Another One that Got Away

Since Leslie didn’t have to work Friday, we headed out to Northwest Trek.

It was a beautiful, bright, sunny day and I hoped to get some great shots of the animals but was quite disappointed by the actual shots I ended up with.

Much of the park is set in deep woods, so I had problems with high contrast. I was constantly adjusting the camera’s ISO back and forth between 1600 and 100, but managed to forget to reset it for several shots that might otherwise have been good.

The biggest problem was sunlight filtering down between leaves or between trees. In many of these shots, large areas are pure white, as the camera couldn’t cope with the high contrast. In other shots, of course, some areas are just plain black, with an equal loss of details. I expected much better shots than I actually got.

That said, I would have been ecstatic if had ever managed to get a shot of this wolverine:

or this pack of wolves interacting with each other

in the wild.

Sometimes we just have to let go of our personal expectations and enjoy what he have done rather than bemoaning what we haven’t done.

Time and Place

Yuan’s last chapter entitled “Time and Place? provides a nice transition to next week’s look at Gaston Bachlelard’s The Poetics of Space since it seems more speculative and more philosophical than previous chapters.

He notes that finding a sense of place is more difficult in a mobile society than in older, traditional cultures:

Modern man is so mobile that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial. This is the conventional wisdom. Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the “feel” of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones. A sailor has a recognizable style of walking because his posture is adapted to the plunging deck of a boat in high sea. Likewise, though less visibly, a peasant who lives in a mountain village may develop a different set of muscles and perhaps a slightly different manner of walking from a plainsman who has never climbed. Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing. In time we become familiar with a place, which means that we can take more and more of it for granted. In time a new house ceases to make little demands on our attention; it is as comfortable and unobtrusive as an old pair of slippers.

Since my father spent much of my childhood moving up the ladder of success, I certainly identify with this problem of establishing roots. Regularly moved from place to place, I spent much of my childhood feeling like an outsider, even if by choice rather than by necessity. Later in life, returning home to the Puget Sound after several years in the Army, it no longer felt like home either due to my Vietnam-induced alienation from society in general or to the rapid growth that engulfed the city.

If Yuan is correct when he suggests that:

Objects anchor time. They need not, of course, be personal possessions. We can try to reconstruct our past with brief visits to our old neighborhood and the birthplaces of our parents. We can also recapture our personal history by maintaining contact with people who have known us when we were young. Personal possessions are perhaps more important for old people. They are too weary to define their sense of self by projects and action; their social world shrinks and with it the opportunities to proclaim fair deeds; and they may be too fragile to visit places that hold for them fond memories. Personal possessions-old letters and the family settee remain as accessible comforts, the flavor of times past hovering about them.

Then the past must be of limited concern to me, because I have very few possessions from the past, have limited contact with “old friends,? and must be younger than I thought because I still define myself by my projects and actions rather than by my personal possessions.

That doesn’t mean that at times I don’t see a better life in the past than in the future:

Young people live in the future; what they do rather than what they possess defines their sense of selfhood. Yet the young occasionally look back; they can feel nostalgic toward their own short past and proprietary about things. In modern society the teenager, as both his body and his mind undergo rapid change, may have an infirm grasp of who he is. The world seems at times beyond his control. Security lies in routine, in what the teenager perceives to be his own sheltered childhood and in the objects identified with an earlier, more stable phase of life. In general, we may say that whenever a person (young or old) feels that the world is changing too rapidly, his characteristic response is to evoke an idealized and stable past. On the other hand, when a person feels that he himself is directing the change and in control of affairs of importance to him, then nostalgia has no place in his life: action rather than mementos of the past will support his sense of identity.

I seldom suffer fits of nostalgia, but I am guilty of looking at the environment and longing times long past when the wilderness seemed infinite and indestructible. Now I fear we may have gone so far in conquering nature that we have destroyed its ability to sustain us.

