In recent years it seems I've been more and more exposed to people who have, or are trying to develop, a sense of place, a true relationship with the land they call home. Most such people tell me this cannot be done in the Front Range or metropolitan area— that there's too little left. So I've been surprised to find lately that I'm beginning to have a sense of place, right here in Jefferson County.
If I soon become restless during theoretical discussions
about "the environment" it is because this bland term
does not convey the sensual impact of a real place.
The environment is not a pervasive something out there
but rather implies the responses of the whole being
to the stimuli received from the place.
— René Dubos
Many years ago, when four callow youths made our first trip west, I remember the intense discussion on the Great Plains, focusing on whether or not it was a boring childhood, growing up in such a place. "What was there to do?" We were fresh from childhood among the second-growth forests, glacial lakes, and shale canyons (we called them ravines) of upstate New York—a marvelous place to grow up. But I thought the Plains had mysteries of their own, opportunities and intrigue only a child there could know. Certainly, passing through at 60 mph, we would learn little of such a place.
Now, living here at the edge of the Plains, I'm just beginning to find the truth of that early suspicion: Every place has something to teach us. I resisted for awhile, inadvertently preoccupied with jobs and mundane concerns. But now it's starting to get hold of me. Now when I leave, I can feel the little newly-formed roots tearing out of the soil. Yet it takes generations to let the land truly seep into you, and I have only this one chance at forming a relationship. At first it was my immediate backyard, this acre and its setting. But now I've grown attached to a larger backyard, and I'm taking all of Jefferson County, and more, as my home territory. It takes time—one can't uproot and move every few years if one wishes to have a sense of place. And it takes paying attention—noticing and seeing your surroundings, letting them speak to you, and caring what happens there. Acting as if your place matters.
Maybe the first indication was when we'd be riding home from Longmont—the long stretch south on I-25 to the Mousetrap, then sweeping west on I-70. Once in a while, approaching Denver, I'd suddenly see the land as it must have looked to the local tribes or the first settlers from the East: Stripped of the roads and rooftops, with its rolling hills and stream courses exposed again to view; stripped too of its blanket of urban trees, but covered in prairie grasses and flowers, covered here and there even in buffalo. Then, with a wrenching shift of focus, I'd see it again as it is now, only as it perhaps looks to the descendants of the Arapahoe, those who remember it as it was. If any still do.
Yet Denver, the entire metropolitan area, has its own rightness and beauty. Even Denver has something to teach us. Denver too grew out of this land, and will return to it in time. We should remember the source of Denver's strength, and be more conscious of what we are costing the land. Perhaps we can learn to walk more gently, and to protect that other rightness and beauty that was here before us. Every place has something to teach us. The children have to learn from their childhoods, whether in the land or in the city. They will become a reflection of what's under their feet and over their heads, as we all do. Will it include open land and open sky, or will they reflect only concrete and steel beams? Can we give them live earth to sink their roots into? Can we remember, and teach them, that we live in the land, not on it—and the land lives or dies in us?
I am glad that I will never be young
without wild places to be young in.
Originally written 1988.