When in Rome … We can all finish that statement. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. I have never been to Rome, so I can not personally verify the claim.
But it makes a good bit of sense in one way. We are products of where we find ourselves. Our location goes a long way in determining our occupation and our vocation. In real estate circles the saying is that three things matter: location, location, location. Yes, it does.
I was born in Cheverly, Maryland. But my family moved to Tennessee when I was a young boy. I went from suburban sprawl to a house on the mountain in fairly short order. I was not shaped much by Maryland. I never developed a love for oysters that my older siblings had. I did not know what it was like to have all manner of stores and entertainments readily at hand. I did not experience life in the ‘little boxes’ made famous by the song in the 60s.
I was shaped by mountains—the southern Appalachians, to be specific. I grew up wandering the woods as one of my main forms of amusement. I could go get lost in the woods for hours at a time. I hiked and camped and swam in cold mountain streams. I would sleep out on the balcony outside my bedroom to enjoy the night air and watch the stars. We heated with wood and cutting and splitting firewood were a regular part of life.
It was a different place than Maryland. It was different than lots of other places, in fact. It was not the big city; it was not even a small city. It was a sleepy tourist town that filled to overflowing during the season and became almost a ghost town when the season was over. It was very much tied to its mountain roots in terms of music and stories and culture. It was growing into something much larger and more commercial, but in the days of my youth it was a quieter place that was fairly quaint—surrounded by natural beauty, and isolated from much of the broader culture of the day.
Perhaps it was growing up here that has imprinted me with an acute sense of ‘place.’ Wherever I go I look for the distinctives that make one place different from another. Not all mountains are the same; not all villages share the same stories; not all economies produce benefits for all; every place is unique in some way.
When this piece is posted I will be on my way to Alaska. It, too, is a place that has shaped me in some ways. I only spent about 10 days there last year, but the rugged beauty and wild spaces made an impression. I had never been to a place where eagles were as plentiful as crows in the mountains where I was raised. I had never been to a place where the mountains come straight up from the shore. I had never been to a place where one could sense the forests that go on forever. Alaska is a wild place that reminds me that I am very small in the scheme of things. That is a reminder that we all need on occasion.
There are also things about Alaska that remind me of Appalachia. There amidst the riches of natural beauty there is also poverty. Extractive enterprises produce money, but not always for those who live there and work to make the products. There is a balance to be struck between enjoying the place and employing the place to make ends meet. There are a few too many cars and houses that could use some paint and repair. There are signs of industries that once thrived but have since been abandoned. There are signs that the harshness of this place has left some marks on those who live there.
But, also like Appalachia, there are people here who would not live anywhere else. It is ‘home.’ The beauty of the place has made its impact on its people. To remove them from the ridges and forests and shores and waters that they know so well would be to cut them off from a form of lifeline that sustains their souls. To put them where they could not fish and hunt and enjoy the seasons would do them emotional and mental damage. To take them out of their communities that share this land would be an extreme exile.
We are creating a world in which ‘place’ is being lost. Food in the Midwest is the same as the West Coast. Television has pervaded homes in every region. Our culture is getting homogenized at a rapid rate. I am mindful that there are special places in the world—like Appalachia and Alaska—where some of their unique nature is still to be found and appreciated. One’s character is formed in a particular context; we are persons who have been produced by the places of our lives. Where you are makes a great impact on who you are.