Strangely, though, the quote that intrigued me the most was this, which seemed strangely out of place:

Some people try hard to recapture the past. Others, on the contrary, try to efface it, thinking it a burden like material possessions. Attachment to things and veneration for the past often go together. A person who likes leather-bound books and oak beams in the ceiling is ipso facto an acolyte of history. In contrast, one who disdains possessions and the past is probably a rationalist or a mystic. Rationalism is unsympathetic to clutter. It encourages the belief that the good life is simple enough for the mind to design independently of tradition and custom, and that indeed tradition and custom can cloud the prism of rational thought. Mysticism likewise disdains clutter, material and mental. It declares historical time to be an illusion. Man’s essential being belongs to eternity. A mystic frees himself from the burden of material things. He lives in a hermit’s cell or by Walden Pond. He is disencumbered of his past.

Very few things, even those I’ve created myself, seem important to me. I love books, but, except for poetry books, seldom keep them after I’ve read them. It’s the ideas in the books, not the books themselves, that are important to me. The question remains whether I’m a rationalist or mystic, though I’ve never thought of myself as either, despite a previously noted love of Emerson and Thoreau’s Walden Pond.

I Call This Home

According to Yuan, a

… profound attachment to the homeland appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. It is not limited to any particular culture and economy. It is known to literate and nonliterate peoples, hunter-gatherers, and sedentary farmers, as well as city dwellers. The city or land is viewed as mother, and it nourishes; place is an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and chance and flux everywhere.

It seems notable that “homeland,? at least as used here, is not as broad of a category as “country:?

Place exists at different scales. At one extreme a favorite armchair is a place, at the other extreme the whole earth. Homeland is an important type of place at the medium scale. It is a region (city or countryside) large enough to support a people’s livelihood. Attachment to the homeland can be intense.

That’s an interesting definition, one that might actually fit me. While I have no blind allegiance to the United States as a whole, I could rightfully be accused of nearly blind allegiance to the Pacific Northwest, an area that might include British Columbia, Western Washington, Western Oregon, and Northwestern California.

Still, I was a little surprised to learn that even in modern times people everywhere

… tend to regard their own homeland as the center of the world. A people who believe they are at the center claim, implicitly, the ineluctable worth of their location. In diverse parts of the world this sense of centrality is made explicit by a geometrical conception of space oriented to the cardinal points. Home is at the center of an astronomically determined spatial system. A vertical axis, linking heaven to the underworld, passes through it. The stars are perceived to move around one’s abode; home is the focal point of a cosmic structure.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised since I spent much of my teaching career teaching American Literature, where one finds strong overtones suggesting that America is God’s promised land and that we are the ultimate fulfillment of Biblical predictions. Certainly more than one author suggested that America was the New Eden and The Promised Land. Sorry, but I could never buy into that concept.

Still, I find that:

A homeland has its landmarks, which may be features of high visibility and public significance, such as monuments, shrines, a hallowed battlefield or cemetery. These visible signs serve to enhance a people’s sense of identity; they encourage awareness of and loyalty to place. But a strong attachment to the homeland can emerge quite apart from any explicit concept of sacredness; it can form without the memory of heroic battles won and lost, and without the bond of fear or of superiority vis-à-vis other people. Attachment of a deep though subconscious sort may come simply with familiarity and ease, with the assurance of nurture and security, with the memory of sounds and smells, of communal activities and homely pleasures accumulated over time. It is difficult to articulate quiet attachments of this type. Neither the rhetoric of an Isocrates nor the effusive prose of a German Volkskalender seems appropriate. Contentment is a warm positive feeling, but it is most easily described as incuriosity toward the outside world and as absence of desire for a change of scene.

best describes my attitude toward the Pacific Northwest. I would have been perfectly content to have never left the Puget Sound area. When all my immediate family lived here, I was perfectly content to take my vacations in the nearby mountains or at the beach and had no desire to travel to faraway places. When friends suggested that I should hike Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, the Grand Tietons, or other well-known hikes, I merely replied that I doubted I would ever be able to hike all the spots I wanted to see in the North Cascades.

The Intimate Experience of Place

The last chapters of Yuan’s book should probably be most interesting to artists. After establishing general principles of how we experience space and place in early chapters, Yuan turns to the kind of intimate experience of place that only artists can bring to life.

