I was surprised to see how much of the discussion in the comments to my post on Ed Abbey focused on the idea that being born in a place is the only way to truly understand it or have a legitimate voice in decisions about it. There are of course people who believe that, but it’s not the idea I was trying to talk about. Clearly I wasn’t expressing myself very well, so here’s another try.
The mindset that I was thinking of, and associating with my dad and his family, sees being “local” to a place, and therefore understanding it, as having more to do with familiarity than with origin. That is, it’s not that someone has to necessarily be born in a place or live there for a whole lifetime to understand it, but that someone who does actually live in an area and who interacts with it on a constant basis knows more about it and has more invested in its future than someone who lives somewhere else and only visits that place occasionally. This isn’t as exclusionary as it might sound, because it acknowledges that someone can move from one category to the other by moving to the area and becoming a local. One metaphor that might help to elucidate what I’m saying here is that these people see the landscape as a house occupied by them and some, but not many, other people. As occupants of the house, they have a vested interest in keeping it in good shape. Thus, the idea of stewardship. In real life this can be interpreted in various ways, of course, and other values influence its expression, but that’s the core of the idea as I see it.
At this point I’m well into the realm of speculation and I don’t want to imply that this is exactly how my dad saw these issues, but I think this is the general attitude that a lot of people in the West have toward the land there. I also definitely don’t want to imply that I, personally, agree with this idea.
In contrast to landscape-as-house is landscape-as-playground, which is the outlook that the “house” people attribute to the people who only visit occasionally. I think it’s a bit of a strawman in the ways it’s generally presented, and these days it’s so heavily infused with culture-war ressentiment that it doesn’t reflect any sort of reality very well. Nevertheless, I think it does explain the hostility of a lot of Westerners to people from outside coming in to visit, being enchanted by the landscape, and thinking they understand what’s best for it. The “playground” people advocate for policies that they see as best for preserving the land, while the “house” people see the same policies as attempts by the outsiders to keep the land for themselves and restrict the freedom of the people who actually live there to use the land. The house people, of course, see their priorities for the land as being better for the land itself than the playground people’s, and vice versa. It often comes down to a fundamental clash of values.
In practice, of course, there are a wide variety of perspectives within both these camps, and the fact that “playground” people can become “house” people by moving to a place tends to muddle any clear distinction in policy preferences. Certainly many of the strongest voices today in favor of tough federal policies to preserve wild areas are people who do actually live nearby, and some of the strongest voices against such policies are corporations that are headquartered far away.
The way I’ve described this distinction here seems to show a bias toward the “house” side, but that’s just because that’s the side that I’m trying to describe here. I think this whole dichotomizing way of viewing these issues comes from within that perspective, and that the people the “house” side classifies as belonging to the “playground” side generally don’t even think of themselves as comprising a coherent group with common aims. There’s also an issue of scale, which is important given the vast land areas involved. How close to an area does someone have to live to qualify as “local”? Hard to say. And, again, I don’t mean to endorse any of this myself. I’m just describing the mindset as I see it.
Finally, I don’t mean to associate any of this with Abbey himself. While he would certainly be classified into the “playground” group by the “house” group, I’m not going to try to either justify or refute that characterization. As I mentioned before, I haven’t read any of Abbey’s stuff, and I don’t plan to. I find this whole issue very unpleasant to think about, and life’s too short to bother with it any more than necessary.