Humans need a well-developed sense of place

December 04, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- America was settled by wanderers, and many of the heroes of its folklore are people who were constantly moving on and whose homes were where they spread their saddle blankets on the ground at night. Much of the nation's energy has always come from individual restlessness.

Even today, with the frontier only a memory, we as a people tend to have a footloose quality. We're mobile, economically and physically. Even if we like the idea of staying home, which most of us don't, we don't tend to remain in the places where we grew up, but head for better jobs or prettier scenery somewhere else.

Once there was a certain stigma attached to those who couldn't sit still, but no longer. In Maryland, which likes to think of itself as America in miniature, it seems perfectly natural that our current governor was born in New York and educated in Florida.

But in the midst of all this nomadic flux and healthy diversity, there's been renewed interest lately in the sort of permanence and stability derived from another ancient impulse: the desire to put down roots. The realization is dawning that it may also be important to our species to have a well-developed sense of place, to feel a powerful emotional and atavistic connection between ourselves as individuals and some special spot on the surface of the globe.

A big investment

The trouble is, you can't acquire a sense of place at the Wal-Mart, or by taking evening courses at the community college. It requires a lot bigger investment than that, and not too many people are willing to make it.

As Sun columnist Tom Horton reported last week, some recent Calvert County research seems to confirm the long-standing suspicion that a generalized concern for ''the environment'' is a long way from the love some people have for the place where they've invested most of their lives. This difference accounts for some familiar sociological and political frictions.

Recent migrants to Calvert County (or, presumably, almost any other rural jurisdiction) are quick to talk about the wonders of their new home. They may rush to join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, or sign petitions opposing new development. But their sense of place, according to the study cited by Mr. Horton, is likely to be ''fairly impoverished.''

That doesn't suggest that they're bad people, or that they can't be good Calvert County citizens. But their attitudes, their outlook and their connectedness with their community are very different from those of their neighbors who have been around for 40 years or more. This makes for some painful collisions over local issues.

Such collisions, between the restless new arrivals and the people who had been around long enough to develop a sense of place (and the possessiveness which goes with it), have been occurring throughout the history of the United States. They've helped to form the nation we live in today, and left plenty of casualties in the process.

These old conflicting themes of restlessness and rootedness are both present in the tale of Chris McCandless, a young man from the Washington suburbs who in 1992 hitch-hiked to Alaska and managed to starve to death near Mount McKinley, in midsummer, while trying to see if he could subsist on his own in the wild.

As meticulously and sympathetically reported by Jon Krakauer, first in Outside magazine and, subsequently, in a book, ''Into the Wild,'' young McCandless graduated in 1990 from Emory University and then simply disappeared.

For more than two years he wandered around the country, first in his old Datsun, then as a hitchhiker. He paddled a canoe down the lower Colorado River into Mexico. He worked in South Dakota wheat fields. He took photos and kept a literate, even poetic, journal. He made friends here and there to whom he would send an occasional postcard, signed with the name he'd adopted, Alexander Supertramp.

But his parents, who lived in Chesapeake Beach, never heard from him again. In September 1992, his body was found by hunters at a campsite where he'd been staying for several months, eating berries and small game he shot with a .22 rifle. An autopsy was inconclusive, but Mr. Krakauer suspects he was poisoned by a plant he ate and, too weak to walk back out to the road, eventually starved.

Chris McCandless was by all accounts a bright and engaging person, not reclusive or antisocial. But he seemed to find happiness only when on his own and on the move. Like countless other wanderers, he apparently had no anchoring sense of belonging somewhere else, no internal compass which would eventually direct him home.

An American dream

Yet for a while, living free on the open road and under the sky, he had managed to live out an old American dream, and realized that. ''I have had a happy life and thank the Lord,'' he wrote in a last note, before getting into his sleeping bag for the last time. ''Goodbye and may God bless all!''

He had loved being in Alaska. But when word of his death spread, many Alaskans spoke of him with contempt. He might have loved the country, they said, but he neither understood it nor respected it. He had come into the wild with courage and a rifle, but without a proper sense of place.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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