by Bill Kowinski
Wes Jackson's book gave a defining phrase, "becoming native to a place," to an approach, a yearning, an ethic, that had been developing for awhile. One of my first encounters with the idea was in the prose and talk of poet Gary Snyder.
In a mid-1970s interview, asked what is the best thing that non-Natives can absorb from Native peoples, Snyder said: "Well, the sense of 'nativeness,' of belonging to the place to begin with, is critical and necessary. It doesn't matter what color your skin is, it is a matter of how you relate to the land. Some people act as though they were going to make a fast buck and move on. That's an invader's mentality. Some people are beginning to understand where they are, and what it would mean to live carefully and wisely, delicately in a place, in such a way that you can live there adequately and comfortably. Also, your children and grandchildren and generations a thousand years in the future will still be able to live there. That's thinking as though you were a Native. Thinking in terms of the whole fabric of living and life. The Native American people lived fifty thousand years in California, perhaps." [The Real Work: Interviews and Talks 1964-1979, p 86.]
This way of life goes back further still. Prehistoric humans, writes human ecologist Paul Shepard, were 'native to their place.' "They possessed a detailed knowledge that was passed on from generation to generation by oral tradition through myths---stories that framed their beliefs in the context of ancestors and the landscape of the natural world. They lived within a 'sacred geography' that consisted of a complex knowledge of place, terrain and plants and animals embedded in a phenology of seasonal cycles. But they were also close to the earth in a spiritual sense, joined in an intricate configuration of sacred associations with the spirit of place within their landscape." [Coming Home to the Pleistocene, p. 7)
But what does all this mean to us in the twenty-first century North Coast of California? That's our inquiry in this place in cyberspace. What does it mean, and what actions can we take as individuals and together, to become native to this place?
Newcomers to the North Coast likely are attracted by the combination of its natural attributes and the "way of life" possible here, characterized by a slower pace in a less crowded, built-up, mechanized, polluted and frenetic environment than exists in many if not most other places.
Within this general sense are specific attributes of just this place: for instance, where the redwoods meet the sea. The particular character of our rivers and beaches, mountains and valleys, marsh and forest, flora and fauna, and how each connects to the others. In there somewhere as well is us: people, as we live, work, travel, play, study, worship, nurture and dream.
For newcomers as well as for those who have been here for generations but are materially affected by change, it often becomes quite obvious that a place must also be economically sustaining. This doesn't always mean "living off the land" in an economic sense, or even living off the local economy. Or does it, in order to become native to this place?
There are other economic issues that may create conflict. Timber versus environment has already, even if as some argue, it is a conflict artificially kept alive. Development versus preservation is shorthand for another set of difficult issues that jump into the headlines from time to time, and simmer beneath them otherwise.
The role of newcomers in inflating real estate prices is a particularly relevant problem, if it means that newcomers drive out those who have lived here longer, and perhaps feel they have long been committed to becoming native to this place.
Community is another huge factor (and this is the subject of the follow-up book to Wes Jackson's "Becoming Native to this Place," called "Rooted in the Land," a collection of essays co-edited by Jackson.) What does community mean on the North Coast of the early 21st century?
My first interview for this project was with Jerry Martien. I expected we'd talk about the relationship of poetry to place (his book of poems published by Blackberry Books is called "Pieces in Place.") But I came away from our conversation with another strong impression. Jerry told me about coming to live on the North Coast in the 1960s. (When we arrived in 1996, everyone we met seemed to have come here in the 1960s.) He mentioned places where people would hang out, and shared good times and bad in a kind of community within the community. He also talked about working with others in the community for schools and for the environment, which all began in a proximate and practical sense, because he had children. It seems that children and their education and welfare is a strong motivation for becoming involved in community and community-building, and in preserving and enhancing the North Coast's natural environment.
This also suggests that working for the good of the place means working for the good of the community as well as the environment. It may mean political commitment in its many possible senses. For example, Manuel Pastor (who teaches at UC Santa Cruz) and Angela Glover Blackwell, authors of Searching for the Uncommon Common Ground, consider the idea of place as a crucial factor in social change. "Place matters tremendously," Pastor said on the PBS program "NOW", "There really is a geography of opportunity in the regional landscapes in which we live."
To shift the emphasis from "becoming native" to "this place" for a moment, what do we mean by place? The watershed, the town, the neighborhood, the patch of earth where we live? We also speak about the work place, and we tend to spend a lot of our lives there. Is the work place really a place? How does it fit into our sense of becoming native to this place?
The scale of the question can get very large, as in our place in the flow of the universe, or "think globally, act locally" and the global village, and the proper meaning and scale of polity and identification (California? The state of Jefferson? The United States, or the Blue States?) It can get quite small, as essayist Leslie van Gelder reminds us: "In our rooted sense of being, we are all individual places who maintain a singular point of view. Every person is a place."
Finally (for now), some say that crucial to becoming native to a place is a sense of the past, of the ancestors and the "timeless past" when traditional ways were set and lived, as well as the historical past. But it seems equally true that in addition to a sense of the past, there must be a sense of the future: a deep responsibility for legacy and continuity, and consideration of the consequences of present actions on the future of this place.
All of these are possible pieces of the answers we can consider, as they are pieces of the lives we live on the North Coast.
What are your thoughts?
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