Propelled by the latest bout of COVID claustrophobia, we decided to spend a week this summer on the California coast. A day’s drive, no air travel; a rental within earshot of the surf. At times, the fog rolled in unexpectedly and shrouded the pine-oak woods around us in mystery, and even though we’d come from an unusually wet period in Arizona, my skin and lips felt different in the presence of all that airborne moisture.
One afternoon, we took a drive up to Big Sur, where Highway 1 maintains a precarious toehold on the almost comically steep edge of North America. We’d brought Sandwiches and decided to stop for dinner at a Spectacular Hidden beach that had been chewed out of the surrounding Bluffs like a bite from a cookie. About ten flights of stairs down, we found a flat expanse of fine white sand strewn with the wreckage of washed-up kelp.
The overcast hung low and wisps of fog rolled in. It wasn’t beach weather to us—if that term means shorts and sandals and plunging into the not-too-cold surf—but that didn’t stop the group of locals sitting near us. They’d come with their dogs, surfboards, coolers and long fishing rods. The older folks and some kids hung out on the beach, reading, talking and playing spikeball. A wet-suited gaggle of teens played in the water on surfboards. Whether they were adults or kids, they seemed of the place that we They were the sort of people who might know when the fog could be expected to roll in or out, how to cast a Saltwater line, how to read the incoming swell and know where to be on a surfboard at the right moment. As a short-time visitor, all this knowledge seemed Occult to me—a desirable mystery.
People are also reading…
It was the same reaction I often have to traveling—at least when I travel to places I like. I am uninterested in “tourism:” the sorts of made-to-order, readily Instagrammable experiences that have become so prevalent and so lucrative in many much-visited places—including Flagstaff and environs. I am not a big fan of lounging on a beach reading novels or participating in any other stereotyped vacation leisure activity which has little to do with the place itself. So, I’m often left fascinated by the locals and how they experience the place, often wondering what it’s like to be them, to be in sync with the place rather than be a rank outsider, and when the place is as compelling as a craggy Big Sur beach, I instantly want to b one of those locals.
It’s irrational, I know, because I already live as a local in a beautiful place where I have gotten to know many of the rhythms of climate and weather, plant life and societal seasons. It’s a place I chose for many reasons, and each year I can feel the dividends of the time I’ve invested here growing. They’re paid in knowing the neighbors—human and otherwise—and in learning the weather patterns, albeit always incompletely. They’re paid in knowing when to plant and harvest garlic or pumpkins and in the hot sauce I make from my pepper plants. They’re paid in knowing the Geography and the ecological patterns, in knowing that this pivot point in the summer, as the rufous hummingbirds are migrating in, is right about the time that the noisy summer Orioles migrate out to the south.
I’m aware that my own localism can’t compare in depth to that of people like my neighbor who grew up in a home passed down through generations, or that of others whose people have lived here for many decades, or that of indigenous peoples who have been here for countless generations. Localism is a continuum, and if it’s in part a social practice, a getting-to-know people and peoples and the practices of place, it is also a personal matter that measures how much the place has become both accustomed and comfortable.
At a time when travel is so easy, I suspect I’m not alone in my fascination with new localisms in new places because localism is above all authentic—a genuine relationship with place.
It would be nice to suppose that it is a one-way street—that merely learning about a place is enough, that there is an ideal Endpoint where one knows just about everything worth knowing about a place—but increasingly, we know that this ideal can no longer prevail. Because we know that our place, and every place, is changing fast, and as it does what it means to be local has to change to keep pace. In Flagstaff, being local increasingly means developing a precise, street-by-street or even yard-by-yard understanding of microhydrology and how the flow of water and mud changes with differing amounts of rainfall up on the mountain and the deposition of flow- changing sediment down below. Our learning about place has taken on a new urgency.
It is of course a measure of my naiveté that I could, during our beach dinner, hold the illusion that the rugged chunk of California coast I saw might not be subject to such fast and undesirable change. When the surfboarding teens emerged from the ocean, we saw that a couple of them were holding stringers of freshly caught fish. We watched as they gathered around an upside-down surfboard on which they proceeded to gut their catch—a process that seemed brand new and exciting to the younger kids.
This too seemed timeless: the local youth catching and preparing their dinner from the sea—a scene that has likely played out at that place for many hundreds of generations. I suppose I was acknowledging my status as a tourist, an outsider, by asking them what kind of fish they were—rockfish—but none of the other questions that my journalist’s mind could easily conjure came to me. Questions about how the place was changing or about how the young Anglers viewed their dangerous future. It was vacation for us, and a successful harvest for them. For this evening, those other questions could wait.
Peter Friederici is a Writer and a former itinerant field biologist and tour guide who in his spare time directs the Master of Arts Program in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University.