Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

California Bloodlines
John Stewart

Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

Montage of Los Angeles pictures on Commons

John Stewart is probably best known as one of the Kingston Trio. He was not an original member but filled in when one of the founding members left. He grew up in California. His father worked at one of the Orange County race tracks and one of his songs celebrates the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. In this song he acknowledges his California roots and how he cannot imagine himself as anything but a Californian. I think it interesting that he finds his roots in one of the most rootless states in the union.

My two sisters were born in California and one stayed and one moved east, to Nevada. My brother, like me, was born in Schenectady, New York, but he was not even a year old when we moved to California. I was four. Though I lived in California until I was able to move east, to Massachusetts, in the 1990’s when I was in my forties, I never thought of it as home, I always identified with the East Coast and the changing seasons. The image above contains images of Los Angeles I know very well and I have pleasant memories of them, but though it was home for a long time I never felt my “roots” were there.

My father used to take us camping weekends to those mountains behind the L. A. skyline at least once a month when the snow was not around. Somewhere in those snowy mountains there is a little town called Wrightwood and a campground on the banks of Jackson Lake in an area of the Los Padres National Forest called Big Pines, where we used to camp. We did not have sleeping bags only heavy canvas blankets that we used to throw over us as we slept on the ground. It was great fun.

Many great stories revolve around home and our relationship with home and our roots. My juniors are reading Ethan Frome about a man who has never felt home at home. They will be reading next The Grapes of Wrath about a family that is quite attached to their home but circumstances force them to leave home. Grandpa Joad was one of the pioneers that first settled the Oklahoma land that he has farmed for many years. Larry McMurtry tells a similar story in his memoir Reading Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen of his grandfather moving west to settle an undeveloped land and watched it develop and become settled. Pulling up roots to set them down someplace else makes a good story whether, like the Joads, the move is undesired or, like the McMurtrys, it fulfills an aspiration.

The Plaza and “Old Plaza Church”

This is a Los Angeles street when the west was wild. The gold rush has passed but California and Los Angeles was still a desired destination. Wallace Stegner wrote a marvelous novel Angle of Repose about an old college professor trying to reconstruct the story oh his grandparents’ life. His grandfather was an engineer who had aspirations to settle in the west and use his skills to extract the earth’s riches. He is taken advantage of much of the time but he is ultimately successful as he pursued his engineering career throughout the Western United States and Mexico, settling finally in California, where the family sets down its roots. His grandmother was from the East Coast and moved in sophisticated circles that included Henry James. They were a very different pair but at the same time, the kind of people that settled the west and rebuilt it in their image, an image with roots in Europe.

Perhaps this is what rootlessness produces, a land that comes to resemble the land that was left behind. I enjoy western novels, both those that aspire to be literary art, like those of Wallace Stegner, and those that preserve the romance of the west and whose fiction is a bit pulpy, like those of Zane Grey and Owen Wister. The western, if one can forget for a moment the harm that was done to the people to whom the land originally belonged, is about restlessness and the quest for new horizons and new adventures. The western is often about courage and an ethic that in many ways resembles that of chivalry and the order of knighthood in the medieval romances of Europe. I think this is also a part of the American character, or at least it used to be; a desire to push limits, explore the unknown, and to remake the world.

Los Angeles City Hall shortly after its completion (1931)

About seventy years after the earlier photograph was taken Los Angeles looked more like this, like a major city with a City Hall and paved streets. In the voyages of discovery a place was claimed by the “mother country” with the posting of a flag and the recitation of a few words but the place actually became the “mother country” when it began to resemble this national parent. The stories of Sinbad and Odysseus revolve around men on a journey. Each has many adventures but each wants ultimately to get home, not to a place that has been made to resemble home but to the home they remember. Aeneas is also a man on a journey with no home to go to and the desire to find a corner of the world in which he can make a home. That home became Rome. Aeneas will put down roots that centuries later others will attempt to pull up and replant someplace else.

