Friday, July 08, 2011

What Makes A Place “Real?”

Wallace Stegner wrote that “no place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry.”

I can imagine that, prior to his passing in 1993, he would have grumbled objection to my characterization that I firmly believe Stegner’s own “prose poetry” did just that for the Rocky Mountain region of my birth.

He is also often quoted by Scott Russell Sanders whose own prose queries the qualities that make a place “real.”

“What are the qualities of a real place, a distinctive place, a place with its own history, culture and texture? What qualities give certain places a feeling of character and charisma? What distinguishes the geography of somewhere, makes it worthy of a visitor’s deep engagement and a citizen’s love?”

Many years ago, I heard Sanders read in person a version of his published essay The Geography of Somewhere while I was sitting on the back row of the historic Elk’s Opera House just up a hill from the town square in Prescott (pronounced “press-cut”), Arizona on the mile-high highlands climbing up to the Grand Canyon.

The actions of many during the last session of the North Carolina General Assembly reminded us that a small faction, which fit conservative columnist David Brooks description of having “no moral decency,” could also care less “what makes a place real,” as they did whatever they could to surrender North Carolina’s environment and sense of place to their own special interests.

Unfortunately, while charged as guardians for sense of place, far too many destination marketing executives nationwide would either have been complicit or failing to grasp what makes a place “real,” would have idly sat on their hands.

As inspiration I share the following excerpts from Sander’s prose entitled The Geography of Somewhere (for those who shun reading, no illustration will suffice):

  • “To begin with, a real place feels as though it belongs where it is, as though it has grown there, shaped by weather and geography, rather than being imported from elsewhere and set down arbitrarily like a mail-order kit.

  • A real place is also distinguished by a vigorous local economy, one that draws on resources from the region [of the country] and on the skills of its own citizens. Key enterprises from factories to coffee shops, reflect the taste and judgment of the local people who own them, rather than the dictates of distant corporations.

  • Visitors will know they have arrived in a real place…when they find in shops well-crafted articles whose makers live nearby, when they discover on restaurant menus dishes they could not order anywhere else…when artists choose not merely to live there but to photograph and paint it, to write and sing of it, when archaeologists and historians delve into its past; when naturalists keep track of the local flora and fauna; and when elders pass on all of this lore to the young.

  • A real place…conveys a sense of temporal depth, a sense that people have been living and laboring here for a long time. The traces of earlier generations are preserved in festivals and folkways and habits of speech; in old buildings that have been restored and kept in service; in landscapes that are still devoted to orchards, dairies, woodlots and other traditional uses…While honoring the past, a real place is not trapped there.

  • A real place keeps us mindful of nature, as it keeps us mindful of history. In the built environment one feels the presence of the living environment…Although we can’t all summon up spectacular settings for our home places, we can make the most of whatever nature gives us.

  • In a genuine gathering place, people from all walks of life may argue and joke and swap stories and admire one another’s babies and sympathize with one another’s aches, all while feeling at home. Indeed, such gathering spots extend our sense of home beyond the four walls where we happen to sleep. The true wealth of a community shows up not in the grandeur of private residences or shopping emporiums but in the quality of libraries, schools, museums, parks, courthouses, galleries and other public arenas.

  • What all of us long for, I suspect, is to love the places in which we live and live in places worthy of love…we hunger for integrity and authenticity.”

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