Way, way back in the Summer of 1979, I was adventuring through Anchorage, Alaska after living for many moons in a tiny Athabaskan village 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It was early in the morning and the city was just waking up. I was trying to catch a ride to the Kenai Peninsula. The weird thing was that from the street corner where I had my thumb out, all I could see in any direction were the familiar trappings of “Any-City U.S.A.”. There were street lights and billboard signs, gas stations, a 7-11, a strip mall, and store fronts as far as the eye could see.
It was bizarre! Ten miles away in any direction was the Alaskan wilderness, with Grizzlies, Caribou, Moose, mountains, roaring rivers, huge forests, giant ferns, salmon berry bushes… and here I was on a street corner devoid of any local character or distinction. The commercial culture of the USA had spread like an epidemic. That was in 1979!
Nowadays we could be in St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Charleston, Miami or New Jersey and feel right at home surrounded by the comforting familiarity of the Big Box culture. It is everywhere the same.
Now… this article is not a critique of the economic model and mentality that drives the Big Box phenomenon. That is another story. This article is about making a space for difference, variety, uniqueness and distinction in defiance to the mono-cultural stamp.
It is simple really. Wherever you live and teach, find examples of what makes that place unique. Here’s a 3-step workshop to get the wheels turning:
First, look to the natural worlds – the land, the climate, the animal life, the trees and plants – native and imported. What are they like? Use simple descriptive comparisons like – soft, hard, prickly, brittle, warming, cooling, supportive, desolate, maternal, wet, dry, drab, dull, bright, colorful, inviting, repelling, strengthening, invigorating, stimulating… What colors are prominent? What type of birds are attracted to it? What is the quality of the light there? Just observe and take note. Don’t define or decide anything yet.
Second, look to the human expression and translation that seems uniquely typical of that place. What celebrations, dances, music, colors, theater, architecture, names originate or simply thrive there?
How does the land affect the way people speak there? What is the local accent? Are there traditional dances, songs and music that are native to the place?
Again, just take note of as much of this as you can. Better yet, workshop this with your friends, students and family!
Step Three. Having collected many examples, how would you describe the nature and character of the place where you live? What does it cause in the people who live there – native and imported? Put it to words, to poetry and verse. Put it to music or movement. Paint it, draw it. Find expression for it. You may be surprised at what happens!
For example, we live in Northern New Mexico, which is called the Land of Enchantment, it is a magical combination of high desert, river and alpine ecologies, has a ancient red sun symbol on a yellow field for the state flag; is home to a dynamic mix of cultural origins, a thriving arts community, unique cuisine and a huge variety of ceremonial and celebratory holy days…
So we put it to song and dance – called The Seasons of New Mexico which has now been performed and celebrated in many of the Santa Fe public elementary schools.
What expression do you want to give the place you live that defies the Big Box mono-cultural, mono-chromatic monotony?
It is a way of giving back, paying tribute to that part of the Earth which supports you and your community. You may be pleasantly surprised at the response you get in return.