Stewardship is a sacred obligation, and for most of you a profession, a career. But each of us has that sacred obligation to be stewards of a place.
No place, any place, some place, my place -- I am obsessed with the word "place." Once it seemed to me an innocuous sort of word, uninspired, passive, devoid of passion. But now place is a word with subtleties of meaning, nuances of intent and emotion. Perhaps I thought place was a dull, undistinguished word because I understood places as disembodied, existing outside of the people who live in them, just there. Are places without people like trees crashing in empty forests? I thought that places existed even without witnesses like unseen and unheard falling trees. But now I understand that humans create places, and that until we live in them, bury our dead beneath them, empty our tears upon them, name and remember them, and weave our stories in and through them, they do not exist. To name a place defines a relationship as surely as falling in love. We are the story weavers, the name givers, the place makers.
Places are made of earth and earth reshaped, transformed by hands into human homes. Nothing is foreign here. Human hands and feet are not alien to the earth but rather they are as intrinsic to the earth and the universe as grains of sand and black holes. Human hands and the earth are all made of atoms, molecules, arranged into distinct places: towns, cities, neighborhoods, houses, parks, fields, streets, highways, farms, factories, resorts, malls, airports- and the corner of Prather and Nottingham in front of my brick house with its garden of golden zinnias, flashy azaleas, and brilliant roses.
We are namers: New York, New Mexico, Providence, St. Louis, the Jefferson Memorial Building in a park we named Forest Park, streets we call Nottingham, Devonshire, Prather, where at 4700 is my home. And my children were baptized Robyn and Adam, and the cat is Tigger. I have named my world or claimed my ownership of names made by others. Without names my world cannot exist. Names are the foundation of language. I string words together in my efforts to explain my world. I make my own story of the world, a very particular story. My story making is incubated by experience and memory, always set in the place that frames my story, defines its boundaries and gives me shape and context, just as a frame enfolds a painting, or as a glass holds water. Story defines each of us. And places become the mnemonic devices of our stories.
The Lure of Home
Humans are inseparable from place. As long as we have three-dimensional bodies we must be someplace on this earth. Place is our life support system and our respirator. Listen to Charlesetta Coleman describe her attachment to her home in one of St. Louis`s historically African-American neighborhoods:
"...we had moved so much when I was little...And when my mother, when we moved here the house was brand new, practically
...And I just put too much of my life in the place, too much money. To me it`s just that I just could not stand to go any place else now, and at my age, and I just don`t intend to move. Unless something drastically happened of some sort and I would have to move, you know. But I just spent my sweat and blood has been out there in that yard. I`ve laid bricks, circular bricks when my mother was living. We just worked ourselves, you know; this was our home. And...I`ve invested too much into my house; it`s just a white elephant but it`s mine."
[Interview with Charlesetta Coleman, June 1999, Missouri Historical Society Archives]
For me there is one historic site that looms sweetly, but sorrowfully. The house on the hill in Ishpeming, Mich., was cream colored when my memories of it begin. My parents moved to the house two years before I was born. My older brothers and sister remember other houses before the house at 551 South Pine Street, but I don`t. I spent my whole childhood and adolescence in the house. Later we painted it barn red, beginning with a sample slash of paint under the kitchen window. Part of me is always there in that barn red paint, in the first whiff of moldy autumn leaves, in the boyhood scrap lumber and tar-papered shack on the hillside and in the garden where I pulled green onions, stripped off the earthy outer layers, and then ate them, or plucked purplish red raspberries from their thorny bushes and stuffed them in my mouth.
For the fortunate young, home is a haven from which one ventures inside and out to find the world for the first time. There is nonetheless a primeval attraction for all of us to those places where we first tasted the world. Home is where we first worded our world, where our memory began. When I was a small boy I accidentally moved too close to the wall grate of the heater in the second-floor bathroom. The red hot grate was at stomach height. I walked into it, and it seared a hatched pattern into my abdomen. I can still see its faint outlines, a symbolic reminder for me of how indelible my first place is upon my mind and how comprehensively it is my point of reference for every new place I go and every thought I have.
Ishpeming was an iron-mining town where most of the men descended down underground shafts, three shifts each day, to the cavernous tunneled diggings with carbide lamps affixed to their helmets. One of the mines was called the Lake Angeline, and it was down the hill from my home. A few weeks ago a friend brought me a piece of puddled iron from this mine- rusty, spindly, in the elongated shape it assumed when it poured out as molten metal. It is a reminder of my historic site and reminds me each day of where home is and where I come from. I return home with that piece of iron, if only in my memory, to remember who I am and even sometimes to try to find out. My attraction to this place is not rational, but it is real and it is urgent.
