All You Need Is Love
I walk out of my house onto a country road. If I go north three miles, I'll be in the Gila National Forest, 3.3 million acres of pure southwestern New Mexico: ponderosa pine, piñon pine, scrub oak, juniper, yucca, prickly pear. These are familiar names and deeply comforting, like beads on a rosary. Mountain lion, black bear, elk, javelina, coatimundi, rattlesnake. If I go south four miles, I'll hit Highway 180 and could find my way to anywhere, Albuquerque or Dallas or Los Angeles or New York. By God (and here comes my first imitation of Walt Whitman), I live in the best of places! The best of times! My pleasures as democratic as the cloud-tossed sky.
I choose north, low hills of mesquite and shrub brush on my left, the cottonwoods of the Gila River on my right. In 30 minutes of fast walking I pass one, two, three houses of part-timers like myself, whose jobs or family commitments keep us from living in the Gila Valley year-round. It is the bane of country life: how to make money. I pass a dog barking in front of its double-wide trailer, the home of a husband and wife who work for the state highway department. Across the road from them, a sign reads "War is not the answer"; this is the gate to an intentional community where people live frugally -- reducing, recycling, gardening -- without jobs. Next to their compound is a rancher whose grandfather worked for the Forest Service here in 1907, when the Forest Service was still a new idea. As the asphalt gives way to dirt, I pass the driveway of a telecommuting editor originally from New York, an archaeological site (the mounds of a Mimbres village dating from about AD 500), a grazed-down field with a mule and two horses (perked ears and the slow amble over), and the barn of someone named Tex.
This is the diversity of the rural West, perhaps of all rural America. Walt Whitman -- poet of the carpenter, the deacon, the duck-shooter, the milkmaid, the stevedore, the crone -- would have put us on one of his lists. We're Baptists and pantheists; we eat beef and drink soy milk; we like wolves and hate wolves and we're new and old and rich and poor. What we have in common is a feeling that some of us would be uncomfortable talking about, and some of us talk about all the time. We love this place. We are the bride of this place and we are the groom.
The idea is so strange to contemporary culture that we need new words to describe it. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who coined the word solastalgia for the pain humans feel when their home environment is degraded or destroyed, is now promoting soliphilia, from the Greek philia ("love of"), the French solidaire ("interdependent"), and the Latin solidus ("solid" or "whole"). Soliphilia, Albrecht says, is "the love of and responsibility for a place, bioregion, planet, and the unity of interrelated interests within it." The term joins biophilia (love of living systems, described by the psychologist Erich Fromm in 1961 and later promoted by the biologist E. O. Wilson) and topophilia (from the Greek topos, or "place," used by such mid-century poets as W. H. Auden and Alan Watts). [See Elizabeth Kolbert and E. O. Wilson, "The Human Factor," Winter 2011.] When I was a college student majoring in environmental studies in the 1970s, we preferred mouthfuls like bioregionalism and ecopsychology and the mysterious-sounding deep ecology. All these neologisms built on the work of America's first ecophilosophers, Thoreau and Emerson, who built in turn on earlier philosophers and world cultures. Indigenous voices swell the chorus. In the most modern version, we wonder now if "love of place" is hardwired. Can we find that spot in the brain? Make it light up the PET scan? And more pertinent, can we turn it up a notch?
In less than an hour's walk, I'm at the national forest boundary, looking down over fields of prickly pear and mesquite, an undulating rise and fall of land lifting into the hills above the Gila River, rock eroded into giant cones or Stetson hats, and the cliffs rearing beyond them, the rimrock of Watson Mountain pink and orange and white. Then more grandeur, the bright blue New Mexican sky, a deep azure contrasting with the white and gray of a storm in the distance. My chest feels hollow, as though heart and lungs have evaporated. Within that emptiness, something flowers against the rib cage. A pressure, an ache. That's how I feel my love. This only happens, of course, when I am paying attention.
My body responds physically to the Gila Valley, most often to its expansive views, but also down in the irrigated pastures with the sleepy cows and the smell of alfalfa, and by the river with its modest flow, sunlight on water and the flap of a heron. Love of place opens me to the beauty of the world, which can be found everywhere, city and suburb, desert and rainforest. A world full of places that people love.
Love of place makes me feel larger. When I open to the world, the boundaries of self, my worries and fears, what makes Sharman happy, what makes Sharman sad, the particulars of childhood and family, talents and flaws, that day in high school, this new pain in my knee -- all of it diminishes against the lift of land, colors, and cliffs. I'm as big as this view, five miles wide. I'm as powerful as the gathering storm, but also calm. Time passes. Seasons turn. The river floods and changes everything, and then everything changes again. No worries. No flaws. Nothing is untoward.
I feel grateful. I feel special. And then, because I am so very human and flawed, I feel smug. I'm so cool to live in this place.
The cultural historian (or ecotheologist) Thomas Berry once described human consciousness as the universe reflecting on itself. The big bang, the birth of stars and planets, the evolution of life on earth and specifically of Homo sapiens resulted in a woman standing before this view of mountains and clouds. She notes her feelings: calm, blessed, self-congratulatory.
Maybe the universe could have chosen more wisely, but let's not spoil the moment.