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What’s Left of Place?

Recently I was visiting my family in my home state of Florida.  My mother was giving me, my sister and my partner a tour of the town she grew up in, a place called Lake Worth along the coast of southern Florida.  Originally home to the Jaega people, Lake Worth was named after a United States military commander who was victorious in expunging natives from their land during the Seminole Wars. Since it became a city, Lake Worth has attracted ever-growing numbers of people looking for beachfront property and tropical weather. It is now part of the most highly urbanized area in Florida and the intensity of development has only increased since its inception as a city.  Lake Worth was once an immaculate landscape of hardwood hammock, mangrove swamp, cypress, and sandhill crane, but today those native species only exist as remnant patches of an endangered place.

My mother only has the opportunity to return to her hometown once every few years, but I hardly have the opportunity to come with her. I was excited as we headed in the direction of the home she grew up in, the place she was born and lived through junior college. When I was small she would tell me stories from her childhood and as I lay in bed listening to her words, I’d imagine the places she grew up.  Her stories featured the narrow paths through dense cypress and pine forest that once butted up against her backyard, the grassy hills she used to roll down, and the tall Ficus trees she would climb in to hide from my grandmother when she was in trouble.  My mother’s childhood world was secret hideaways and magical trails into forbidden forests, alligators, lakes and sandy toes, and it was the perfect place to grow up.

As we headed to see my mother’s childhood home we drove along the shoreline.  It was hot, even for Florida, and we noticed how the hungry ocean consumed the coast, leaving a narrow sandy strip where there had once been a wide beach.  In my mother’s lifetime, Lake Worth beach had lost much of its surface area, and now only a few feet of sand are exposed during low tide.

Much of what is left of the beach now is inaccessible behind private homes and resorts.  Although the law requires that all Florida beaches are public, there are only a handful of public accesses along the sprawling coastline, leaving a so-called public beach trapped behind endless fences and impenetrable private structures.  As we drove my mother pointed the accesses out, as if reassuring us that there are still ways to touch the sands of her childhood. I couldn’t help but wonder how a beach you can’t access can be considered public, and so I said my silent goodbyes to the shrinking place.

We finally arrived at a bland looking single story home in a forgotten neighborhood and my mom stopped the car.  This was the home of her childhood and the setting of her stories. The neighborhood is now located right off a major highway, but inside it is quiet and motionless.  The houses are typical Florida style homes, single story and salt-eaten, with blockish yards and sunrooms. There are no longer any towering trees in the front yard, but instead a crabgrass lawn and small, forlorn looking shrubbery.  The fenced off backyard no longer butts up against a forest, but instead gives way to several warehouse buildings belonging to a new business that moved in.

In fact, the forest is now completely gone. There is no longer a system of children’s paths from the backyard fence to the quiet beach nearby. There are no itchy children rolling down the grassy hills throughout the neighborhood or taking their bikes to the nearby lake.  There are no more Ficus trees to hide in.

Since my mother left, the town became a city. When the massive I-95 highway was built it cut right through Lake Worth, opening the floodgates for more people, more businesses and more housing developments.  With the road open for progress, there was no more room for backyard forests and although she said what a shame it was that the businesses and roads, the fences and new developments had to take the land like that, we all knew that if it weren’t there then it would be somewhere else, in someone else’s backyard wonderland.

As we sat staring at the nondescript Florida home, my mother looked at the place like a gravesite.  As the car idled car she told stories of her childhood adventures and I couldn’t help but feel that she was trying to revive what it once was, to raise the forest and bring everything back to life with her words.  We sat for many minutes like true mourners, working to resurrecting the dead with memory, and I could feel us all holding in unnamed tears.

As human beings situated within industrial civilization and consequently within the sixth and greatest mass extinction, this kind of grief is not new to us.  The grief over lost places is something most of us have experienced by virtue of growing up in a culture with a value imperative to continuously expand. The oak tree I grew up climbing is now leveled, and so is the forested area behind my own childhood house where I used to fish and play in the mud. When I returned to those places to find stumps and fenced off cement lots, I looked at them the same way my mother looked at her old home—with brokenness and a deep, unquenchable desire to call them forth from the grave.