Do not try to understand home. The longing to return is as deeply imbedded in us as the salmon swimming upstream or buffalo seeking the prairie, as Teresa Jordan describes in "Playing God on the Lawns of the Lord."
A few days before the official release, the bison had been trucked to a holding pen on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve so they could acclimate before being set free. Minutes after being unloaded, several of them found old wallows, depressions in the ground hollowed out by their ancestors when they had rolled to rub off flies or shed their winter coats. No creatures had used the wallows for at least a hundred and fifty years, but the newcomers, fresh off the truck, instinctively made for the depressions and started rolling. It was as if both the animals and the land remembered.
[Teresa Jordan, "Playing God on the Lawns of the Lord," in Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, Joseph Barbato and L. Weinerman, eds. (Pantheon Books, 1994)]
Memory and Sense of Connection
But human memory is transferable both in oral and in documentary form and hence the piecemeal experience and memories of countless generations are projected into the present. Memory is contained in the shape of buildings, streets, landscapes, manuscripts, photographs, objects, in the entire shape of things reworked by human hands, and in habits of the heart passed on in families and communities -- in traditions, quilts, recipes, lilts of the tongue, and in the values we hold dear. We are surrounded by messages from the past and we use these whisperings and shouts of those gone before to understand our present. Our world is full of mnemonic devices, and they can extend memories back in time.
To the left of my office desk is a framed birds-eye view of Negaunee, another small iron mining town near my hometown, where my grandparents lived and where my father was born. The view is long before my time, or even my father`s, but in it I recognize bluffs, the lake, the crisscross of streets, and names that confirm it as the same place I knew. My memory reaches into the past and the birds-eye view projects forward those features that intersect with my memory of Negaunee that now extends back to 1871, the date of the old picture. But the picture only extends my memory because the memory of my own experience of the place supplies the context, the hitching post, the point of intersection. Without my own memory the view would have no personal significance. People connect with the past when their own memories contain the contexts that provide points of intersection.
Author Wendell Berry poetically expresses the depth of attachment of humans for place as a consequence of memory and history in his book, The Long-Legged House. He writes:
In this awakening there has been a good deal of pain. When I lived in other places I looked on their evils with the curious eye of a traveler; I was not responsible for them; it cost me nothing to be a critic for I had not been there long, and I did not feel that I would stay. But here, now that I am both native and citizen, there is no immunity to what is wrong. It is impossible to escape the sense that I am involved in history. What I am has been to a considerable extent determined by what my forebears were, by how they chose to treat this place while they lived in it; the lives of most of them diminished it, and limited its possibilities, and narrowed its future. And every day I am confronted by the question of what inheritance I will leave.
[Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969)]
I am entranced with these relationships between people and place. I sense that the intertwining of the two is so intimate as to be inseparable. Our relationship with a place is so profound a piece of our fabric and so ingrained into how we function that it is difficult to analyze it with any perspective. Yet in some real respects recognition of the relationship may be crucial to our very survival, for survival of humanity depends on places capable of sustaining us. Only when we animate our understanding of our dependence upon place can we, like Wendell Berry, assume responsibility for the welfare of the place and all the life that it sustains. It is not just our relationship to landscape and built environment that is incubated in places of memory; it is also our relationships with each other.
Ritual and Place
New Mexico was once on the far northern frontier of New Spain, later Mexico. For hundreds of years Spanish-speaking people lived in those mountains north of Santa Fe in complete isolation, developing what seemed to outsiders to be strange cultural traditions.
In 1975 David Ortega from Chimayo invited me to attend a Penitente "Tinieblas" ceremony in the small mountain town of Truchas. On a sunny Good Friday afternoon I headed north from Albuquerque, up La Bajada hill to Santa Fe and then on the twisted high road to Taos. I passed pilgrims on the steep hill carrying crosses to the healing well of the Sanctuario de Chimayo. I joined David in Chimayo and at dark drove farther up the winding road to Truchas.
Those mountains have a special brooding quality and for me the trip north on the high road was always a journey back in time to a mysterious place. It seemed a landscape animated by the beliefs and history of the people who lived in it, imbued with a spiritual presence and blended with the smells of brisk mountain air and burning piñon.
The Penitentes are a lay brotherhood driven underground in the last century by the more orthodox Catholicism brought by the American bishops and the Anglo gawkers who sensationalized the sometimes bloody rituals of the brothers. The Penitentes also were a community mutual aid organization who ministered to the needs of their neighbors, caring for the sick, the hungry, and those down on their luck.
As an Anglo and an outsider I was honored at the invitation to participate in a centuries-old ritual preserved here in this small mountain village. It is not appropriate for me to describe the evening`s rituals but I do want to explain the sense I made of what I witnessed. The ritual, the ancient chants and music played on wooden flutes, rattles, and matracas (a type of percussion instrument) in the chilled spring darkness with moonlit mountains as backdrop seemed to rise organically from the place. What happened that evening had antecedents in other places: medieval Spain from which the ancestors of these people came with admixtures of cultures encountered by these same ancestors in 17th-century Mexico before their immigration north.
