A word in favor of rootlessness

The joys and perhaps necessary virtues of not settling down


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.

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