Growing up in Los Angeles about twenty-five years farther down the road the city did not look that different from the last photograph. There was a trolley system that knit the downtown together. As time passed that trolley system was replaced by a freeway system that threw the city boundaries out many miles in all directions. My brother and two sisters embraced the sunshine and picnics on the beach in mid-January. I longed for snow and a sled.

From The Endless Summer
Bruce Brown Films

This scene from the movie The Endless Summer takes place in South Africa but the quest for the perfect wave was what motivated my brother and many of my friends. I never learned to balance myself on a surfboard, though I could do pretty well on a skateboard. This is the California of Venice Beach, in the montage at the beginning, and The Beach Boys. It was an important part of the California culture in which I grew up. It is the sun and the surf that allegedly draws people to California. I like the ice and the snow. What are roots, what motivates people to set them down one place instead of another? What is the future of roots?

As the world changes the corners of the world are being pulled together. It is now possible for a teacher in Massachusetts to teach students in Ohio, Georgia, and California; Brazil, China, and Arabia. How does this change the classroom and more importantly how does this change the students in that classroom? In some ways it seems that we are beginning to set down roots into a more digital soil, that we are less dependent on a physical place. Our friends do not have to live in our neighborhood or even our state. We no longer have to report at a certain time to a cubicle in a certain place to do our jobs. Perhaps this last is an exaggeration, the world of work is largely unchanged for most, but it is changing and for some it is no longer necessary to “commute to the office” to do their work.

I think we continue to give our loyalty to a nation but we are less bound by the borders of that nation. China, for example, has managed to get Google modified for its citizens so that they do not have the access that citizens of other countries have to news and the lifestyles of the world. But how long will this be possible? What happens when a government can no longer control our digital travel? How will this change the world and our corner of it?

The L. A. Times this week advertised a couple of talks on the city as it was presented in the literature of the past, particularly the books of Raymond Chandler and how it is presented today in the works of contemporary authors. How will this discussion be different twenty years hence? As more and more of us spend more and more time living not on the city sidewalks or the neighborhood hangouts but on a digital cable car that can take us almost anywhere how will our view of “roots” and “place” change? How will this affect our loyalties and our sense of community spirit? What will our “communities” look like?

Public schools are struggling with technology. I was this week invited by my principal to join a teacher discussion group sponsored by one of the districts technology people. The discussion is being hosted on Facebook. The irony of this is that our school blocks Facebook so that no teacher can participate in this discussion during school hours, even though the school is promoting the discussion. On the one hand schools can see the potential that the new technology offers for the future of education but they cannot, on the other hand, get past the problems the technology will bring along with it.

I think the potential gains make the potential risks worthwhile, if only because the students will be using this technology whether the schools use it or not. There are many tools we entrust to our students that are potentially dangerous, automobiles, dissecting knives, and laboratories. Generally students are safer using tools that have potential dangers if they have been taught how to use them properly. But the advantages go beyond this. The schoolroom as it exists today is constrained by geography; it rests on a plot of ground within the village or town that supports it. The technology enables students to study in a world that is larger than their hometown.

Poster for the Film The Endless Summer

Family will always have a claim to some of the roots we put down, which in turn will always tie us to a physical place. But our roots can go deeper and farther and for many this is already happening. I never learned to surf because I could not keep my balance on the surfboard. Perhaps the surfboard has changed a bit, and balance is achieved using different skills and the perfect wave is no longer found at the beach.

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17 thoughts on “Putting Down Roots and Pulling Them Up Again

  1. I can relate to you on not feeling as if you are home in the place you grew up in. I have lived in Wareham all my life and most of my family lives here but I do not feel as if I am connected here. I love to travel and I definitely do not want to stay here. The people in the northeast are known for being rude and inconsiderate and I do not work well with these types of people. I love how the world is changing all around us but there is one down side. When you mentioned how a professor in Massachusetts could have students located around the world this bothered me. The internet is getting rid of personal connection and therefore is changing how we relate to people.

