27 February 2007

Finding Our Direction

Our landmarks have changed.

When I give directions to my home, I speak of passing two covered bridges, then going six tenths of a mile until you see a cream-colored duplex with lipstick trim on the right. There are two black mailboxes out front, and a big red round sign that says "Elk River Courts" is just past my driveway. My house, I say, is the one with the deck.

I was visiting an old friend in Santa Rosa this weekend. He asked me to come down for his dog's burial, which was a lovely ceremony that began with an invocation of the directions, followed by song and poetry, then the physical placing of mementos and ashes into the ground. After planting a dwarf bottlebrush and a leptospermum to mark the grave, we gathered round the kitchen table for coffee and homemade scones.

Somehow, the conversation got around to restaurants, with hearty recommendations of favorites. The neighbors were explaining where these hidden treasures could be found. The Japanese restaurant is over by Carl's Junior; the good Chinese restaurant -- the one with enough class to make walnut prawns sans mayonnaise -- is in the downtown mall. (The theater that airs commercials before the previews -- how obnoxiously crass! -- is next to Bakers Square.)

Listening to their conversation, I realized: it's come to this. Our destinations are malls and our landmarks are chains. The great American individuality and creativity upon which we pride ourselves is being devoured by conformity and mediocrity. Across our nation (and across Canada, I'm sorry to say), our towns look just like the other one with strip malls and fast food joints and that cancerous WalMart spreading over the land.

Get me out of here.

But maybe there's hope. Arcata, California -- the town that Fox News loves to mock -- has limited the number of chain restaurants and is exploring implementing a ban on chain stores. A few years ago, my fellow voters in Eureka, California, defeated a zoning variance, effectively blocking WalMart from building a store in our community. Today I read that Stockton, California, is considering an ordinance that would block new big-box retail stores from setting up shop. (http://www.mercurynews.com/mld/mercurynews/news/breaking_news/16789225.htm) Across the country, communities are waking up and saying enough's enough; they are successfully stopping the spread of sameness and superstores.

So what can we do? The one thing we have some control over is our own behavior. I included a quote from Wendell Berry in my book (The Spiritual Art of Being Organized) that applies here:

"What we must do is use well the considerable power we have as consumers: the power of choice. We can choose to buy or not to buy, and we can choose what to buy. The standard by which we choose must be the health of the community—and by that we mean the whole community: ourselves, the place where we live, and all the humans and other creatures who live there with us. It is better to buy at a small, privately owned local store than from a chain store. It is better to buy a good product than a bad one. Do not buy anything you don't need. Do everything you can to see that your money stays as long as possible in the local community."


No comments: