Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Sense of Place; California

I began this blog several years ago in order to share my meditations on the places where I have spent most of my life:  the Midwest, where I grew up; the Northeast, where I was a chaplain at Dartmouth College; northern California, where I did my Ph.D. at Berkeley; and Washington, DC, about which I wrote a doctoral dissertation and where I have taught and lived, off and on, for the past dozen years or so.  During many of those years, I have also spent considerable time living in northern California; visiting the northeast, especially Cambridge; and the Chicago area, including the University of Notre Dame, where my Dad graduated in 1935 and where I was a visiting scholar in the summer of 1997.

I continue to write about these places because I love them.  There is something about each that continues to draw me.  I spent time at college in Iowa and graduated from seminary in New York City, but I was quite miserable at both places and I have not been back.  I also lived for a year during my college years in Canterbury, England and Tubingen, Germany.  Perhaps I will write about them some day. 

I began to add my occasional sermons to this blog, not because they deal explicitly with a sense of place, but because I had no other place to put them.  Sermons do, of course, take place in a particular place, namely the church of Such and Such in Somewhere, USA.  And sermons generally attempt to relate something written in a far away place, namely the Mediterranean basin, a long time ago, to some place today, in this case, a church in the Washington, DC area or northern California.

Now I am reviving the blog to supplement the web page that promotes my tours of Washington.  If you arrived here from there and want to read the posts that deal with Washington, DC, go back to the beginning.  If you enjoy reading what I write about Washington, consider joining me for a walking tour.  Starting some time in May.

Meanwhile, I have spent the winter and now early spring in St. Helena and Santa Rosa, California; Napa and Sonoma counties respectively.  I have grown to love these places.  What’s not to love?  The climate, landscape, food and wine are among the best in the world.  If one tires of so much pleasantness, so many good sights, sounds and tastes, the city of San Francisco and East Bay cities are about an hour away to provide yet more.

I drove down to Berkeley on Saturday morning, March 15, one of those warm spring mornings when the miracle of life induces gratitude even in the most snarky and philosophy in the most obtuse. 

In a normal winter, the rains begin here in November and continue until May.  The rains can come in drenching three-day storms and periods when the skies cloud up for days and it rains off and on.  But many a winter is far from normal.  I remember one when it rained for the entire month of January, then stopped.  One year it rained almost constantly for sixty days.  Another year it did not rain until mid-March.  Spring that year was painful to watch as the plants put forth their shoots above a dusty brown earth.  This year promised to be like that.  The vineyards were a brown desert until mid-February.  But we have now had two major storms and a minor one, yielding anywhere from ten to twenty inches of rain. 

This past week a warm sun came out and the biosphere burst into bloom: yellow mustard topping a carpet of green; wildflowers, flowering trees, buds and shoots of a thousand shades of green.  The landscape all the way down Highway 101 this St. Patrick’s Day Weekend was as green as any part of the Emerald Isle itself.  Arriving early at my destination, I walked around the neighborhood north of the university and west of Shattuck Avenue to gaze rapturously at varieties and colors of flowers beyond my ability to name and smell the hedges of fragrant rosemary in purple blossom. 

After appreciating various shingle-style and craftsman houses, I found myself, as I often do, in front of the small apartment building that replaced the old house that Allen Ginsberg lived in and Jack Kerouac often visited in the 1950s.  There is another small apartment building next door and next to that a house surrounded by a chain-link fence, being prepared either for demolition or radical reconstruction.  Across the street, on the grounds of the Berkeley Arts Magnet School, the poetry garden dedicated to Ginsberg and the other beat poets is likewise under reconstruction.  I wonder what the neighborhood arts committee has in mind.  The sign is still there:

“This garden honors Berkeley’s many innovative poets, poetry presses and their legacy.  It was dedicated in 1999 on the second anniversary of “Beat” poet Allen Ginsberg’s death.  Through their writings, the nonconformist poets sought liberation from traditional social, political, artistic and personal conventions.  Ginsberg lived across the street in a now-demolished house at 1624 Milvia Street while writing, among other poems, parts of his once-banned work Howl!.  Poet Gary Snyder also stayed there.  “Beat Generation” writer Jack Kerouac lived for a while in a rose-covered cottage on Berkeley Way and poet Robert Duncan also lived in this neighborhood during the 1950s.”

Then I walked past yet more radiant living glory to 1924 Cedar Street, where I entered a small Unitarian church to enjoy that day’s 6-hour SoulMotion workshop. 

Early anthropologists, geographers and travel writers, in conveying a sense of place, did their best to convey everything that people did, especially as it differed dramatically from the people who would read their work back in Europe.  They noted the interaction of people and place.  How do people relate to their place, make it theirs, part of their identity?  What stories do they tell, what music do they play, how do they move to music?  How has this environment affected the way they move, the way they work, the food they eat and how they prepare it?

I wonder what anthropologists years in the future will make of the “conscious dance” movement that now flourishes in North America, Europe and, I would guess, everywhere else. 

I walk in to wooden-floored space to find about fifty people moving to music.  For the better part of six hours, that is all we do.  We pause briefly for lunch.  Occasionally the leader, in this case Valerie Chafograck, now of the Bay Area but born in Paris, gives us something to do:  move with a partner, move with a group of three or four; do a solo.  You can call this dance, but it is far from the world of waltzes and tango.  There are no specific steps, no set figures. 

My first experience of this world of movement was a “Barefoot Boogie” in Cambridge some thirty years ago.  Since then a couple of teachers have attracted quite a following.  I now spend every Christmas at Esalen in a SoulMotion workshop:  six hours of dance every day for seven days.  After a couple of days of spinning, swaying, twisting, tilting, and turning accompanied by good food and soaks in the famous mineral baths, the muscles become like rubber bands and a big, irrepressible smile forms on the face.  Perhaps some ancient peoples lived rather like this, not immersed in books, computers and television screens, but moving to music for hours a day, while planting, reaping and hunting as needed.

I’d like to think so.