A word in favor of rootlessness

by John Daniel

I am one of the converted when it comes to the cultural and economic necessity of finding place. Our rootlessness—our refusal to accept the discipline of living as responsive and responsible members of neighborhoods, communities, landscapes, and ecosystems—is perhaps our most serious and widespread disease. The history of our country, and especially of the American West, is in great part a record of damage done by generations of boomers, both individual and corporate, who have wrested from the land all that a place could give and continually moved on to take from another place. Boomers such as Wallace Stegner’s father, who, as we see him in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, “wanted to make a killing and end up on Easy Street.”  Like many Americans, he was obsessed by the fruit of Tantalus: “Why remain in one dull plot of Earth when Heaven was reachable, was touchable, was just over there?”

We don’t stand much chance of restoring and sustaining the health of our land, or of perpetuating ourselves as a culture, unless we can outgrow our boomer adolescence and mature into stickers, or nesters—human beings willing to take on the obligations of living in communities rooted in place, conserving nature as we conserve ourselves. And maybe, slowly, we are headed in that direction. The powers and virtues of place are celebrated in a growing body of literature and discussed in conferences and classrooms across the country. Bioregionalism, small-scale organic farming, urban food co-ops, and other manifestations of the spirit of place seem to be burgeoning, or at least coming along.

That is all to the good. But as we settle into our home places and local communities and bioregional niches, as we become the responsible economic and ecologic citizens we ought to be, I worry a little. I worry, for one thing, that we will settle in place so pervasively that no unsettled places will remain. But I worry about us settlers, too. I feel at least a tinge of concern that we might allow our shared beliefs and practices to harden into orthodoxy, and that the bathwater of irresponsibility we are perhaps ready to toss out the home door might contain a lively baby or two. These fears may turn out to be groundless, like most of my insomniac broodings. But they are on my mind, so indulge me, if you will, as I address some of the less salutary aspects of living in place and some of the joys and perhaps necessary virtues of rootlessness.

No power of place is more influential than climate, and I feel compelled at the outset to report that we who live in the wet regions of the Northwest suffer immensely from our climate. Melville’s Ishmael experienced a damp, drizzly November in his soul, but only now and then. For us it is eternally so, or it feels like eternity. From October well into June we slouch in our mossy-roofed houses listening to the incessant patter of rain, dark thoughts slowly forming in the cloud chambers of our minds. It’s been days, weeks, years, it seems, since a neighbor knocked or a letter arrived from friend or agent or editor. Those who live where sun and breezes play, engaged in their smiling businesses, have long forgotten us, if they ever cared for us at all. Rain drips from the eaves like poison into our souls. We sit. We sleep. We wait for the mail.

What but climate could it be that so rots the fiber of the Northwestern psyche?  Or if not climate itself, then an epiphenomenon of climate—perhaps the spores of an undiscovered fungus floating out of those decadent forests we environmentalists are so bent on saving. Oh, we try to improve ourselves. We join support groups and twelve-step programs, we drink gallons of cappuccino and café latte, we bathe our pallid bodies in the radiance of full-spectrum light machines. These measures keep us from dissolving outright into the sodden air, and when spring arrives we bestir ourselves outdoors, blinking against the occasional cruel sun and the lurid displays of rhododendrons. By summer we have cured sufficiently to sally forth to the mountains and coast, where we linger in sunglasses and try to pass for normal.

But it is place we are talking about, the powers of place. As I write this, my thoughts are perhaps unduly influenced by the fact that my right ear has swollen to the size and complexion of a rutabaga. I was working behind the house this afternoon, cutting up Douglas fir slash with the chainsaw, when I evidently stepped too close to a yellow jacket nest. I injured none of their tribe, to my knowledge, but one of them sorely injured me. Those good and industrious citizens take place pretty seriously. Having no poison on hand with which to obliterate them, I started to get out the .22 and shoot them each and every one, but thought better of it and drank a tumbler of bourbon instead.

And now, a bit later, a spectacle outside my window only confirms my bitter state of mind. The place in question is the hummingbird feeder, and the chief influence of that place is to inspire in hummingbirds a fiercely intense desire to impale one another on their needlelike beaks. Surely they expend more energy blustering in their buzzy way than they can possibly derive from the feeder. This behavior is not simply a consequence of feeding Kool-Aid to already over-amped birds—they try to kill each other over natural flower patches too. Nor can it be explained as the typical mindlessly violent behavior of the male sex in general. Both sexes are represented in the fray. It is merely a demonstration of over-identification with place. Humans do it too. Look at Yosemite Valley on the Fourth of July. Look at any empty parking space in San Francisco. Look at Jerusalem.

