Here we are now, in a stone-faced ranch house behind evergreen trees, in an oddly quiet neighborhood of Vancouver, Washington. The house itself seems ordinary enough…but there is something here…a feeling I do not recall having in other rentals.
I smell freshly-baked bread in the morning when I wake. I know my way around in the dark. I feel as though I have always lived here, or I’ve lived here before, and I’m just now coming back. –from my journal, August 3, 2013.
“Move,” as we all know, is a four-letter word. Ours is finally done, but now comes a new challenge: finding our way around in a strange new world. Two months after moving clear across Washington state, we are in the throes of yet another transition. No longer out in the country but not quite in the city, we have joined millions of others in…the suburbs. There can be no doubt, no denial. The place I have ridiculed, criticized, and secretly feared for years is now, for lack of a better word, our home.
We may well ask ourselves how we got here. To make a long story short, which I admit is a difficult task: we had to give up some things to get some others, and there were certain things that couldn’t happen, so here we are. It’s complicated, and probably typical of many American families trying to find their place in the sun…or the shade, for that matter. The more relevant question is, what do we do now? Or, how do we do here what we do? How does one live locally in the midst of a corporate concrete jungle? When both Fred Meyer and WalMart tout fresh, local produce…what then? Is “local” just going to the closest one, versus driving 30 miles out of town to an orchard or farm? I just don’t know anymore.
Vancouver itself is a curious mixture of the familiar and the strange. While much of the strange sneaks across the river from Portland in the dead of night, much of the familiarity stems from the generic, corporate commercialization endemic to the American suburbs. Perhaps it is this way elsewhere, too; I don’t get out of the country much. Why, though, in a society which idolizes individuality and celebrates regional flavor, do we vote with our dollars for the same-old same-old? Chain stores are, like ivy or sparrows or giant carp, an invasive species. They make every place look, sound, and feel the same while undermining the stability and resilience of the local ecosystem, eventually replacing it with something rather different.
This poses some problems for the newcomer and would-be locavore. First of all, it’s surprisingly easy to to get lost in a new city when every strip mall and corner plaza looks the same. Having more than one chance to “turn at the Safeway” rather defeats the purpose. Secondly, the idea of living locally gets reduced to a measurement of radius instead of an analysis of content. If I only have to travel a mile to the grocery store, then buy produce flown in from Chile, have I really made a difference?
I do know that living locally is not, at least for us, an auto-pilot activity. We need to think carefully and critically about so many things, from where those grapes came from (no frequent-flyer miles, please) to the management policies of the various retailers available to us (and there are plenty here!), that sometimes we get paralyzed by the decision matrix. We find a few easy solutions and stick to them, and as long as they seem to work we don’t look too closely. Actions have consequences, though, and the cumulative effect of several billion people making the most efficient choice is about to become catastrophic. We, and I mean all of us, need to slow down more and think things through.