A Sense of Place

ELLEN GOODMAN

August 04, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

CASCO BAY — Casco Bay.--From my window, I watch the cat as he sets out on his appointed rounds. He stops to inspect the bird feeder, moves on to the asparagus bed and then, gingerly, steps around the wasp mound. Having staked out this territory, he assumes his morning post among the peony leaves.

This cat -- my daughter's cat and my grandcat -- arrived here weeks ago, caged and collared and thoroughly citified. He was driven up the East Coast through megalopolis to the countryside where he encountered grass as a deeply suspect foreign turf.

Gradually, however he has gone native. First the collar came off and then he shed his city manners. An encounter with a garter snake was followed by a standoff with a spaniel and, I fear, another with a mourning dove. Stalking this territory, he has now claimed it as his own.

I have watched this transformation with amusement. But this morning, it occurs to me that I have much in common with my four-pawed visitor.

I too have shed my collar -- the shoes, the eyeliner, the suit -- for a country uniform of baseball cap, shorts, T-shirt. I too have left the cage, the urban containers of work, office, car, for the uncontained land, sky, sea.

Moreover, like my grandcat, I have covered this small piece of the world and staked my claim over it inch by inch, year by year. Over time, I have made this territory mine the old-fashioned way: by living in it.

This morning I walk along the same road that is never quite the same. The daisies have given way to the brown-eyed Susans. The Indian paintbrush has been replaced by Queen Anne's lace.

An urban child, I grew up knowing the names of streets and shops but not the names of wildflowers. Like most adult immigrants to a new world, I will never become perfectly bilingual.

But I have learned this country the way people learn foreign languages: through total immersion. I know where to find blueberries and when to expect blackberries and the best times -- maybe -- to fish for mackerel. I have learned the varieties of goldenrod, the taste of wild mustard, the song of a rufous-sided towhee.

Returning to this island year after year, I have slowly added a new sense to those of touch, taste, sight, smell, sound. A sense of place.

Like most Americans, I spend much of my life in a built environment where offices and houses remain a static backdrop to the variety of humans. I live in a wide world where people skim across the surface and travel far by phones and flights and faxes.

Today, our peripheral vision is as great as the television camera. We pride our selves on mobility. We equate that mobility with ambition, with broad horizons, with get up and go.

For my own part, I get up and go a great deal. I can tell you where the frozen yogurt stand is in the Pittsburgh airport and where every Starbucks coffee shop is in downtown Seattle. I have a modem for hotel rooms and a passport that is never out of date.

xTC But I come here to sink into a world that too many of us skate across. I come here to remember what it's like to live deep instead of wide.

These days, it's possible to be citizens of the world or natives of the land. To tour or to belong. We can appease a restless desire for a change of scene. Or we can rest in one place and pay attention to the scene as it changes. It's unclear which way we will see the most.

On this island, in many country places, people are commonly considered newcomers until they have been here a generation. Surely we are new until we have learned which apple tree bears fruit every other year and where the poison ivy is. We are new until we have planted a tree and worried about the water well.

At some point, those of us who return, who take the course of total immersion, often discover that we have set down roots. Suddenly, on a clear Maine morning at the edge of a tidal cove, with a country cat hiding out in the peony bushes and weeds waiting in the garden, there comes a feeling of home.

On days like this what makes the most sense in this entire strange world is the sense of place.

Ellen Goodman is a Boston Globe columnist.

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