To Know Our Place

By Fred First / November 2014

In this homily to the future, physical place holds a high importance, a higher relevance perhaps in my life than to society at large, though many in the Southern Appalachians and those around me in Floyd County, Virginia understand this affinity to place very well.

At its most trivial and most common sense in our times, “place” might be nothing more than a body’s shifting GPS coordinates or a point on a substrate (likely a paved surface) between work and the shopping mall. But if we live indifferent to the deeper significance of place that wraps itself around us when we are most at home, we will miss an important and necessary thread of our stories together. Place matters.

The WHERE of our life is the stage on which the script of our story is revealed. What we see, sense, know, and care for is very much tied to the nature of our relationship to the places of our lives.

My wife and I have chosen to live in particular kinds of places for the stories they tell to and about us, and for the kinds of thinking and imagining and passion they bring to the tale of our lives. Call it context. Call it location lifestyle choice. Ultimately, our stories are shaped by our places. And so we have been intentional about location first and foremost, and more or less content to let other life details follow from that choice.

We’ve moved to mountains twice — from Birmingham, AL to Wytheville VA in 1975 and from the Carolina mountains to Floyd in 1997. Our purpose was to live in these particular places, willing to accept career ladders in smaller, slower-paced, out of the way southern Appalachian communities that would not likely lift us so many rungs toward professional success — as others see success. This was a trade-off we were knowingly willing to make.

And so we kept moving until we found home. This exact location where we’ve lived since 1999 in “a white two story house with double porches on a creek” (as my wife in 1970 wistfully envisioned our ultimate home place here) is the WHERE towards which we’ve been moving all our lives, destination and destiny holding hands.

And having found our place, we have achieved our peculiar flavor of success, are settled and blessed. And is has turned out, by chance or design, this haunting geographic homing instinct has delivered me to just the proper habitat where my native temperaments could evolve; to a time in which I could pull back, slow down and consider landmarks and guideposts that, to my thinking, might if intentionally attended to, might alter humanity’s course and guide us out of the mess our species has made of the place.

Towards a Personal Ecology

Since moving to Floyd County I continued in my earlier careers part-time as physical therapist and biology educator for a while. But those vocations yielded over the last decade of semi-retirement to the personal calling to better understand where and why my generation has missed the mark. Why has American humanity’s relationship to nature, place and community come apart? How do we change direction so that our legacy to our children is one we can be proud of?

I call this web of relationships our “personal ecology.” The root of both ecology and economy comes from the Greek word “oikos” which means household. We live in just one household in which, for the past century, economy is not at peace with ecology. To mend this discord and arrive at a just and healthy future, we will have to reconcile our estrangement from the living world.

The planet will not sustain us if our economy continues to chew up local environments around the world. Allow me a favorite verse: Eccl 3:19 “For that which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts; even one thing befalls them: as the one dies, so dies the other; yea, they have all one breath.” We will reap the seeds we sow among Earth’s biomes.

Technology and armies can’t fix our Humpty Dumpty civilization. Healing relationships can. We are ripe for repentance — which means literally to “change direction and destination.” If you’re lost, when you realize it, you really should take your bearings and make a course correction.

So with all that, I see the world from this slow road and from my peculiar thirty thousand foot perspective of our present blessed predicament. Taken as one man’s “should” I offer a short avuncular list of bromides you might think of as guideposts on a life map — steps on a path, perhaps, towards an intact personal ecology I wish for in the world of my grand children’s children. Connection-rebuilding is a local healing, possible and already underway in places like Floyd County. So here are my ingredients for the world I hope for:

Go slowly and stop often. I think it’s true that the slower you go the more you see; the more you see the more you know about your place in life; the more you know, the more you care about; the more you care about, the better steward you will be — if your heart is right. I live on what I call a “slow road” that forces us to avoid hurry and invites us into a fine-grained awareness of detail through the seasons. A slower pace that pervades places like Floyd County makes it easier to know our place, and to know and care for each other.

Pay attention with all your senses. Going slower also lets us smell, touch, hear and taste more deeply and more often. We so under-utilize our senses that, if fully employed, would fill us up with sound and light and joy in the wonder of each moment. I credit a passion for photography with helping me recognize the value of dwelling patiently in place, with new eyes; of being still, of absorbing wavelengths and hues and textures and proportions that I might, with less receptive and expectant senses, have missed. My first photographic subjects were plants, which I have come to know by name, and they are my immediate community. My sense of place arises first from them in this garden where we live. Our lives come out of the earth: humus, human and humility are closely related words.

Bigger is not always better. Knowing how much is enough is a huge success. Having too much stuff can be a large burden — on people and on the planet. Stop eating before you’re full. Harvest and own or borrow what you truly need, and if you have more than that, give it away. I try to imagine what life would be like under an economy, an Oikos, a Household where people and planet come before profit. The scale of our world matters. Some of us have chosen smaller and slower realms to live in. Places that are too big or too hurried are not so easy to love.

Everything is connected. In Earth’s ecology, you can never do just one thing. Every action has consequences downstream. We live in webs of relationship that by our choices, we either embrace and nurture or ignore and abuse. The stuff-into-money system that is collapsing now has ignored and abused the environment — a term to be redeemed from ideologies, to be understood as “everything we need that comes from Earth and upon which our physical survival depends.” Always know that reality is far richer than you first think. Think again, and again. Every thread of life is connected to everything else.

Stay curious. There is nothing ordinary. Don’t grow cold to the marvels and wonders of the world. We have so very much more to learn about a place we think we understand. We are all children. At every level, dig deeper and expect to be amazed. Wake each day with new eyes, anticipating the AHA of discovery, the AH of beauty and the HAHA of humor in this wonderful fallen world.

Always look beyond the horizon. We are blinded from the Big Story by our brief flicker of time here. Society’s center of importance has shifted alarmingly to ME-HERE-NOW over much of our recent civic thinking. Instead, I suggest we first consider THEM-THERE-THEN. One place understood helps us know all places better. Strong and resilient roots underfoot in all places nourish the planet back to health. Nurture eco-empathy with other people not like you in other places you’ll never visit and well into the future. Live your life with hope to become a wise steward, not a cunning master.

Give thanks. Find then follow and honor your true allegiance and your source. Seek contentment, not happiness. Acknowledge your dependence on inherited abundance from technology, culture and society. We are none of us self-made. Confess your ignorance of the path. Be thankful for the good fortune or providential purpose that has sustained your body, mind and spirit into adulthood. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Act always with humility and gratitude in this “cathedral made without hands” as John Muir called this amazing blue marble levitating in the black cosmos.

Pass it on. Tell your story. It is the only one like it ever. Do your children know it? In your seeming lost-ness you have gained wisdom that you may not even grasp yourself. Even in your wrong paths are lessons for those who look up to you. What is your legacy — that single small nudge at the rudder of your own life — and then theirs — that will turn the ship towards a safe and sustaining harbor?