Friday, May 15, 2009

Paradox of Localism

Localism, not a new idea, seems to be gathering steam. I think it's fair to describe Querencia (the blog) as somewhat ahead of this bandwagon on the Internet, and Steve well forward the main group since Querencia (the book) and before.

Writer Rod Dreher of my generation has helped advance a notion of localism in the bloggosphere, adding the term "Crunchy Con" as a way to describe political conservatives who embrace also the conservation of natural resources, wilderness, human-scale concerns and traditional lifeways.

An irony of Dreher's life, familiar to his readers and touched upon by Rod himself, is that while he hails from the small Louisiana town of St. Francisville (about an hour's drive north of me) he lives now in the megalopolis of Dallas, Texas.

In a recent post he writes:

Dallas is where I'm from now, in the sense that the roots that I've put down as a father, husband, church member, and friend are in the soil here. I have been a rootless cosmopolite for most of my life, but the changes that have taken place within me as a result of growing into fatherhood, and finding a good church, have forced me to realize that, without quite realizing what was happening, this city became my home. I don't like the heat, I don't like the government, I don't like the city's landscape ... but this is my home. If I lost my job here -- and that's certainly a possibility -- I would strongly consider a career change, just to keep my family here. The best things in my family's life -- our friends and our church -- are right here. Except for our immediate family members back in my hometown, we are strangers there. We're not strangers in the same way we'd be strangers in, say, Jeremy Beer's hometown, but still. So, in that sense, would picking up and moving back to my hometown be to embrace localism, or to run away from it?

Terry Eagleton says that in the end, we are what we cannot bring ourselves to leave behind. In that sense, I am a guy from Me, Myself and I who is surprising himself by becoming a guy from Dallas, and all that entails. What's making the change is the kenosis of being a father, and realizing that my kids need stability, and that includes good friends, a good spiritual home, and so forth. And you?

Like Dreher I have been rootless, raised an Army "Brat" and a ward of the US Department of Defense. And like him I eventually adopted as my home an unexpected place (I never would have guessed Baton Rouge). We are both husbands and fathers and have pledged allegiance to family as well as to our places.

Dreher suggests (probably in response to a frequent question of him) that going back to his small town life might be in some way a rejection of local loyalties, his new ones.

I think localism can certainly encompass a big city like Dallas. Big cities have always had their champions and aficionados. But I wonder about Dreher's metaphor of "roots" and "soil," and whether localism--with all its attendant connotations--is quite so meaningful in a place that is mostly asphalt and steel?

The question may be whether built landscapes can be "organic" and alive in the way rural places are naturally so. Steve has described his childhood Boston as such a place, where even in the city his grandparents could manage a tiny farm and produce a surprising variety of plant and animal fare. To me, this is the soul of localism: the self-sufficient household, feeding its family.

And yet, the modern urbanite with localist leanings might be more likely to gather his harvest from Whole Foods than from his backyard or the field. Is he missing out on something important?

The missing elements for me, if facing a move to any big city, would be the actual, non-metaphorical soils and roots. I would need larger spaces than cracks in concrete through which to see things grow. And I would need direct, tactile access to them, not as a visitor to a park but like a predator in a meadow; I would need a role to play.

Baton Rouge is for my family a compromise of positions. My wife is an mega-urban native (Miami, Fl) and I'm a retrofit rural provincial. At present this town can accommodate us both. As it changes, pouring more asphalt over its soil, I will have to work at keeping the cracks open and the concrete at bay.


Henry Chappell said...

Matt, I have some of the same questions about urban and even suburban environments. We've already decided that Plano won't work for us much longer. Like R.D., I wonder if I could truly feel settled in my hometown after being gone for so long. I've now lived in Texas longer than I lived in Kentucky. Yet a visit to my old home region brings out fierce, complicated (and probably unreliable) feelings.

Matt Mullenix said...

I think you could feel settled there, or anywhere, but it wouldn't necessarily come without the same amount of work (all over again) that you've done where you are. RD has a point there, I think.

BUt for me, there has to be a place to hunt. I can't feel at home without that. I'm sure of it.

Marnie said...

'But I wonder about Dreher's metaphor of "roots" and "soil," and whether localism--with all its attendant connotations--is quite so meaningful in a place that is mostly asphalt and steel?'--Meaningful to whom? To Dreher, the church seems to be a meaningful component of localism that you don't mention as particularly important for you. I think the "meaning" has to be an individual thing, yes? (Always nice to be able to visit you for a moment in this virtual coffee shop.)

Matt Mullenix said...

Hi cousin!

You call me out on the church omission, and rightly. Dreher's community of like-minded worshipers is clearly important to him and gives meaning to his local allegiances.

That this is not so important to me could be inferred I suppose. It happens to be true. :-)

My religious observance is a personal thing---not private, really, just between me and God and my family, within the context of my life. It goes with me, in that respect, and doesn't need a church home or congregation.

Perhaps it would benefit from that. Sometimes I think so.

However: The congregation of my neighbors, friends and family ARE vital to me and DO benefit from a place. What's more, that place must have some wilderness in it, even if represented by a hayfield or a woodlot, if the place (and localism at large) is to be meaningful to me.

Next cup is on me!