“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been’.”
John Greenleaf Whittier was on to something; however, there’s room for quibbling with the 19th century New England poet. Sadder words might be “displaced,” “ejected,” or “a man without a country.” I’m also adding “homeless.”
Whether palatial or sparing, everybody needs a place, a spot in the sun, or one’s own version of a house on the hill. Writer Robert Ardrey, refuting Freud’s obsession with the centrality of sexuality, called it territorial imperative. Our desire to have our own little acre is an absolute drive, says Ardrey.
Our sense of place and our understanding of its importance in shaping our lives have diminished. they have also morphed. One could argue that our houses, places that used to be welcoming, have become unwelcoming enclaves in which we hide from the world. In large measure, our social attitude has moved from “Y’all come in” to “Get off my lawn.” We see less of and know less about our cul-de-sac neighbors now than we did when neighbors lived half a mile down the road. We are a fractured nation.
It’s said that Southerners possess a deeper sense of place than Americans of any other region, but this claim is doubtful. How many little houses on the prairie were there? Did the mid-westerners who struggled to build them not develop affection for their humble abodes as well? When America’s bravest generation descended from their covered wagons to populate the American West, did they not build homes and develop a spirit and an outlook that was different from but as strong as their countrymen in the South?
Wide open spaces shape us by giving us a rugged independence and an appreciation of the stars. Bustling cities affect us in a different way, fostering — irony of ironies — disconnectedness, and perhaps impatience. Anyone driven in Chicago lately?
Place most certainly contributes to our philosophy of life, our interests, and our attitudes. From these realities emerge regionalism and different ways of thinking. Just as Georgia has its coastal plains, Appalachian plateau, etc., the region where my father grew up in another state was called the Piney Woods. (You think Georgia has a pollen problem?) Piney Woodsmen and the River Rats in the counties south of them didn’t always think alike, yet humor and good will prevailed between them.
Whatever the motivations of its initiators may have been, is it not possible that a sense of place, a desire for localism, will prompt many citizens to support a city of East Cobb? One of the aspects of the populism sweeping America and Europe today is a desire for local control: my house, my acre, my community, my local magistrates. The emerging, exercised New Socialists, particularly the Democratic candidates for president, don’t hold such a spirit. They are statists, lovers of centralism and regulation. Their numbers are in fact increasing, largely because of programmed university students who believe there is such a thing as a free lunch.
Sense of place is often affected by change. For some, when their city changes too much, it’s not home anymore. For others it’s exciting. Witness the facelifts of Kennesaw and Acworth. Actually, both cities are beyond a facelift. They are literally changing their total look. Don’t move up there, but do come to see us. It’s nice when two neighboring mayors can provide visionary leadership without losing their sense of place and community.
As for our nation’s fracturedness, instead of “out of many, one,” we’ve moved to “out of one, many.” Our division today is not geographical, but philosophical: capitalism versus socialism, conservatism versus progressivism. Stretching diversity to the limit, we wrongly assume that all who come to America will love our place. This is not happening and it’s beginning to tell. Sense of place is so strong that many who come to America wish to re-make her like the place from which they came.
Of colonial Americans the visiting Frenchman Crevecoeur wrote in 1780, “The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems which has ever appeared. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein he or his forefathers were born.”
Red Skelton, thou shouldst be living at this hour. America hath need of thee. You too, Erma Bombeck. And Hubert Humphrey, even if your politics didn’t unite us, your perpetual happiness did. Return to us and remind us of how radiant we once were and can still be.