For the Love of Place

When I visited the Oregon state capital for the first time I picked the pink heart for my souvenir patch. This was not in character for me, even at age six. I thought pink, and hearts, and especially pink hearts were for babies. But I could not resist the pink heart-shaped patch that read “Oregon is for lovers.” Statehood was granted on Valentines Day, so of course Oregon was created for people to love each other and for people who love where they are. It was an act of Congress that marked Oregon as a special place.

Ironically, Valentines Day makes me cringe. The sugar, the sap, the suffocating pink hearts at every turn are enough to make my teeth rot out of my jaw as an act of protest. Yet I feel compelled to celebrate February 14 every year. February 14 is a day to celebrate my sense of place, difficult as it may be to find space for it amidst the corporate promotion of consumer romance. At home we indulge in salmon, shellfish, greens, mushrooms and truffles, green beans, potatoes, sweet onions, cheese, cream and butter, wheat flour, filberts, cranberries, mint, beer, and wine. It is a feast of local gifts that help to define our place.

The annual Statehood Day festival is also to celebrate the local environment and climate to which we owe our delectable bounty. By February each year I am often weary of the grey skies and persistent rain. Statehood Day reminds me that it is a privilege to live where the water is clean and plentiful.

Many of the world’s health problems, as well as a number of political problems, stem from poor access to clean water. In places that have infrastructure to deliver water directly to homes, sometimes water is not always available in sufficient supply to fill the pipes, or it may not be pure enough to ingest when it does flow freely. Some communities still rely on a shared well from which residents draw water and carry it home. In the U.S. we flush clean water down the toilet. In other places people still die of cholera.

With statehood granted in 1912, Arizona shares its birthday with Oregon, making it 53 years younger as a participating jurisdiction of the United States. Arizona is also a beautiful region, defined, of course, by continuous sun and lack of rain. I love the desert heat. Saguaro leave me downright entranced. Tumbleweed makes me giggle. I can’t help but roll my eyes at the stout and spiny barrels. These treasures only grow where the weather is warm and water is sparse. Arizona is a special place.

While the environment helps to define a place, people create place. Defined by its arid features, the region now designated as Arizona has been inhabited by human communities for thousands of years. Some of those communities are still there. Their history and presence influence the regional identity, even as the overall population swells beyond what the local water resources can sustain.

Nearby Las Vegas helped me to understand place through its absence. During my first visit the Strip felt so fabricated it seemed there was nothing beneath the facade of flashing lights and casino bells. As I boarded the plane home I thought to myself, “There is no there there.” During later visits I looked much more carefully and I found a sense of place. I stayed in a neighborhood, rode the bus, and went to the school musical where I met students and parents. The Strip, undeniably, influences the sense of place in Las Vegas, but the local community makes the place its own.

Maybe Oregon is not such a special place if any place can be made special. I would not advocate that every place is worth celebrating all the time. Living in Homs right now may not feel so special under siege, though it may be appropriate to celebrate resilience. It is still home to many people who endure the war in their community.

Statehood is about acknowledging and celebrating place. It provides me space to find my place in context. It is a space to reflect on my place in this world. The dishes in the feast are symbols of bounty, water, diverse lands, human interdependence with the ecosystem, and the communities who were here before me as well as those that fuel our local economy now. The celebration is a time to be grateful for where I am right here, right now.

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