Monday, May 18, 2015

The Origin of All Too Rare Sensibilities

You could fit nearly 182 Durham’s in the land area of North Carolina.  In land area, it is the smallest urban county in the state, yet home to the fourth largest city.

So it is surprising to visitors that there are 232 working farms here, many supplying meats, dairy and vegetables to Durham’s nationally-recognized foodie scene.                                  

This may not seem like many given that North Carolina is still a largely rural state with 50,218 farms and livestock operations according to a census regularly conducted by the US Department of Agriculture.

Throughout the four-county metro area centered around Durham, there are about 2,410 farms and livestock operations, nearly half in Chatham County.

Unlike Durham, its metro counterparts have not set aside a third of their land area in watershed and areas where working farms are safeguarded.

This area is an important part of Durham’s sense of place, which in any place where it is still preserved and fostered, always includes not only “built” and “cultural” place-based assets but “natural” as well.

Durham “farms” include 46 livestock operations raising nearly 1,000 head of beef cattle.  The ancestral ranch where I was born and spent my early years in the 1950s in the shadow of the Tetons along the Henry’s Fork raised about that same number of cattle.

In that Fremont County nook, ours was not a large operation but still more than twice the size of the average farm or ranch there today and 8 times the median for operations there.

There are still 181 ranches there growing more than 9,000 head of cattle.  But many operations have turned to farming instead using the pivot irrigation common in northeastern North Carolina now.

As an adult, I spent four-decades in a field tasked as the guardian for sense of place in three different parts of the country, including Durham, but I trace my sensibilities for that work back to our ranch.

I was reminded a month ago of a time when my daughter helped bring this into focus for me when I read of the passing of Ivan Doig a month ago.

Doig was a native Montanan who was born about two hours north across the Centennials and nine years earlier from my roots in the Teton-Yellowstone nook of Idaho.

After earning degrees at Northwestern and the University of Washington (PhD.), he worked for The Rotarian, a magazine, which is where I first read his byline.

My daughter’s Dad #2 passed Doig’s memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind to her and she, in turn, passed it to me knowing how closely it paralleled some of my early influences on the ranch.

It had been written in 1978 when she was five but I was half way through my career when she passed it on to me. It was when I was going on a decade past when I became one of the first in my field to incorporate sense of place as a foundational strategy.

But it wasn’t until I read This House of Sky that I realized how early my sensibilities for sense of place had been shaped.

I have the DNA of five generations of Idaho cowboys and horsemen.

But Doig grew up a sheepherder, along the Rocky Mountain Front, just south of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, an area I’ve crossed while crisscrossing the country with Mugs and which I wrote about a few months ago.

We both shared the 1950s under the big sky of the Mountain States before migrating to urban surroundings.  But one of the reasons Doig’s memoir resonates is that it more accurately portrays the reality behind what has become the cowboy mythology of the West.

It is tempting to think of This House of Sky as a true-story Lonesome Dove, written a few years later by Larry McMurtry, a contemporary of Doig’s who can also capture landscape, but in my opinion House is far more nuanced and relatable.

I still dust off the copy my daughter gave me and read it for inspiration.  It is also a reminder that there may be no greater gift than a child who, while it is foreign to her own background, truly grasps the essence of a parent’s.

As I conclude this essay, my finger fell on a quote from House, “Memory, the near neighborhood of dream, is almost casual in its hospitality.”

And so it seems with sense of place.

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