Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Value of Place: Why Memories, Experience, and Connections Matter

Stepping outside into the evening air at this time of year is something typically reserved for those with nothing better to do or who happen to be in the act of fleeing a fire. It’s hot outside, even at night and the relentless heat of the sun is replaced by an equally oppressive humidity. However, it was with purpose that I strode out onto the streets long after the sun had set. In the fleeting moments of twilight I began a short stroll, intended to counteract the restlessness that comes from a day at the office. While many would consider what I encountered on my walk insignificant, I took exceptional interest in my surroundings. The bike/walking/recreational path along the river was much more active than I expected and the public park where it terminated was rather full. Many others who had stayed inside or spent their day at the office had similar plans this evening; fishermen conversed about their unsuccessful angling, a chorus of laughter intermixed with wailing sobs echoed from a playground, and even a few cycling enthusiasts were dismounting their carbon frame steeds after a leisurely ride.

The air was still tonight, the light from the street lamp seemed to have trouble dissipating into the darkness. Smoke from the local ribs joint rose uninterrupted into the night sky, illuminated by the glow of lights from an all night petrol station. In this moment, it was no stretch to find myself reminiscent of another time and place. The drone of air conditioners faded away and I found myself immersed in the memory of playing basketball late into the night under the light of a single mercury vapor bulb before a crowd of skiddish feline spectators. In this memory the air smelled sweet from fresh cut clover and tall prairie grass. The moonlight illuminated the landscape to reveal a sea of corn stretching endlessly in all directions from the house. Trains belted out warnings as they crossed lonely intersections and somewhere above flickers of heat lighting told me that I would later fall asleep to the sound of a gentle rain and rolling thunder. Standing there motionless, the halogen lamp would revert back to lifelessness, and there would be nothing left but the sound of a soft breeze blowing across the field and faint traces of the Milky Way in the skies above. For me this was perfect. Just as that night at the playground, late evening bike ride with friends, or one last cast into the river would be for those I encountered this evening.

While I may be prone to prefer one scenario over the other that does not mean my memories, my home, my preferences are superior to the setting of this evening. What becomes apparent this evening is that both of these places matter. My memory of home is that of a solitary place which evoked a connection to the natural world. My experience this evening connected me with neighbors. This is the fabric of community in it’s rawest form. These nights, as wonderful as they are, are a rarity. Tomorrow night the air may be filled with shad flies or the stench of soybeans baking at the dog food factory. On this evening, a shared public space brought together an array of kids, parents, contemplators, wanderers, couples, weirdos, anglers, cyclists, addicts, and artists. While some snapped pictures others looked to the west with an intensity that revealed only half as much as they had half intended to convey.

While these memories may be worlds or only a few counties apart, they share a common trait. Place matters. The sound of children playing, the green grass beneath your feet, the view of the stars in the sky and the buildings across the river, the basketball bouncing astray, the smell of hickory smoked meat, the sound of train announcing its presence, the last smattering of light that’s been transitioning to darker and darker shades of night. These places matter, both of them and they are connected on levels which a regional, national, or global economy can’t explain. Whatever that connection is, it’s apparent that neither is as it should be. The park tonight is an epicenter of community. It’s something that occurred spontaneously. Or perhaps the evening was predetermined by the planners that designed this place? While tonight everything appears as it should be, I fear that it will take far too long to recreate this activity. Out there, over the horizon underneath a darker hue of night sky, another place faces equally daunting challenges. The rural lands have been vacated, there are fewer summer evening basketball exhibition games and the vast monoculture sea is draining the land of its future prosperity. Pastures have long been plowed under in the name of inefficiency and greater bushels per acre. Somehow all of this is connected, somehow these two places matter more than we care to admit.