Decade in Review: The Power of Place

By Michelle Railey

Spring 2015

It’s unseasonably warm here in Indiana. They say it’s an exceptional El Niño year. Or that global warming/climate change is doing its thing; or that it’s God kissing the Hoosier State with easy beneficence. At any rate, so mild is this March (all lamb, zero lion), that it is time to start planting seeds, I’m just sure. (yeah, yeah, I’ll start them indoors first, even though I can’t help but feel it might not be necessary).

And that gets me thinking back to a festival of pink, purple, and white wildflowers I cannot name, or seemingly, grow. Not now. Just two years running, when I lived in what I lovingly termed “the Tenement.”

There’s a tiny, blue, shotgun, aluminum-sided house near the Lilly campus and Holy Rosary church in Indianapolis. 400 square feet and I rented all of it for two and a half-ish years. The day I signed the paperwork, I ended up calling my family, positive I had made a mistake. The neighborhood was safe or sketchy, depending on the block and the season (in summertime, young “men” in stained wife-beaters would “watch” toddlers in dirty diapers as they learned to walk in the middle of the street, barefoot and shirtless). At any rate, it turned out okay. After the combined efforts of my family and me, the walls no longer dripped a patient, inexplicable stain; the light in the restroom worked; there was water in the kitchen sink. It was tidy and me-sized and just fine. Then there was the yard, which I tackled on my own. I raked and re-surfaced the side yard, unearthing one dead owl (Oh, Hedwig, I cried and cried and cried), some wild strawberries, long-dead iris bulbs. A bit of poison ivy. And years and years of neglect. But still, in that little patch of earth, the universe (with a tiny bit of prodding from me) put forth morning glories and moonflowers, zucchini the size of baseball bats, a universe of tomatoes. It gave me and my co-workers fresh-garden-grown lettuces and mesclun. It gave everyone around squash. Oh, and more tomatoes. One can never have enough.

Maybe it was that dead owl. Maybe it was many years of inattention, of slumbering, of lying fallow. Maybe all of those seeds were charmed. And, maybe, just maybe, it was a happy confluence of place: the right sun, the right water at the right longitude and latitude for everything that was planted to, not only flourish, but lavishly and extravagantly over-grow any reasonable expectations. (Just ask that elderly lady walking her dog, that one day, who said she had never seen anything like it.)

Well, neither had I. If nickels were magical and inexplicable gardening super-abundance, well, I would no longer have a student loan. But I would have a million houses, cats, and pet charities and my family would all be very, very well off.

It’s the power of place. We pay attention sometimes (some of us) to where presidents were born. Does it matter? We know the birthplaces of popes, of motor cars, of civilization. We humans fight about the same.

Apples came not from Eden but (most likely) from somewhere near Kazakhstan. It’s the power of place.

I do not know what these wildflowers are, or rather, were. I have planted the same variety of seeds from the same maker in a garden in Greenwood for five years running, and I cannot achieve the same purple, pink, and white magnificent blooms. They refuse to appear in Johnson County, at least to date, and under my tutelage. The power of place. Would I be the same person if I had grown up on a coast as I am growing up around cornfields? Would I be the same person if I had grown up around one cornfield instead of bouncing between mountain peaks and prairie flatness? If I had not split a very formative year between Yellowstone National Park and New York City, would I still appreciate “Bigfoot” cookies or thick, crusty, authentic bagels as I do? The power of place.

We are, as ever, a product of genetics and environment. And all the environments and experiences of our lives shape us in ways I’m not sure we can ever quite understand.

Place is important. Place is the difference between another crop of Black-eyed Susans and pink, purple, white fluffy things you cannot name but love with all your being.

Place can be mitigated, it can be ignored (not a wise choice). It is not determinative but it cannot be denied. The dead owl, the blooms, they need a place. So do you— maybe several. But where and when matter. They’re a core of you. And me. And those pink, purple things that I can’t grow anymore.

Not that I’m not going to keep trying. Because one of these days maybe here can become sort of there, without the dead owl, but maybe with some different, but painfully similar, flowers. In. Their. Place.

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