Copyright © 2017
by Ralph F. Couey
Every part of the country – heck, every part of the world has its particular charms and curses. These are things like weather, geography, traffic, etc… More often than not, they are the things that a particular area is best known for, or reputed to be. Those elements even have a way of shaping the people who live there. The northeast and mountain west have their long and blizzardy winters. The southeast has hurricanes, and they along with the rest of the south and much of the Midwest are burdened with impossibly hot and humid summers, and tornados to boot. California has earthquakes, and under a National Park in Montana and Wyoming there lies slumbering a super volcano that, if awoken, would likely end civilization as we know it.
Each of those regional challenges creates a bit of a swagger among those who have to face them, although that doesn’t necessarily make them completely tough. I’ve known several New Englanders who on one hand brag about surviving a winter nor’easter, only to wilt completely on what passes for a reasonably normal summers day in Phoenix or Las Vegas.
Still, we like to think that living in proximity to nature’s examples of bad temper does make us stronger in some ways, even speciously. Coloradans like to think that the privilege of staring up at those snow-capped peaks every day makes them naturally superior to ordinary mortals. Hawaiians feel the same way about “their” ocean. I grew up in Missouri, which is not really known for much. But I’ll never forget the reaction of a visitor from Korea on a drive from St. Louis to Liberal, Kansas. She was struck speechless as we spent hour upon hour driving through productive farmland, crops stretching to the horizon, so different from her native land. At one point she whispered, “No wonder you Americans can feed the world.” But despite my momentary bump of national pride, I reminded myself that Americans don’t know what it’s like to live within range of 20,000 artillery guns owned by a leader whose rationality is suspect.
The experiences of life shape us. And our environment, whether geological, climatological, or meteorological has a hand in framing our outlook. People who live in Africa and the South Pacific have darker skin pigments, because that is the way their bodies have adapted to deal with the direct sunshine. Nordic peoples are pale-skinned and light-haired for the opposite reason. Those who have lived in the Andes Mountains of South America have developed big barrel chests, because their lungs have to have much higher capacity to glean oxygen from the thin air. Because we Americans are unusually mobile, there hasn’t yet evolved a physical mutation that would identify someone as being from a particular area, although fans of the University of Missouri swear up and down that living in Lawrence, Kansas, home of the Kansas University Jayhawks definitely has a deleterious effect on intellectual development. And vice-versa. Those characteristics seem to follow us no matter where we go.
Last year I fell into a conversation with a fellow with a definite southern accent, Tennessee, unless I missed my guess. This was in the Washington DC area, and he had come in for meetings from his home in New York City. At one point, I asked him how long he had been away from Tennessee. He told me it had been nearly 25 years. I commented that he had hung on to his accent admirably. He shook his head. “Actually my accent has mellowed over the years. When I first got to New York, nobody could understand a word I said.”
I’ve known people gone from Pittsburgh for decades that still characterize a snow-covered street as “slippy.” Others who despite a lifetime spent away from Georgia or Alabama haven’t lost their taste for grits. My wife hasn't lived in Hawaii since the 1970's but still reaches for sweaters and blankets when the temperatures fall below 75 degrees.
It’s hard to say if these kinds of things are the product of a desire to hold onto one’s roots, or just the inertia of old habits. While we are a much more mobile culture than in the past, it’s plain that some aspects of what we are has roots in where we were. That past isn’t just limited to our lifetimes. People of Italian descent who have never been closer to Italy than the local Olive Garden restaurant still talk expressively with their hands. Others whose ancestors once walked the green fields of Ireland express their heritage through a fiery temper or that twinkle of the eye in good humor. The German sense of detail and perfection, the Greek’s fiery passion for life, the sense of family and honor so prevalent in Asian cultures, all these things that have defined our bloodlines down the centuries remain with us, helping to mold all those little details into the package that is uniquely us.
We often talk of putting down roots. But really, our roots have been with us all along.