Armchair Peregrinations


Feb. 25, 1999

One of the magical experiences of being in the mountains is the possibility of coming across a small, unexpected waterfall as you drive winding dirt roads up to higher elevations. The air gets cooler, the anticipation mounts, and then you hear, suddenly, that unmistakeable sound of rushing water, a rhythmic, mesmerizing sound as some small creek or stream descends over a ledge or uneroded outcropping of rock. Some are small plumes that descend in shimmering sheets at low water levels down the face of the rock, ethereal in their beauty. Many are larger and higher and thunder to the bottom of a gorge or small eroded valley through which a stream or river flows.

I remember the first time I visited the mountains of North Carolina, actually the first mountain experience of any kind. I was entranced, excited, disbelieving. Coming from the flatlands of south Louisiana, I had only lived in South Carolina a year or so before this first opportunity to travel to Blowing Rock and Boone arrived. What an awesome sight the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains were to me as I looked ahead into the distance and tried to fathom what lay beyond and among those ancient folds in the land. Along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I saw my first major waterfall, Linville Falls, in the Linville Gorge area. What a majestic sight as the Linville River tumbled over a ledge in a powerful display of energy. I've since been back to that area and seen other waterfalls, including probably the most perfectly formed one I've ever seen, Crabtree Falls.

Years later, I was able to visit Silver Falls State Park in Oregon and drive along the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway and see many of the magnificent falls that can be viewed from just off the road, such as Multinomah Falls, at 600 feet, one of the highest in the country. There are smaller, lesser ribbons of water that seem to come out of the rock and fall straight down vertically as you make your way along this road. You have to have your window down to listen out for the sudden sound of rushing water that can easily be missed.

In Washington state, I'd take weekend day trips east from Seattle to visit favorite waterfalls along the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains. My copy of Gregory Plumb's waterfalls guidebook was well worn and marked up. It takes real effort and stamina to find many of these off-the-beaten-path waterfalls, ventures I am not as likely to pursue alone anymore as I might have years ago.

I can stop and look at a waterfall for long stretches of time. The smaller ones have a gentle rhythm that is calming to the spirit. Since the flow of the stream or creek is essentially constant for the short duration you are viewing it, the water seems to fall in gentle pulses that hit the rocks at the bottom in regular intervals. All I can say is that there are few sights in nature so singularly sublime and capable of elevating the sense of wonder than waterfalls.

Oregon Waterfalls
Waterfalls of South Carolina
Whitewater and waterfalls of North Carolina
Waterfalls of the Pacific Northwest

Feb. 21, 1999

Sense of Place

Think of the consummate folly of attempting to go away from here! When the constant endeavor should be to get nearer and nearer here....How many things can you go away from?...Take the shortest way round and stay at home...Here, of course, is all that you love, all that you expect, all that you are...Foolish people imagine that what they imagine is somewhere else.

fromThe Journals of Henry David Thoreau

This quote from Thoreau comes from a remarkable little book that I bought a few years ago titled Feels Like Home: Fond Remembrances in Words and Pictures.It is filled with photographs from early in this century of old houses with picket fences, rooms and people in rooms, front porches, interiors, kitchens, bedrooms, abandoned houses, new subdivisions, and portraits of people in the context of their homes or the towns where they live. It contains wonderful quotations about the meaning of "home" itself, both from the perspective of one's physical abode or dwelling, and, in the larger context of home in the sense of "place," that "geography of the heart" that we have searched for throughout our lives in these harried, final decades of the 20th century. Our more recent ancestors, living in quieter and more contemplative times at the turn of the century, lived, it seems, in more permanent houses, homes that were "homesteads" in the truest sense of the word, where familes dwelled for generations in one place before our culture came to define itself as transient and mobile, and hence we ourselves this way. Many of us, of course, had no other choice. Speaking for myself, I was young and restless, but still looking for a place where I could settle down. I didn't choose to live in a couple of dozen apartments and towns and cities over the years. Circumstance, failures and longing made me a wanderer, unhappy a lot, but at least I was always "moving on." There would always be some golden Arcadia to reach some day.

Looking through this book, seeing pictures of whole families gathered together for a portrait with friends and relatives on large front porches, reminds me of how much we have lost of this once cherished rootedness to place.

Part of this, as Melinda Jackson observes, is due to our separation from nature, from the loss of woodland and bird and wildlife habitat through the careless and ceaseless filling in of wetlands and paving over of farmland.

