By Brian Donnelly
The size of the place that one becomes a member of is limited only by the size of one’s heart.
When someone asks you where you’re from, how do you answer? Is it the place you were born,
where you live now, or somewhere in between? For most of us, the answer isn’t obvious. We’ve made travel and mobility almost effortless in the modern world. We move and migrate constantly throughout our lives. The average American relocates “home” roughly 11 times. But what’s at stake when we regularly uproot our relationship with a place?
The above quote by Gary Snyder is from a series of essays called Back on the Fire. Snyder talks about the importance of place and how our social and ecological lives would improve if we stay put and become, as he puts it, “‘paysan, paisanos, peons’ in the meaning—people of the land—people of the place.” Snyder argues that if we learn a place and become members of a place we can start to envision the whole planet as home. The quote also implies a simple but powerful question. It asks what is our capacity to be in a real relationship with a place? How much are we willing to care for and act on behalf of a place that we connect with?
I live in Portland, Oregon, on a spine of the Tualatin Mountains, not far from downtown. My backyard borders Forest Park, a 5,200-acre urban wilderness with over 70 miles of trails.
Forest Park was realized partly because of its steep and unstable slopes. When its hills of Douglas fir were first deforested, copious seasonal rains caused regular landslides. The constant mess thwarted construction plans throughout the mid and late 1800s. During that time, a few visionary civic leaders understood the value of public parks and started to acquire the land bit by bit over numerous decades.
It’s striking to think about this in contrast to many of the shortsighted decisions being made about public spaces today. Public land across the west is under ever increasing threat because of profit-driven management by a powerful few. National monuments are shrinking. States are seizing and selling off public lands. Sensitive wild spaces are being opened to oil and gas drilling. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by all the bad news. So much is at stake. Yet, we tend to hold these sorts of things at arms length because it’s too much to take in or maybe too far away.
I’ve lived on the edge of Forest Park for almost two decades. It’s the longest I’ve lived in one place by far. I’ve run many thousands of miles on the trails of Forest Park, enough miles to criss cross the United States multiple times. But all that movement happened in this one place. In that time and space I’ve slowly started to become a member.
I’ve learned when the trillium flowers pop, when the reverberating song of the Swainson’s thrush arrives in early spring. I’ve learned the rich taste of thimble berries on my tongue, and how to rub vanilla leaf into my skin to keep mosquitos away in summer. I’ve learned how the webs of the orb spider disappear after the first freeze of late fall, and how the maple seeds spin to the ground before the first heavy rains of winter. Each day, each footprint, has brought me closer to something I didn’t know was there. Without realizing it, I’ve been moving toward a true sense of belonging.
On a drizzly day early this spring, before stepping out my back door for a run, I grabbed a pencil, a sheet of wax paper from the kitchen, and stuffed them into my waistband. I stopped along the way and used the pencil and paper to make a stencil copy of one of the iconic wooden signs marking Wildwood Trail, a 30.2-mile dirt ribbon that spans the entire length of Forest Park.
At first it was just a personal art project. I wanted a copy of the Wildwood Trail sign to maybe hang on my wall. But it grew into something bigger. I ended up making 15 varied renditions of the sign. I’d later raffle them off at local community events. Together we raised $1,181. I donated all of it to the Forest Park Conservancy, which does the important work of promoting access to the park and also protecting its ecological health.
I’m not sure exactly what compelled me to do this. I already donate and volunteer regularly for the Forest Park Conservancy. Maybe I did it because, as Snyder would put it, I’ve started to become a person of this place. And maybe my capacity to do a bit more is just what you do when you’re a member, when you open your heart.
When I think about the magnitude of issues we face regarding public lands, it’s easy to see that there’s no one thing that will solve all of the problems. But if we endeavor to become members of a place, our capacity to care for those places can grow, our individual memberships can expand, and a multiplicity of actions can make a meaningful difference.
Runners have a unique perspective on these issues because we connect deeply with places through the practice of running. We form our memberships in an unfiltered connection with the natural world, a fusion of feet and earth and lungs and air. So from one runner to another, from one human to another, I’ll end with this question …
What place are you a member of and what is the size of your heart?