When human beings settle in a place for the long run, much good occurs. There are dangers, though. Stickers run the substantial risk of becoming sticks-in-the-mud, and sticks with attitude. Consider my own state of Oregon, which was settled by farmers from the Midwest and upper South who had one epic move in them, across the Oregon Trail, and having found paradise resolved not to stir again until the millennium. The more scintillating sorts—murderers, prostitutes, lawyers, writers, other riffraff—tended toward Seattle or San Francisco. And so it happens that we Oregonians harbor behind our bland and agreeable demeanor a serious streak of moralism and conformism. We have some pretty strict notions about the way people should live. We were among the first to start the nationwide spate of legal attacks on gay and lesbian rights, and we annually rank among the top five states in citizen challenges to morally subversive library books, such as Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Color Purple.

This pernicious characteristic is strongest, along with some of our best characteristics, where communities are strongest and people live closest to the land—in the small towns. When my girlfriend and I lived in Klamath Falls in the early 1970s, we were frequently accosted by our elderly neighbor across the road, Mrs. Grandquist. She was pointedly eager to lend us a lawn mower, and when she offered it she had the unnerving habit of staring at my hair. Our phone was just inside the front door, and sometimes as we arrived home it rang before we were entirely through the door. “You left your lights on,” Mrs. Grandquist would say. Or, “You really ought to shut your windows when you go out. We’ve got burglars, you know.”  Not in that block of Denver Avenue, we didn’t. Mrs. Grandquist and other watchful citizens with time on their hands may have kept insurance rates down, but the pressure of all those eyes and inquiring minds was at times intensely uncomfortable. Small towns are hard places to be different. Those yellow jackets are vigilant, and they can sting.

Customs of land use can become as ossified and difficult to budge as social customs. The Amish, among other rural peoples, practice responsible and sustainable farming. But long-term association with a place no more guarantees good stewardship than a long-term marriage guarantees a loving and responsible relationship. As Aldo Leopold noted with pain, there are farmers who habitually abuse their land and cannot easily be induced to do otherwise. Thoreau saw the same thing in Concord—landspeople who, though they must have known their places very well, mistreated them continually. They whipped the dog every day because the dog was no good, and that’s the way no-good dogs had always been dealt with.
As for us of the green persuasions, settled or on the loose, we too are prone—more prone than most—to orthodoxy and intolerance. We tend to be overstocked in piety and self-righteousness, deficient in a sense of humor about our values and our causes. Here in the Northwest, where debate in the last twenty years has focused on logging issues, it’s instructive to compare bumper stickers. Ours say, sanctimoniously, “Stumps Don’t Lie” or “Love Your Mother.”  Those who disagree with us, on the other hand, sport sentiments such as “Hug a Logger—You’ll Never Go Back to Trees,” or “Earth First! (We’ll Log the Other Planets Later).”

I don’t mean to minimize the clear truth that ecological blindness and misconduct are epidemic in our land. I do mean to suggest that rigid ecological correctness may not be the most helpful treatment. All of us, in any place or community or movement, tend to become insiders; we all need the outsider, the contrarian, to shake our perspective and keep us honest. Prominent among Edward Abbey’s many tonic qualities was his way of puncturing environmental pieties (along with almost every other brand of piety he encountered). What’s more, the outsider can sometimes see a landscape with a clarity unavailable to the native or the longtime resident. It was as a relative newcomer to the Southwest that Abbey took the notes that would become his best book, in which he imagined the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau more deeply than anyone had imagined it before or has imagined it since. His spirit was stirred and his vision sharpened by his outsider’s passion. I don’t know that he could have written Desert Solitaire if he had been raised in Moab or Mexican Hat.

Unlike Thoreau, who was born to his place, or Wendell Berry, who returned to the place he was born to, Edward Abbey came to his place from afar and took hold. More of a lifelong wanderer was John Muir, whom we chiefly identify with the Sierra Nevada but who explored and sojourned in and wrote of a multitude of places, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska. I think Muir needed continually to see new landscapes and life forms in order to keep his ardent mind ignited. Motion for him was not a pathology but a devotion, an essential joy, an ongoing discovery of place and self. Marriage to place is something we need to realize in our culture, but not all of us are the marrying kind. The least happy period of Muir’s life was his tenure as a settled fruit farmer in Martinez, California. He was more given to the exhilarated attention and fervent exploration of wooing, more given to rapture than to extended fidelity. “Rapture” is related etymologically to “rape,” but unlike the boomer, who rapes a place, the authentic wooer allows the place to enrapture him.

Wooing often leads to marriage, of course, but not always. Is a life of wooing place after place less responsible than a life of settled wedlock?  It may be less sustainable, but the degree of its responsibility depends on the authenticity of the wooing. John Muir subjected himself utterly to the places he sought out. He walked from Wisconsin to the Gulf Coast, climbed a tree in a Sierra windstorm, survived a subzero night on the summit of Mount Shasta by scalding himself in a sulfurous volcanic vent. There was nothing macho about it—he loved where he happened to be and refused to miss one lick of it. In his wandering, day to day and minute to minute, he was more placed than most of us ever will be, in a lifetime at home or a life on the move. As followers of the Grateful Dead like to remind us, quoting J.R.R. Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.”

