The power of place

My people have always moved.  Place has never been as important as opportunity.  Hence, my maternal grandparents crossed the Atlantic in 1929 to escape the economic collapse that had already occurred in England (only to encounter it a few months later in America when the stock market crashed).  My grandmother was an old hand at immigration by then.  She previously had left Ireland for England, where she met her (gasp) English husband.  A century before, much of my father’s family had arrived in the farmlands of Pennsylvania from Germany, undoubtedly also seeking opportunity.

So I didn’t always get it when people talked about a place being home.  Home is a house where you and your family live.  It could be anywhere.  Its geography wasn’t really the point.  No doubt my upbringing in a (let’s face it) soulless suburban subdivision far from any vibrant urban center or (conversely) beautiful natural setting shaped my mindset.  My parents moved there because that’s where my father’s job was.  Period.  My environmental tendencies came not from a love of the land immediately around me, but an awareness of a larger, amazing world out there beyond the front yard.

Marsh Fork Elementary School at base of coal sludge dam

It’s different in West Virginia where I now live.  I was reminded of this the other day when I spoke with Bo Webb, a resident of the Coal River Valley in southern West Virginia where his family has lived for six generations. I was talking with Bo about being a speaker at the American Conservation Film Festival on November 3, when we’ll be screening the documentary film The Last Mountain  about mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia.   My request wasn’t anything new to him – Bo has become a vocal environmental activist in his retirement. But this wasn’t exactly what he planned on when he moved back to his home state in 2001.  According to Bo’s bio, he served as a Marine in Vietnam and ran a machine shop in Cleveland for 20 years before moving back to West Virginia to reconnect with the mountains of his childhood and live close to the land. (I particularly enjoyed reading about all the food he collects locally:  molly moochers, ramps, wild berries, and ginseng along with turkey, deer and fish.  No, I didn’t know what molly moochers were either).   When mountaintop removal threatened that land (and a nearby elementary school), Bo mobilized, meeting with government officials, working with environmental groups, and helping secure funds for a new elementary school.

Bo and others in West Virginia fighting to preserve the mountains aren’t necessarily unique.  A sense of place has always been an important driver for conservation.  But some of us who benefited from the mobility of the 20th century lost that connection along the way.  Perhaps in the 21st century, when opportunity requires only a broadband connection rather than an ocean voyage, and the geographic coordinates of a (virtual) job no longer matter, the power of place will reignite as a driving force in people’s lives and in conservation.  Critics might fear NIMBYism.  Supporters might hail community.  I tend to focus on renewal:  the rediscovery of something that’s been temporarily misplaced, but never completely gone.

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