The Unifying Power of Place

There’s great comfort to being in a place where – even in solitude – you’re not alone. When no other humans are at my extended family’s rustic camp, I’m still surrounded. The picnic table, perched on a meadow overlooking the water, is a companionable hub of activity. Purposeful insects crawl about on nearly every visible surface and a blur of birds engages in gymnastic foraging overhead.

Immersion in nature is part of this Down East setting’s timeless appeal. But over the last year, I have thought more about the web of human relatives whose memories and identities are grounded here. As the tenor of politics grows more darkly divisive, sundering friendships and family ties, I think about this place and why its center holds. How has it kept people together, working more or less in concert, for 70 years?

There’s a poignant sense of urgency now to questions of sustaining community. How do we navigate differences and stay connected when so many forces today embody and embolden our basest, most selfish impulses? How do we recover from what the late historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed “too much pluribus and not enough unum?”

Perhaps this place, rustic and remote as it is, might hold lessons. The community here has a surfeit of strong personalities and wide-ranging views but so far we subscribe to a shared reality – acknowledging shoreline erosion and leaking gutters even when we dispute the causes. We are still – as our ancestors were – committed to honesty, decency and fairness.

Decisions fall to a group of 10 individuals currently, with another 30 or so extended family members eager to chime in. In our hyper-individualistic culture, mere mention of such collective decision-making tends to elicit pained winces and expressions of sympathy. It is, inarguably, a path fraught with potential pitfalls. The efficiency of calling one’s own shots evaporates; what should be quick choices, like whether to install a light or replace a rug, can drag on for years.

Yet over the decades, we’ve found that the effort invested in listening and accommodating, as we inch our way toward consensus, yields unexpected dividends. We’re in no danger of succumbing to an echo chamber, being continually pushed to wrestle with countering views and find pragmatic, if imperfect, solutions.

And because the place demands continual care, we stay connected in an era when many extended families lose touch and drift apart.

Shared caretaking forces us out of our workday roles and identities, encouraging us to learn new skills and find unexpected teachers. Several years ago, two cousins agreed to take on a reconstruction job that involved delicate woodwork, engineering expertise and ingenuity. It was the corporate lawyer who happily assumed the role of “sous chef” (in his words), taking orders and instruction from the project’s mastermind, a repairman.

In a small collective enterprise, people reveal an array of unexpected talents that enrich the whole. A teacher turns out to be an experienced arborist, able to deftly wield a chain saw high in treetops, and a pastor proves a skilled stonemason. Being more proficient with a keyboard than a power tool, I stand in awe of relatives who can renovate an antique woodstove, design and construct a sturdy bridge or set up a solar-powered battery system. If this place were mine alone, I’d be forced to hire out most such projects at significant cost (made more expensive by first botching attempted do-it-yourself repairs). But shared ownership broadens the talent pool, and the sheer number of willing workers allows us – just barely – to manage the endless upkeep that even modest, seasonal buildings require.

Seeing new evidence on each visit of that communal effort to improve the place inspires me to do more. The obligation I feel is not weighted with guilt; it’s closer to the exhilaration felt in a game of tug-of-war, when you start to gain ground by pulling together.

Admittedly, defining what constitutes an “improvement” is not always easy. Traditionalist views often battle with the imperative of inescapable change. But we’ve been at this enterprise long enough to have learned that our first inclinations are not always reliable. Hindsight has brought welcome humility, helping each of us be a little more flexible and conciliatory in shared decision-making.

Every debate about a possible change now serves as a reminder that each of us is both progressive and conservative, trying to navigate a way forward while integrating the past. Acknowledging those contradictory impulses helps us empathize with relatives who – at any given moment – might struggle to accept that we cannot turn the clock back.

We find common ground in a shared legacy, a prevailing sense passed down from previous generations that we are not so much owners as caretakers. The place will outlive us. A vision of stewardship crossing generations is redemptive, inviting us – time after time – to reach for those illusive “better angels of our nature” that Abraham Lincoln described in his first inaugural address.

Perhaps what we need to sustain our national community at this precarious time is a focus on our shared legacy – a commitment to uphold democratic ideals and core values of honesty, decency and fairness. We dwell in community – not just with those about us, but with those who came before us and those who will inherit the places we cherish. We owe them all a seat at the table.

© Marina Schauffler, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.