Secondly, Jackson notes, we have lost our sense of community and trust forged on good relationships with neighbors. "We act like we don't need one another anymore," she writes. "Remember stories from our parents and grandparents about barn raisings, neighborhood picnics, quilting bees, sharing a ride, babysitting clubs, social nights at the community center."

Thirdly, Jackson says, we must seize the initiative to create vital communities where we can converse, coalesce and create new places in the realm of cyberspace, joining online communities and seeking other kindred spirits who are "infused with human creativity and caring and community." We need to seize on these kinds of interactions rather than faceless, anonymous escapism in front of a computer terminal.

I think it is important to realize that no matter where we are, or how far we are from our imagined "homes", we carry with us a powerful "sense of place" that has been nurtured throughout the years from our earliest childhood experiences with neighbors and friends, and from memories of our first homes where we held onto that initial, fleeting sense of security in a world grown far too vast and strange for us to comprehend. As William R. Ferris, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1996, said in a speech:

Each of you carries within yourself a postage stamp of native soil, a sense of place that defines you. It is the memory of this place that nurtures you with identity and special stength, that provides what the Bible terms the peace that passeth understanding.And it is to this place that each of us goes to find the clearest, deepest identity of ourselves.

A Sense of Place
Place in Nature, Community and Digital Space

Feb. 18, 1999

Someone once described my writings here as "a Journal of Place", and I couldn't have been more pleased with the description. It perfectly captures what the journal is all about -- an evocation, description and account of the place I call home -- Charleston, South Carolina. This city is, for me, a deeply rooted geographical place on the map, but more importantly, a place that has its own "geography of the spirit" for me. By that I mean this is the city and the mental environment I now choose to call my permanent home. It is the place I've longed to find after years of wandering, travel, job changes and uncertainty.

This seaport town, with its spectacular harbor and waterfront, its proximity to marshes, tidal creeks and beaches, has beckoned me for many decades. It is where my maternal grandfather's parents lived. Nearby Folly Beach is the place of my childhood vacation dreams, the beach town we'd return to year after year, particularly after my aunt purchased a house at the far end of the beach. It is a place whose history I've absorbed since I've lived here full-time for the past four years.

I recently wrote to someone about this whole concept of "home." I called "home" the place where the terrain has become so familiar that you cannot imagine being anywhere else. "The streets, the traffic, the traffic signals, the fast food restaurants, other favorite places to eat, the stores, the landmarks, the trees and vegetation you see everyday -- the very skies and clouds -- seem to belong to that place." This is a very important idea, and it has its good and bad aspects. For one thing, sameness of surroundings can often instill a certain degree of ennui or lassitude in one's thinking and outlook, and an acceptance of routines without much effort to break out of them. This in turn inspires the search for newness and novelty, which often leads to dissatisfaction or frustration that things perhaps can't change too much. Or, it fuels the urge to escape on vacations to fresh environments and scenes where the countryside and each little town and city seems exotic for a time. On the other hand, intense familiarly with a place that comes from constantly seeing its streets and roads and neighborhoods and, in the case of historic Charleston, its old homes, gardens, courtyards, windowsill flowerbeds, narrow streets, harborfront, waterfront park, church steeples, and cobbletone streets -- all this makes for a sense of belonging to a place, and a feeling of comfort with its rhythms, folkways, politics, newspaper, streetlife, culture and history. This is something that grows with the passage of time. I can understand why longtime residents, those families that have been here for generations, have such a high degree of pride, even clannishness.

I can also look back to another place, New Orleans, the city of my birth, and despite my distaste for much about it, I can always return there in my memories or actually visit a physical street in suburban Jefferson Parish, Lauricella Avenue, and know that some of the most intense memories of my childhood, from age 5-10, reside in that neighborhood. I remember minute details of the sidewalks, landscaping, neighbors' apartments, backyards, trees, cars, porches, the drug store up the street where we'd go for cherry Cokes, and the dime store we'd visit on Saturday mornings to spend allowance money. The same is true for the place where I lived for the remainder of my childhood -- Berkley Drive in the Algiers section of New Orleans. I've written in this journal more often about that neighborhood than Lauricella Avenue, but they both have equal place in recollections of my earliest "home."

Home is "where the heart is", yes, but it is also where you claim it to be here and now, and where it has existed all along in the past.

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