Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Scenic Character’s Leading Role in Sense of Place

Greensboro is the third largest city in North Carolina.  But according to friends, old and new, who live there, it is bent on mimicking the fourth largest city, Durham. 

Unfortunately, they are not mimicking Durham for its distinct sense of place.

Instead Greensboro seems drawn to mimic the corrosive influences that make communities the same, appealing, in the words of Dr. Scott Russell Sanders, only to those for whom “tourism is another form of shopping, treating the whole country as a gigantic mall.”

By this he is referring not only to shopping or malls per se, but to  generic attributes that make communities just one of many vs. distinct.

According to Sanders, in a speech I heard him deliver in 2006, the salvation for communities clutching to sense-of-place is neighborhood activism.  Durham bears Sanders out but only as long as it can withstand what he calls “Goliaths,” warning that:

“…Goliath never sleeps, never takes no for an answer, never runs out of money or political friends, and most of the time…gets its way.”

I witnessed the sacrifice of North Carolina’s distinctiveness on a cross-state road-trip last weekend.  Observing how commercial out-of-state billboard interests are sating their greed by destroying roadside trees and viewsheds caused me to think about my reading habits over the years and the pivotal role scenic character plays in appeal.

I’ve always been an avid reader, but it has been marked by streaks restricted to either fiction or non-fiction.  After law school in the mid-1970s, I couldn’t stand to read non-fiction.  In fact, I took a brief break from reading altogether.

During my near-decade in Alaska, I read mostly suspense and/or historical fiction such as written by Uris, Ludlum and Michener.  When I moved to Durham, I turned to non-fiction except for the latter 1990s when I delved into Swedish crime novellas written by Henning Mankell after they became available in English.

As a rule I avoid movies, especially made-for-television movies based on books that I have read and enjoyed, perhaps to dodge disappointment.

Ironically, this aversion proves strongest for adaptations of books such as Mankell’s where descriptions of landscape serve as a leading character vs. only as backdrop.

I have been drawn to three notable exceptions, spurred by the advent of streaming services.  The Jesse Stone series of TV-movies based on Robert Parker novels, the 2010 feature film Winter’s Bone based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell, and most recently the Wallander series based on works by Mankell.

In each production, hauntingly dramatic landscapes play featured roles alongside superb acting by casts featuring Tom Selleck, Jennifer Lawrence (in her breakout role) and Kenneth Branaugh.  These adaptations live up to the novels and give distinctiveness to plots that might otherwise have seemed similar.

Of course, distinctive soundtracks also play a pivotal role including Nostalgia by Emily Barker for Wallander, Hardscrabble Elegy by Dickon Hinchliffe in Winter’s Bone and music by Jeff Beal for Jesse Stone.

All of this is to say that the distinctive sense of place for communities and states must also give a leading role to preservation of scenic character, lest they succumb to the corrosive influences of blight that relegate them as “monotonous, ephemeral, rootless and ugly,” appealing only a form of generic shopping.

Unfortunately, as in so many ways, my adopted home of North Carolina is headed in the wrong direction.

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