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A lingering sense of place

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 8, 2002


SAN ANGELO, Texas -- As a Floridian and a person of the South, I have a keen sense of place and an understanding of the concept of a sense of place.

Even though, as child, I traveled up and down the East Coast of America each year to harvest crops, I came to understand the difference between dwelling in a place and living in a place. My family and I dwelled in the Carolinas, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York.

But we lived in Florida.

Although I was born in Fort Lauderdale and spent some of my earliest years there, it never was my home -- the place I did not want to leave, the place that pulled me back when I was away, the place I dreamed about and spoke of with reverence. Fort Lauderdale never became that.

If any place is my home, it is Crescent City, Florida, a town of less than 3,000 in southern Putnam County, between Palatka and Deland.

Your home tells you where you are and who you are.

Bioregionalist Wendell Berry said that if we do not know where we are, we do not know who we are. Our identity, he said, is defined to a large degree by our sense of place, our sense of home, by the natural traits of the environment and by the unseen rhythms that make mere breathing comfortable and life itself familiar.

That said, I now turn to the shared sense of place I am witnessing here among West Texans.

One of my students, a Waco native in her early 20s, reminded me of what loving a place means. In a worshipful tone, she said that no other sunrise is as beautiful as a Texas sunrise, that no other sunset compares to a Texas sunset. I could not argue with her. She was right because Texas is her reality, her world.

She went on to describe how before first light, she and her family "work cattle" on their ranch.

"There's nothing like working cattle before the rest of the world is up," she said. "The air is cool. It's just you and the cattle. It gives me a sense of peace. It's real Texas."

I have never worked cattle in the early moring or any other time of day. But I have ridden, fed and groomed my Appaloosa before sunrise. I, too, remember the cool air, the quietude, the peacefulness.

"I might sound like a hick or something," she said, "but I don't ever want to leave West Texas. No other place could be better. We take care of our land because we love it."

This young woman instinctively understands what Wendell Berry, the scientist, has known for decades: People who become intimate with a place become stewards of that place, accepting responsibility for that place. Berry said that stewards consciously try to satisfy their needs and find pleasures in their place of choice, and, as a result, they work to assure the long-term health and continuity of that place.

My student is not alone in her love of West Texas. San Angeloans have a particular sense of place. Here, I share the words of author Elmer Kelton, a San Angelo resident:

"The first time I saw San Angelo I thought it would be a great place to live. That was in the 1930s, and I came with a Boy Scout troop to camp on the banks of the Concho River. The towering pecan trees that cast their heavy shade across the Bermuda grass banks down upon the clear blue water were marvelous to a youngster used to West Texas sandhills and mesquite. . . . Many visitors have described (San Angelo) to me as an oasis of water and green trees, exactly the feeling I had when I first saw it."

I have been here for a short time, but my walks along the town's earthen dam have given me a sense of the city's physical beauty and its total isolation from big cities. Many times I have seen the sunrise on one side of the dam and the moon fading in morning light on the other. Wildlife -- deer, turkeys, birds -- is all around.

In the far distance, mesas, buttes and other towering formations frame the region in familiarity.

I may never see this part of Texas again, but when I leave it in a few weeks, I will leave with a keen sense of place. I will remember its vastness and its inspiring vistas. This place will stay with me.

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