Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Rooted In Place


With each passing day the sun rises a little later and sets a little earlier. The lingering warmth of summer distracts us from the predestined sequence of the seasons. While we go about our days with indifference, the inhabitants of the garden are keen to notice the subtle changes of the sun’s position in the sky. The vines begin to clamor for a better position, exposing themselves to the unshaded areas of the garden. They appear to grow with an unmatched fervor almost visible to the naked eye. For all their efforts the watermelons, pumpkins, squash, and cucumbers remain rooted in place. Months prior their fate was determined by the placement of a few seeds. Before the first yellow blossom appeared, before the first lush leaves unfurled, before the green sprouts broke through the earth, something far more significant took place. Underneath the soil the seed put forth roots which gathered nutrients and enabled the plant to grow. By the time the plant was exposed to the warmth of the sun the roots had broken through the earth and firmly anchored the plant to one particular spot. No matter what the seasons had in store this plant and this location were now firmly intertwined.

Unlike myself who is free to roam and find a more favorable spot to live, the plant may not seek relief from the sun, wind, rain, or cold. While I enjoy this seemingly unencumbered freedom I can’t help but ask, where it is that I am rooted? In one sense I could argue that despite the distance, my roots are firmly anchored in a moraine that runs through central Illinois. Yet, on other days I could find reason to say my roots extend into the fertile rolling hills of the Mississippi Valley, where a small portion of my daily sustenance is grown. Or perhaps more fittingly my roots are anchored in the community where I predominately spend my time waking, eating, meeting, and sleeping in no particular order. While this dilemma provides for ample hours of pondering and debate I’m left wondering,  does it matter? Are any of these places fit for putting down roots? While a plant may garner nutrients from the fertile topsoil, what physical or spiritual fertility do I draw from the communities to which I belong?

Many a weekend trips I’ve found reason to forgo faster travel along the tollway in favor of a more leisurely drive along forgotten county roads and rural routes. As I traverse the empty rural landscape I am continually “Welcomed” and “Thanked” for driving through many small towns, villages, and hamlets. While many residents may say they’ve relocated here for the “sense of community and small town charm”, it’s typically an environment ill suited for “roots”. For community must be more than streetscapes, stop signs, and crumbling pavement. Is it the four lane wide  highway, the broken sidewalks, or empty storefronts where my roots will take hold? Do these places have any nourishment left to offer? But before I condemn one lifestyle, it becomes apparent that there is little if any value left along the blacktop. Dilapidated farm houses, barns, and indistinguishable structures break up the monotony of monoculture. Despite the lush green hue, this may only be fools gold out here. These forgotten relics are indicative of the value which has already been exploited from these places. The endless miles of row crops are dependent upon a complex system of subsidies, fossil fuels, and chemical concoctions which are not safe to apply without a hazard suit let alone consume. Thus, I find myself asking, is there anything left for roots to take hold to here?

Roots need a medium in which to grow and on a more metaphorical level they need a community to take hold. Yet, community can’t be separated from place. It has to be encompassing. It’s important that “roots” are not only connected to a school, a downtown, and neighbors but to the rural landscape. Communities must offer a connection that challenges the stereotypes begat by modernity. Without roots, we limit ourselves, our capacity to know, experience, and comprehend the world we inhabit. Communities, whether they be centered around a town square or a pasture, depend on a connection to the landscape that surrounds them. Our roots can’t stop at the cursory sign which thanks highway travelers for visiting, they need to expand beyond arbitrary borders and firmly anchor us to a place that matters.

When writing the idea of developing our roots locally sounds as pastoral and simple as the bumper stickers attached to the hind sides of automobiles which encourage me to “be green”, “ride a bike”, or “coexist”, being local is more than a token stop at the farmers market and that’s where things get tough. Fostering a community rooted in localism requires changes to the built environment and behavior. As Nathan Gates of Spoon River Wellness recently wrote, it’s more than “simply being in the presence of others”. Equally as important,  it doesn’t require all of us to break the earth which constitutes our backyards or adopt a flock or urban chickens. What it does require is that we, as residents, become connected not just to our living rooms and thoroughfares but to place. That connection doesn’t just depend on one aspect but on a multitude of factors which connect us to our neighbors, our homes, and the landscape we inhabit.

The fertility and value we so desperately need, perhaps its in plain sight. We’ve been lead to believe that there is no value here in small places or rural homesteads. The work has been demeaned to the point its only suitable for highly engineered machinery and culture has been reduced to the catchy lyrics of modern day country music. We’re constantly inundated with the idea that we need to be entertained, to be fed, to be served. But perhaps there is value in the act of living itself, constrained by the limits of our roots we find value in place. Through the act of living and being connected to a place, beyond the streetscapes and welcome signs, we may find not only physical nourishment but spiritual as well. We grow, develop, and ripen in our own ways, perhaps becoming more complete with the fulfillment derived from each new challenge we overcome when rooted to place.