Muir’s devoted adventuring, of course, was something very different from the random restlessness of many in our culture today. Recently I sat through a dinner party during which the guests, most of them thirty-something, compared notes all evening about their travels through Asia. They were experts on border crossings, train transport, currency exchange, and even local art objects, but nothing I heard that evening indicated an influence of land or native peoples on the traveler’s soul. They were travel technicians. Many backpackers are the same, passing through wilderness places encapsulated in maps and objectives and high-tech gear. There is a pathology there, a serious one. It infects all of us to one degree or another. We have not yet arrived where we believe—and our color photographs show—we have already been.

But if shifting around disconnected from land and community is our national disease, I would argue—perversely perhaps, or perhaps just homeopathically—that it is also an element of our national health. Hank Williams and others in our folk and country traditions stir something in many of us when they sing the delights of the open road, of rambling on the loose by foot or thumb or boxcar through the American countryside. Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man” believes that God intended him for a life of discovery beyond the horizons. Is this mere immaturity?  Irresponsibility?  An inability to relate to people or place?  Maybe. But maybe also renewal, vitality, a growing of the soul. It makes me very happy to drive the highways and back roads of the American West, exchanging talk with people who live where I don’t, pulling off somewhere to sleep in the truck and wake to a place I’ve never seen. I can’t defend the cost of such travel in fossil fuel consumption and air befoulment—Williams’s rambler at least took the fuel-efficient train—but I do know that it satisfies me as a man and a writer.

Such pleasure in movement—the joy of hitting the trail on a brisk morning, of watching from a train the towns and fields pass by, of riding a skateboard or hang glider or even a 747—must come from a deep and ancient source. All of us are descended from peoples whose way was to roam with the seasons, following game herds and the succession of edible plants, responding to weather and natural calamities and the shifting field of relations with their own kind. And those peoples came, far deeper in the past, from creatures not yet human who crawled and leapt and swung through the canopies of trees for millions of years, evolving prehensile hands and color binocular vision as a consequence, then took to the ground and learned to walk upright and wandered out of Africa (or so it now seems) and across the continents of Earth. Along the way, lately, we have lost much of the sensory acuity our evolutionary saga evoked in us, our ability to smell danger or read a landscape or notice nuances of weather, but the old knowing still stirs an alertness, an air of anticipation, when we set out on our various journeys.

The value of the traveler’s knowing figures considerably in native cultural traditions. In Native American stories of the Northwest collected by Jarold Ramsey in Coyote Was Going There, I notice that Coyote doesn’t seem to have a home—or if he does, he’s never there. “Coyote was traveling upriver,” the stories begin. “Coyote came over Neahkanie Mountain…”  These stories take place in the early time when the order of the world was still in flux. Coyote, the placeless one, helps people and animals find their proper places. You wouldn’t want to base a code of conduct on his character, which is unreliable and frequently ignoble, but he is the agent who introduces human beings to their roles and responsibilities in life. Coyote is the necessary inseminator. (Sometimes literally.)  He is the shifty and shiftless traveler who fertilizes the locally rooted bloomings of the world.

Maybe Coyote moves among us as the stranger, often odd or disagreeable, sometimes dangerous, who brings reports from far places. Maybe that stranger is one of the carriers of our wildness, one of the mutant genes that keep our evolution fresh and thriving. It is for that stranger, says Elie Wiesel, that an extra place is set at the Seder table. The voyager might arrive, the one who finds his home in the homes of others. He might tell a story, a story no one in the family or local community is capable of telling, and the children who hear that story might imagine their lives in a new way.

It could be Hank Williams who stops in, and he’ll sing to you half the night, and maybe yours will be the family he needs, and he won’t die of whiskey and barbiturates in the back seat of a car. Or Huck Finn might be your stranger, on the run from “sivilization,” dressed as a girl and telling stupendous lies. It could be Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, on the road with their Beat buddies, hopped-up on speed, and they never will stop talking. It might be Gerry Nanapush, the Chippewa power man Louise Erdrich has given us, escaped from jail still again to slip through the mists and snows with his ancient powers. Or it might be Billy Parham or John Grady Cole, Cormac McCarthy’s boy drifters. They’ll want water for their horses, they’ll be ready to eat, and if you’re wise you’ll feed them. They won’t talk much themselves, but you just might find yourself telling them the crucial story of your life.

Or yours could be the house where Odysseus calls, a still youngish man returning from war, passionate for his family and the flocks and vineyards of home. Just as likely, though, he could be an old man when he stands in your door. No one’s quite sure what became of Odysseus. Homer tells us that he made it to Ithaca and set things in order, but the story leaves off there. Some say he resumed his settled life, living out his days as a placed and prosperous landsman. But others say that after all his adventures he couldn’t live his old life again. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, writes that Odysseus shipped out from Ithaca with his trusted crew. Maybe so, but maybe it wasn’t just him. Maybe Penelope, island bound all those years, was stir-crazy herself. Maybe they left Telemachus the ranch and set out together across the sea, two gray spirits “yearning in desire / To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

John Daniel, author of Rogue River Journal, is profiled in the December 22 issue of High Country News.

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