  2. I can relate to not feeling like where you live is home. I’ve moved around this part of Massachusetts my whole life and I’m not sure if I’ve found the place where I truly feel is home. I don’t think I would move too far away strictly because most of my family lives in the eastern part of Massachusetts and I don’t think I could go as far as the opposite side of the country. Before I settle down for good, I would like to travel and explore my options to see if I could find where I really feel at home. I agree with the part about the Internet pulling together the different parts of the world but at the same time, I wonder what is the price we are paying for this? The world is changing and the relationships that people have with one another are becoming less and less personal and more and more technological.

  3. Actually I was not talking about a professor I was referring to my own experience. I teach online classes for the Virtual High School (VHS) and have students from South America and China. I agree with you about losing some of the personal connection but I also have seen that students in those classrooms were exposed to much more diverse points of view and I think there is value in that.

    J. D.

  4. I agree that the technological nature of relationships is troubling. I do not know that things can become like The Matrix, say, where we are all plugged into some vast computer program though.

    J. D.

  5. I am able to deeply relate you your feelings of not truly feeling at home where you had lived in California. While I am extremely comfortable here in Wareham with my family and friends, I instinctively imagine myself to be elsewhere. When I think of my future, I see the city, far different from this small town atmosphere. In a sense, I feel as though Wareham is secluded from my potential successes, and, in a sense, serves as a barrier that I must break through in order to reach utmost achievement. Like you mentioned in your conclusion, I will always return to Wareham, for this is where the people who mean most to me reside. But, all in all, Wareham is most certainly not the place I aspire to settle in. It, to me, is simply not my destined home.

  6. I think the saying “home is where the heart is” has great merit to it. There are many things about Wareham that I am not thrilled about, there are people I could do without interacting with, there are morals that are incredibly different from my own. But I feel connected with Wareham in the sense that all these obstacles, challenges, impediments, have helped me to see what I am and what I am not. I have too many memories in too many places to want to turn my life completely away from this town. I used to want nothing to do with Wareham because I wanted my kids to be able to have a longer and happier childhood than most of us can say we have received from living in this town. I used to think that someday I’d be better than Wareham, but lately I’ve come to realize that I owe Wareham a great deal. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t grow up in Wareham, if I didn’t make the memories and friends that I made. Without Wareham, I would be a completely different person with different values. Without Wareham I don’t think I would be as strong a person. Maybe Wareham won’t be my future, but right now I’m comfortable calling it my home.

  7. I can relate to how you do not feel at home where you grew up. I have never been found of Wareham. I just don’t like the small town feeling, where everyone knows your business. I also don’t like the fact that everything is so far away and that you have to drive everywhere. I believe that I belong in a big city, where I can walk everywhere. I have traveled a lot and seen so much and I know that I will not be living in Wareham all my life. Perhaps I will move to a couple of cities until I am satisfied. It’s hard living somewhere and you just don’t feel comfortably.
    I enjoyed your photos and videos of California. I went to California last year for a week and I absolutely loved it there. Perhaps next time I visit it will be for a longer time.

  8. I understand the fact that you aren’t at home in your home town, but I disagree. I feel totally at home in Wareham. I feel like over the years I have learned certain things about this town that have made me love it. I know it like the back of my hand; I know people here who I love very much, and I have grown up here. Sometimes I even feel like I could spend the rest of my life just living here, even if it limits the possibilities of pursuing a career. I think the development of the internet is great because it opens a lot of doors for knowledge and different opportunities, but it is becoming rare to find human contact anymore. It seems old-fashioned to find that someone hand writes letters instead of emailing or some other form of technological communication. I think there needs to be a happy medium between internet use and personal contact.

  9. I’ve always considered wareham to me my home. I have found myself to like the atmosphere here. What I have always loved about Wareham is the acceptance that can be found here. No matter where you come from or what you believe in there is always a place for you in Wareham. No matter if your a skater kid, rock kid, jock, cheerleader,goth or a person who just fall in between all the clicks, there is a place for you to fit in this town. I;ve also heared stories from other people about racial conflicts at other schools. This is something i cannot even fathom. Wareham is a diverse town and i have never witnessed an conflict over race. Even though Wareham is a small town, I’ve grown to call it my home, a place where I know I’m accepted.

