This Place on Earth
Air Date: Week of December 6, 1996
Steve Curwood speaks with Alan Durning, author of This Place On Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence. Durning talks about his realized desire to have a place to call home, and the importance of a home in caring for the land, and a landscape.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Think globally and act locally; it's practically a mantra in environmental circles. You see the slogan on buttons, bumper stickers, and T-shirts. But to think really locally, you have to identify with a particular locale. You have to have a sense that you belong somewhere, that you are part of one distinct set of surroundings. In short, you have to have a home. But home is an increasingly transient idea to most of us. Where is your home? I mean more than just your house or apartment; where is your community? Is it where you were born? Where you grew up? Where you live now? Alan Durning is a writer and a regular commentator on Living on Earth. In his new book, This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence, he explores his own community, Seattle, and the surrounding bio-region. He's rediscovering the land and the people after years away from it. Alan, at the beginning of this book, you wrote that as a child you always wanted to be a traveler, but then something happened to you that made you change your mind.
DURNING: Yeah, you know, I spent most of a decade traveling the world for the World Watch Institute as a senior researcher writing about environmental and social problems all over the place. And then I was in the Philippines interviewing members of remote hill tribes about their land and livelihood, the struggles that they are engaged in to defend their homelands against loggers and miners and other resource developers. And towards the end of a sweltering hot day in the homeland of the Banwalen people in the far south of the country, I was sitting under this tree with this old woman who was revered by the others as a sort of traditional priestess. All of a sudden she turned the tables on me, and she asked me a question. She said, "Tell me about your place." And I didn't know what to say. Well, I mean, I had an apartment at that time on the edge of Washington, DC. But it wasn't really my place. I mean, it was an address, but it was more of a base camp than anything else. And in the end, I just sort of admitted to her, I said, "In America we have careers, not places." And the look of pity that she gave me burned me so deeply that ultimately it drove me away from Washington, DC, and led me to quit my job and come back to the place where I was born and grew up to try to re-establish connections to my place.
CURWOOD: What was it that going home -- and Seattle is the place that you call home -- what was it, what did this mean to you emotionally? And what were you looking for?
DURNING: I was looking for a sense of physical and emotional peace, I guess. And I got it, and I got back into Seattle, and I just felt my body sort of relaxing almost. Like I had traveled enough and it was time to put down some roots.
CURWOOD: Being home means what to you, do you think?
DURNING: It means being in a place that you know personally, both through a lifetime of experiences, memories, stories, associations. Also that you consciously know a whole lot about the place, about its history, about its ecology, about the different species that you share that habitat with. It means knowing neighbors and friends all around the region. It means being settled. It's a question that folks outside of North America wouldn't have to ask, but in North America we're such a mobile population that this concept of homeland is kind of foreign to us.
CURWOOD: And yeah, you may be an extreme example, but we do seem to be in love with going places in the United States. Why do you think we move so much?
DURNING: I think partly it's because of our history. We're still driven by a kind of frontier mentality that's outlived the frontier by 100 years. There was always the idea that you could, you were so much of a discrete individual that you could go somewhere else and reinvent yourself. Americans move on average every 6 years to another county or province. And that rate of mobility has been high through most of our history, though interestingly, in the last 10 years, it's begun to decline. I'm not saying that people should just completely stay put, you know? Some amount of moving around is probably good, and a bit of travel to widen our life experience is good as well. But I think we ought to ask ourselves the question, I think it ought to be an issue.
CURWOOD: You say that the willingness or the propensity to move is going down slightly. Why do you suppose that is?
DURNING: People are recognizing that in the rush for personal advancement and for material affluence we've sacrificed some important things, and we've sacrificed most notably the connections to each other. That is, there's a searching for community. I think maybe that the decline in mobility is in some ways a reflection of that quest for community, rather than simply more consumer goods.
CURWOOD: I mean, mobility is pretty expensive, isn't it? I mean, of course there are obvious expenses in terms of roads, highways, picking up, packing up, moving on, spending for all of that. But there are some hidden costs of mobility as well, right?
DURNING: Big hidden cost is that we have neighborhoods full of people who don't know each other, who don't have any shared experience, who know very little about the landscape they inhabit. And therefore don't have the emotional stake to protect those landscapes. To me, when I see the advancing sprawl on the peripheries of my home town of Seattle, it comes as a personal insult because those are places that I grew up playing in. It was countryside. It was farms that I went to and valleys and salmon streams, and now it's turning into subdivisions. The folks who are moving into those subdivisions overall have no idea what it used to be. If there is an escape hatch for our increasingly global consumer society, which is on all sides degrading its natural environment, the reattachment to home, to places, may be that escape hatch. It might be the way that we can tap into a set of emotions and passions that are more powerful than the short-sightedness and greed that propel us toward the brink.
CURWOOD: What do we lose in terms of relationships with each other when we move so much?
DURNING: Americans have spent, in the last 20 years, we're spending less and less time in conversation with neighbors. That's maybe one of the most interesting bits of statistical evidence that I've ever happened upon.
CURWOOD: Really? Less time talking to neighbors?
DURNING: Less time talking to neighbors. Less time in idle sidewalk chat. We're spending more time watching television and driving and shopping and working. Less time in conversation.
DURNING: I think we are losing some of the skills of neighborliness.
CURWOOD: So how did you get connected to your neighbors?
DURNING: What happened was, my eldest son got interested in basketball, and so one Saturday we went out and bought a used basketball hoop and put it up on our driveway. To do it I had to get some tools I didn't have. I needed a ladder, for example, and that sent me up and down the street knocking on some doors, even to some houses that I'd been kind of leery of visiting, because I didn't know whether I could trust the folks inside. But it gave me the excuse to meet all those folks, and as it turned out they were enthusiastic that I was going to do something, put up a basketball hoop, that would be a place for their kids to play. After it was up, it created a gathering place, a natural center for community building on our street. I call it a loom of community in the book, because the kids would be playing and adults would wander by and watch, make conversation. Watching the game was a natural thing to converse about, because the folks on my street don't share too many things. We come from all different races and economic and ethnic backgrounds, but basketball is a common ground.
CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you for taking this much time with us. Alan Durning lives with his family in Seattle. He's founder and executive director of Northwest Environment Watch, and a regular commentator on Living on Earth. His latest book is called This Place on Earth: Home and the Practice of Permanence. Thanks, Alan.
DURNING: Thank you, Steve.
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