By "common place," I mean a place a community shares in common. Too bad that when written as one word, “commonplace,” it ordinary, unremarkable, even clichéd or trite. The place we share in common may be anything but ordinary and unremarkable and not at all clichéd or trite. But because we’re surrounded by it all the time, we may begin to think of our place as ordinary and unremarkable. Some young people looking to expand their horizons seem to have to go through a phase of thinking of home as clichéd and trite to propel them outward. We should not think that way. In fact, we should encourage the others we share the place with to see it as extraordinary, truly remarkable, refreshing, even novel.
A small group of us from the university and community spent the past year-and-a-half thinking about a way to celebrate the 40th Earth Day. We had all kinds of ideas, some more workable than others. Then someone in the group suggested a tour of local farms. I thought it was a good idea but have to admit, I was a bit skeptical. We live in a small town in a rural area. Many people have vegetable gardens. We have a popular farmer’s market. We’re surrounded by farmland. We’re not in a metro area where people are separated from farms and gardens. I thought farming was, well, commonplace here. I thought we might get a dozen or so local food advocates to come along to show support for the growing interest in local ag. I was wrong. More than 80 people came on the farm tour. I learned that 1). Farming is remarkable to more people than I thought and 2). Commonplace shouldn’t be confused with common place. The tour was fabulous. People came away with a much stronger sense of what we have to offer in local agriculture, with a stronger sense of place. (I did not go to the tour, but did go to the after tour dinner put on by a local restaurant using almost all local ingredients. Fresh, locally grown food prepared by an expert chef can’t be beat.)
That tour happened only because a few people realized that we need to share a special feature of our place, in this case the feature represented by local ag. What other groups are out there working directly or indirectly to promote some special feature of a place? Of course there’s the land trusts and conservancies, the nature clubs, the historical preservation groups whose main goal is to promote place. What about the bicycling clubs, paddle sports clubs, hiking/trails clubs, cross-country ski clubs? Their goal is to promote particular outdoor recreation, but they’re also promoting the places in which one does that. Likewise, gardening clubs, arts and music groups, the local library and others all help build community, help make a place special, but also help get the word out that our place is special.
Perhaps you don’t think that belonging to, say, a cross-country ski club (or hiking or cycling or paddling, or _____ club ) will enhance your enjoyment of that activity (especially if solitude is one of the things you like about your activity). But it can help enhance others’ enjoyment of it and build appreciation of your place. Clubs not only promote the activity, they also work toward preserving the places to do it, and they help people learn about their place while they enjoy the activity. Are you part of a group – persistent or ephemeral (see sidebar) -- that shows that your common place should not be thought of as commonplace?
A few years ago, the book “Bowling Alone” documented the declining tendency of people to join civic groups. As people spend more time in front of TV, computer and phone screens, they spend less time in civic groups. A later book, “A New Engagement,” countered that view by showing how ‘these kids these days’ really are engaged, just in a different way. (One of the especially popular ways cited in that book is through consumer choice such as selecting fair-trade or other certified products.) Many avenues for promoting places exist whether through ongoing clubs, through modern media, through organizations that form for a special purpose then morph and reform with other informal groupings around other purposes. I’d like to hear about any groups you’ve been involved with that helped build and promote place.