss of the Owens Valley flyway, since the Department of Water and Power started pumping the ground water. The entire section of town west of the highway was the Bishop Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation.
Bishop fought to keep out the big corporate franchises for decades; but they finally capitulated in the late '80s. Now, Best Western towers over the Town & Country. Bank of America and McDonalds are across the street. LA skiers, with their kids, pack into the Burger King, where the kids can play on universally familiar yard toys and munch french fries packed in familiar little boxes, decorated with popular icons seen on TV. The huge Kmart has taken most of the business away from a now-nameless hardware, buried in the middle of town. Widened roads and all-wheel drive vehicles allow them to make it to Mammoth before nightfall; but if they should have to stay in Bishop, they'll find accommodations that meet the same standards as anyplace. Most traffic through Bishop, today, doesn't even know about the Paiutes, could care less about Sheepherder's bread, and never walked the Owens River with a Winchester model "A" 20-gauge shotgun, hoping to see a lonely mallard come off an icy backwater. Little by little, Bishop is becoming homogenized, chewed up and digested in American style, just a "pit stop" along the way to anywhere.
Yet Bishop is no mere "anyplace." As landscapes go, it is incomparable. Looking west, the Sierra Nevada rise up as a spectacular grey and brown rock wall, in places, towering 10,000 feet above the meadows of Round Valley. To the east, the White Mountains rise equally tall; but with different colors that signal the beginning of the arid Great Basin. In the fall, aspens color each winding line of creeks and rabbit brush gives the meadows a yellow-orange tint. In the winter, the snow line descends all the way to the valley floor and you can find yourself walking through a foot of fresh snow and getting anxious about finding your way back to a warm room and heater. The Paiute people are strong, with dark skin and black hair. The children play around little creeks and do not know they are "Indian." The remains of their culture surround them. Miles of irrigation ditches still fan out along hillsides from every stream, feeding wild seed-bearing grasses; petroglyphs face off of boulders toward the Owens River, where they might startle a deer and make it hesitate for an eternal moment. Up Sherwin Grade, the sacred forests of Pinyon Pine form a grey-green blanket across the hillsides. You can still find metates in bedrock, where women bent over grinding roasted pine nuts. Nature is in abundance here, but it is no wilderness, no place that excluded humans. Paiutes and their ancestors lived here for thousands of years.
No one has badly threatened this environment yet. Los Angeles Water and Power built a dam and reservoir to the northwest, in the gorge; but the Owens River runs "wild" through Pleasant Valley and around, to the east, of the town, meandering, with willows and grass along its banks, all the way down to Tinnemaha Reservoir. A big gravel yard has been constructed near Five Bridges Crossing and a few hunters have used petroglyphs for targets. But by-and-large Bishop has survived up to this point. The question is How long can this last? As fewer people take note of Bishop-as-a-place and think about it only in urban terms, will they take it apart and come to see it only as a "resource" for exploitation?
The question is What does all of this mean? Being grounded in a place? Knowing a landscape? Poets and essayists agree that "place" is something that involves a human past, human occupancy. Thus, we have the same confusing mixture of natural places and human-built places. Bishop is definitely a natural place. It is completely dominated by its position at the narrow northern end of Owens Valley, lying at the southern base of the Long Valley Caldera. Yes, humans have been there for thousands of years, but they have all (thus far) respected it for what it is, a natural place. When we take the time to read the signs and un-bury the relics and treasures, it is a living story of human adjustment, cooperative habitation, and respect. When we come to feel respect deeply, we call things sacred. If Burger King thought it would be cool to paint a huge advertisement on the grey-granite side of Mt. Tom, it wouldn't happen; that escarpment is sacred.
Doubtless, in the centers of great American cities, we can find alternative places in which human lives have also been invested. Most of those are in the East; the West just hasn't existed that long. When we go abroad, we find many more human-built places that have witnessed human habitation for hundreds of years. We begin to get some idea what 'sacred' means. (I once stayed overnight in an old four-story farmhouse near Oxford, England. It was February, and the glass of water on the dresser froze solid over night. While the house was presently rented to my friends from Rutgers, it was really inhabited by spirits. The house had been built in the 15th Century; North America had not yet been discovered by Europeans.) These are places in which we can "belong," if we choose to do so. But "belonging" is not simply a matter of passing through. "Belonging" to a place requires habitation, absorption of history, growing roots, and understanding of environment.
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