  10. A home is somehwere that you can feel the most comftorable and where you can be yourself. In my life, Wareham is my home. I have grown up here and I cannot see myself living anywhere else in the world. Obviously, some people want to live somewhere else in the world, but I don’t think I ever would. I’m familliar with Wareham and the people in it. Wareham has all kinds of different “clicks” that helps anybody feel comftorable here. Wareham often gets a bad name for things like drugs and when our MCAS grades aren’t up to par but once you’ve grown up here, there is no place like Wareham to call a home.

  11. While I have never moved from one side of the country to another, I did move from Maryland to Massachusetts when I was 10. While I have grown used to Massachusetts and feel at home because this is where my family is, I still hold a deep love of Maryland. Maryland was my first home and where I grew up, so I still consider my roots to be there. I also consider location to be an important aspect that connects people. I have taken an on line class and I was not connected to the professor or other students in the course. By learning in a classroom you learn the teacher’s style and other students ideas about assignments. When students live in the same town or state they have a small understanding of each other, they are connected by their location. I think classrooms are more helpful in education then online chat rooms. Classrooms enable students to ask more questions and learn by listening to the teacher’s voice, not reading the lessons on line. Some jobs can be done at home but I do not think classrooms can be replaced by a computer and provide a better education.

  12. To me a home is where you feel comfortable, safe, and can be yourself. I have always felt at home living in Warehame because I was born here, and grew up here. I am familiar with the people and places. I consider my roots to be here. Many of my memories revolve around living here in Wareham. I like being here, but I would love to travlel the world, and see what else is out there. But the summer days on the beach with my friends, my house, my family, school, and people I grew up with, have all connected me to my home in Wareham.

  13. I agree that most of the books that are written because of events that happen in our lives. For example, “The House on Mango Street” is a great novel that is about a womans life on a street and how she grows and matures at that one house. The book is about her growing up and the friends she makes while living there. There are many books that we enjoy that are based on the author’s home and their roots.

  14. I definately agree with the fact that you can’t feel at home even in the place where you have grown up. It is so weird how you can know something so well because you have lived there you’re whole life but feel so out of place. Its almost as if you weren’t meant to be there at all. But then sometimes there are people who make you feel as if this is indeed your home. That this is the only place you belong and you cant imagine life anywhere else. You can only truely feel at home if you enjoy and love your surroundings. This includes your friends and family. As for me i know that one day i can only hope to escape this small town and move on to bigger and better things. I know i will always remember those who i have met and who have influenced me but sometimes you need to move on if you do not truely feel at home.

  15. Technology is very essential to our education. Our school itself used to be a technological marvel. Mr. Brown, a science teacher at our school, told us that when he began teachning, he amazed by the fact that every room had a television. In fact, at every lab bench, there was a computer fully functioning and ready to use. It seems as though since then, the school has actually been on a downfall of technology. None of the labs have computers, the computer labs often do not work, many of the televisions are broken, and nothing is truely getting improved. To me, I think we need to make drastic improvements, but it does not help when even the little technology we have is not utilized. We have a few smartboards aroumd the school, and it seems as though they arent used to their full potential. Some classes use them often, but then others dont even see one. To be a good school, we must use all of our ability.

  16. I completely agree that you can feel out of place even though it is the place you have known all along. I believe that some people are just meant to do other things and travel to other places. Everyone is unique and so are the surroundings that they desire. For example I envision myself living in Europe when I get older. For me that culture represents something new and exciting. I don’t want to live in the same place my whole life. I feel that Wareham does not offer everything that I am looking for. Despite wanting to leave this town, I will always remember and miss it. After all it is where I grew up and shared many memories with people I love. I definitely see myself coming back here to visit but I know it is not a place i wish to stay.

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