Each of us has a place like this.  Each of us has a story about this forest, or that lake, this meadow or that trail that once was and now is no longer.  Each of us knows the grief that accompanies loss of place, and with every new day that passes another place is taken that someone once loved.

Places do more for us than simply provide us with locales in which to enact the dramas of our everyday lives.  Places welcome us into relationship, they weave our memories into their geography and they teach us how to live. For centuries before industrial civilization took hold of the planet, indigenous cultures used place as a foundation for their stories, lessons and traditions. Most of human culture was shaped around the geographical places called home, and so the mountain, the soil, the forest ecosystem and the river were all part of the fabric of human existence. The loss that we feel when we see the destruction of a place is our body remembering how we once lived and alarming us to the fact that something is very wrong.

Today, living places everywhere are transformed into inanimate structures, empty lots, and privatized plots where no one is allowed access. The land that we once shared—the commons—is disappearing faster than ever, and as a result, we are left with fewer and fewer places to go. The diverse places that used to inhabit each of our backyards are being rapidly replaced by homogenous cultural constructions, and as a result we are losing touch with the complexity within ourselves, and the living world that we are a part of. Public parks are poor substitutes for the wildness within backyard neighborhoods—the wilderness open and accessible to everyone without a car or a government pass.

I feel thankful that I was able to learn my lessons from backyard fish, oak trees, Spanish moss and water moccasins.  They taught me how to be patient, listen carefully and tread slowly.  They taught me how to notice subtle movement, how to taste a storm coming and look before I step. Most of all, they taught me that I am a part of something larger than myself.

As I watch the systematic destruction of the world’s living places, I wonder what lessons future humans will learn from concrete and cement.  What do storefronts and car dealerships have to teach us about how to live? What will happen to us when the places we belong to are all gone?  What will be the stories we tell our children when all that’s left of our backyard relatives are sidewalks and parking garages? What does virtual reality whisper into the ears of our children and how are those messages meaningfully different than what is spoken by the wind and the rain?

Although most of the places that raised me are now gone, I will never forget them. When I look at the car dealership near my old home, I remember the orange grove that I used to bike to for fresh juice on hot days and even now amidst the shining metal lots I can sometimes taste citrus and the sweetness of rotting fruit. Lost places haunt us as sure as any restless spirit, and we grieve them like lost lovers. The kind of grief that lives in places is perhaps the newest kind of grief that we as a species have endured and it resides deep in our achy bones, upsets our restless legs, and torments our idle minds. We are, after all, place-based creatures, and without place each of our bodies speak the same unnamed sorrow my mother felt looking at her old home.

But as a species responsible for the sixth and greatest mass extinction, we need to do more than grieve. The places that we love are finite and numbered and through the grief they provide us, they speak a call to action.  As I write, a massive natural gas pipeline is being constructed through ancient Florida springs, wetlands, highlands, gopher tortoise habitat and under rivers older than human memory.  The Sabal Trail pipeline spells the destruction of countless other backyard teachers, childhood adventures, nonhuman relations and threatens the water that 10 thousand Floridians rely on for survival.

And this is only one example. In each of our backyards live the last of the world’s places and they are being destroyed.

So I will ask what others have asked before me: when will we decide to make it stop? How many more living backyard wonderlands will we sacrifice? How much more will we subject ourselves to the grief of placelessness before we act in defense of the places we love?

As creatures inseparably joined to place, we are as surely made of living land as we are of plastic, brick and mortar.  When we defend what is left of wild places, we defend what is left of the life within ourselves.  The cypress stands, freshwater springs and Florida swamp are what’s left of the wildness inside of me and I will do what is necessary to defend them.

Will you?

Samantha Krop is an environmental and social justice activist and educator currently based in Eugene Oregon. Originally from Florida, Sam has been an organizer in campaigns for farm worker rights, forest defense, and fossil fuel resistance in her home state and the Pacific Northwest.  She is the co-founder of Warrior Sisters, a national women’s self-defense nonprofit and currently teaches at the high school and University level.

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Samantha Banuelos writes for PeaceVoice and is a Conflict Resolution student with United Nation aspirations.

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