He describes intimate experiences as:

Intimate experiences lie buried in our innermost being so that not only do we lack the words to give them form but often we are not even aware of them. When, for some reason, they flash to the surface of our consciousness they evince a poignancy that the more deliberative acts-the actively sought experiences-cannot match. Intimate experiences are hard to express. A mere smile or touch may signal our consciousness of an important occasion. Insofar as these gestures can be observed they are public. They are also fleeting, however, and their meaning so eludes confident interpretation that they cannot provide the basis for group planning and action. They lack the firmness and objectivity of words and pictures.

These experiences are so personal, so subtle, so ingrained that we often don’t recognize them or their effect until an artist recalls them to us.

One intimate experience that everyone shares is growing up in a hometown:

Hometown is an intimate place. It may be plain, lacking in architectural distinction and historical glamor, yet we resent an outsider’s criticism of it. Its ugliness does not matter; it did not matter when we were children, climbed its trees, paddled our bikes on its cracked pavements, and swam in its pond. How did we experience such a small, familiar world, a world inexhaustibly rich in the complication of ordinary life but devoid of features of high imageability.

Though people may have had very different experiences in their hometown, most people will share a fondness for their hometown, a fondness that can even provide an instant link between people if they meet later in life.

Though intimate expressions are not easily described, there are certain aspects of our childhood that we share with members of the same generation:

Intimate experiences are difficult but not impossible to express. They may be personal and deeply felt, but they are not necessarily solipsistic or eccentric. Hearth, shelter, home or home base are intimate places to human beings everywhere. Their poignancy and significance are the themes of poetry and of much expository prose. Each culture has its own symbols of intimacy, widely recognized by its people. Americans, for example, respond to such emblems of good life as the New England church, the Middle Western town square, the corner drugstore, Main Street, and the village pond., An armchair or a park bench can be an intensely personal place, yet neither is a private symbol with meanings wholly opaque to others. Within a human group experiences have sufficient overlap so that an individual’s attachments do not seem egregious and incomprehensible to his peers.

I’m sure my generation‘s love for the classic “A Christmas Story? comes from shared experiences, from the famous decoder ring fiasco to getting a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Some might even identify with getting their mouth washed out with soap.

Even those who have grown up on the “other side of the track? may have a certain nostalgia for their hometown:

Slums and skid rows are distinctive places in many large North American cities. Some are so peculiar from the standpoint of middle-class values that they become tourist attractions. Air-conditioned buses take upright small-town citizens through Chicago’s skid row as if it were a titillating peep show. Derogatory names like “Jew Town,” “Nigger Town,” and “Back of the Yard” are imposed by fearful outsiders on the local inhabitants. At first the local people may not themselves be aware of their membership in the larger neighborhood; they know only that they live on a certain block in the poorer part of the city. In time, however, the outside message sinks in. The local people begin to see that they live in, say, “Back of the Yard,” an area with a certain character and with boundaries that outsiders fear to cross. “Back of the Yard” as a whole becomes a shadowy reality for the residents, a reality viewed with a mixture of helplessness, resentment, and perhaps also pride if the possibility for political action goes with the consciousness of place.

Bruce Springsteen’s “My Home Town? suggests the nostalgia many of us feel for declining hometowns:

I was eight years old and running with a dime in my hand
Into the bus stop to pick up a paper for my old man
I‘d sit on his lap in that big old buick and steer as we drove through town
He‘d tousle my hair and say son take a good look around
This is your hometown, this is your hometown
This is your hometown, this is your hometown

In `65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white
There was nothing you could do
Two cars at a light on a Saturday night in the back seat there was a gun
Words were passed in a shotgun blast
Troubled times had come to my hometown
My hometown, my hometown, my hometown

Now main street‘s whitewashed windows and vacant stores
Seems like there ain‘t nobody wants to come down here no more
They‘re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks
Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain‘t coming back to
Your hometown, your hometown, your hometown, your hometown

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed talking about getting out
Packing up our bags maybe heading south
I‘m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now
Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good
Look around
This is your hometown

Considering Springsteen’s success, I’d guess that even those who have grown up under very different circumstances can identify with the feelings expressed here.