Place Blindness: Searching for Authenticity and Identity
You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.
y wife, Kathy, was raised in San Diego. I moved here from Kansas in 1971, just out of college. She had spent little time exploring the natural habitats of this region, and I viewed it as a resort city, beautiful in its way, but I missed the green woods and plains of the Midwest. So when I looked for nature here, I saw less than met the eye.
For years, we were restless. We bored our friends with all our talk of moving, of finding our one true place. We even bored ourselves. One day Kathy said, “Our tombstones are going to say, ‘We’re moving.’”
Today, I feel differently. I may never bond to this region as I did to the woods behind my boyhood home, and who knows, we may yet move. But I no longer have quite the same reaction when people ask me where I am from.
In the past, I might have said Kansas or Missouri. But now I say that California is my home. Given a chance, I will tell them about the richness of my region, and the strangeness and beauty born from its biodiversity. I will tell them of our nascent sense of natural purpose.
What if San Diego fully exploited – in the best sense of that word – our natural history? What if our museums, the zoo, the universities, media, business and government were to perceive, preserve and market our region in a new way?
We are more than beaches, zoo or sunshine. Yes, our county is one of the most densely human-populated places in the United States, but it also is rich with species, the most biodiverse county in the lower 48 states.
Here is a land of microclimates, of ring-tailed cats and mountain lions, condors, whales, sea turtles, great white sharks, waterspouts and firestorms. Anza-Borrego and Pacific; Cuyamaca, Laguna, Palomar. Our mountains hold canyons so deep and yawning that when we camp in them in midsummer, we can awake in the morning shivering in frost. In hidden streams, a diminutive Adam or Eve may still swim, the genetic remnants of the founder rainbow trout that migrated north thousands of years ago to populate, with human help, so much of the world. In Northern Baja, also part of this region, isolated sky islands jut above the clouds; there, life remains “a relic of the Pleistocene,” as one biologist describes it, “Ethereal … primeval.”
I had no clue how otherworldly my adopted corner of the world was, until, as a journalist, I made it my job to dig deeper. Until then, I had place blindness. Perhaps I was afraid to attach because of the pace of human change.
But today, development has slowed, and we have a chance to fully realize our home as one of the unique bioregions in the world. When I describe my home now, I point to local efforts to create natural corridors for animal migration, protect endangered species, produce more local food, and green our schools and neighborhoods. I tell about our river conservancies and Mission Trails Park and San Diego Canyonlands, a farsighted group working to dedicate 10,000 acres of our unique topology of urban canyons as a Regional Canyonlands Park. I describe the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative, one of America’s leading campaigns to connect children to nature. I point to our expanding network of family nature clubs.
And Kathy and I work to reduce our own nature-deficit disorder.
In an increasingly fabricated culture, we yearn for authenticity. The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we will need. So the value of nature will, or should, grow. If we honor this hunger and this place, our sense of regional and individual identity will be shaped as much by natural history as it is by human history.
Perhaps we should give our border-spanning bioregion a unifying name, something romantic and mysterious, a name that would draw visitors from all over the world, help our economy and increase the odds that future generations will protect this natural wealth. Perhaps an ancient Kumeyaay word. Or, call it Cuyabaja? Possibly Pandora? By any name, this would be our found world, our purposeful place.
This piece originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune, and was adapted from a chapter in The Nature Principle.
Richard Louv is the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network.