But the rituals now belonged to Truchas, to this place, nowhere else. The place merged into a singularity; the people and the land were mirror images of each other. These people built the homes, chapels, and outbuildings of adobe, the earth of the place. Buildings grew here in the same way that gardens grew, through the cultivation by human hands. To the extent that rituals from the past are reenacted in the present, time is made irrelevant. In Truchas, history was present.
As I recall that evening in Truchas I am struck now by the lack of any sense of individual people, mental images of particular buildings, of individual mountain peaks, or even of the music or the sweet pungent smell of piñon smoke. All elements of the experience have blended into a delicious and inseparable whole. After more than 300 years the land, the people, and the Good Friday rituals coexisted in a state of symbiosis in which all the pieces of the people and the place supported one another in a precisely balanced angle of repose. No element could be removed or altered without upsetting the balance of the remaining pieces. No one building in Truchas can be preserved as a historic site because taken out of the context any one element distorts the meaning of the place.
Fascination with the Past
Of course Truchas is a historic site, as is every place, because really every place on the earth is just as historic as every other place. All places on the same planet are made of materials that were already present when the planet`s surface first solidified. The contours of the earth have changed and humans have modified the planet in diverse ways to meet their needs. Civilizations, cities, and people have come and gone. In some instances evidences remain obvious. And in other cases we purposefully seek out and preserve pieces of the past, a process that most of you know well in the preservation of homes, farms, factories, streetscapes, monuments, and sometimes whole communities and neighborhoods.
When the originals do not exist we assemble whatever evidence we can find and recreate them. In still other instances we ignore accuracy and rearrange historic structures in places where they never stood and in relationships to each other that never existed. We decorate our restaurants with memorabilia and erect theme parks loosely based on the history of our nation. There is not a sharp line dividing what is accurately and inaccurately preserved and presented. It`s just gradations and scale.
Why our fascination with representations of the past? Some might argue that we preserve pieces of the past as testimony to our progress, illustrations of how far we have come and how superior we are to those who went before. Those who seek that kind of affirmation in the past miss the point. I recall an elderly friend surveying the 20th century from the perspective of 98 years. I asked her what she thought of all the progress she had witnessed. "It`s not progress," she said, "it`s just change."
Managing the Pace of Change
I think that our fascination as a nation with preservation of the past runs deeper. People who live in Truchas thought little about change and preservation. Why worry about preservation of abandoned adobes when so little changes and when the cycle of replacement is in itself an element of continuity? Why worry about preservation when the past persists in the present? Why worry where what is important never changes?
When I survey my hometown or my adopted home, St. Louis, I see whole neighborhoods and downtowns radically rearranged, abandoned, demolished, and neglected while new stores and subdivisions pop up on the margins. And in the midst of such wrenching change, I find preservation of reminders, which seems to me a form of protest against the destruction of places that once enfolded the memories of those who lived and worked in them. As if to underscore the futility and profound loss, there are "ghost reunions" in St. Louis, gatherings of people who once were neighbors but are now dispersed in suburban developments. These people gather, if only for an evening or weekend, in a highway hotel or public park. It`s a poignant, forlorn form of preservation.
At the pinnacle of historic preservation in our nation are sites preserved to commemorate influential events and great people. But there are relatively few such sites, and they are not the core of the most fundamental value of preservation. I think that the preservation battle cry in our communities is this: Change that is too rapid disorients humans. Escalating rates of change deprive people of the referents and confirmations of their own memories. People`s identities are corroded, bonds of community are severed, environments are damaged, and suspicion replaces the mutual trust upon which democracy depends. We must become advocates for rates of change that do not cause wholesale obliteration of places of memory. How can we care about places that are interchangeable, homogenous, transient, and disposable? Places that conserve memory are good places for people and incubators of community, but they are also inherently oriented toward preservation because they emphasize reuse of what is old and eschew new development that too rapidly consumes increasingly scarce resources.
Let us slow down. Let us really live in our places and become advocates for their conservation to preserve our own sanity, protect a sense of context and continuity for our own lives, and be good stewards of those resources that are really the property of those who will follow us. Let us not blindly oppose what is new, but instead look for a pace and quality of change that respects the fundamental human need to remember. Let us acknowledge that all of us need places of remembrance and that we need to stay in place long enough to embed memories, for only then can we truly be at home. May we all remember that our most sacred obligation is to care for our places and exercise good stewardship so we will be reminded of where we came from and sometimes even discover who we are.
Publication Date: Winter 2002