Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 16, 2010

Positively Green

Our sense of place vs. our sense of entitlement

by Iris Harrell

My parents, Evelyn and Alton, were born with a strong sense of place. Our family can be traced back to the 1600s as Jamestown settlers in Virginia. When your ancestors have been in one place for many centuries, one has a strong sense of belonging; I had a sense of protective ownership about the multiple places in Virginia we called home.

We kept our yards and houses very clean. We planted trees that continued to grow long after we moved away. Although we moved four times during my 12 years of public school, we treated each home as if we were going to be there forever.

But the call of progress and opportunity beckoned my parents. They were constantly torn between the excitement and financial opportunities of the Virginia suburbs, versus the calm, quiet and peaceful rural Carolina country life where they were raised. When they finally committed to suburban life, they gave our Carolina homestead to my aging grandparents, who stayed there until their passing.

That Carolina home was among many 1940s Virginia tract homes that were slated to be torn down (My mother had hired a house-moving company to relocate it from Virginia to Carolina.). The only costs for that home were moving it, building a foundation to receive it, and providing plumbing lines to a septic tank and an electrical connection from the power line at the road. This relocated house was the first home my grandparents lived in that had indoor plumbing and electricity. They thought they had died and gone to heaven! And when we visited my grandparents, we enjoyed the shade of the trees that my father had planted years earlier.

As America grew more prosperous in the post-World War II boom, our own sense of place became harder to hold onto. Big corporations replaced small independent businesses. Large shopping malls represented "real progress." The first McDonald's came to our town. Our family spent less time cooking and eating together.

My mother opened a beauty shop and my father was a truck driver. Our activities and ways of thinking distanced us from one another as we all did our part to survive. After 20 years together, my parents divorced and the idyllic world of my early childhood created in that old Carolina homestead evaporated overnight.

My ultimate loss of "sense of place" occurred during my five-year stint on the road as part of a traveling band. A glance in the phone book confirmed what town I was in. Driving long nights with the band from gig to gig, I would notice homes with electric lights and families inside and I'd yearn to have a sense of place again. How I wanted to have a place to go home to. I felt I was entitled to what others had — a home, a family, a sense of belonging, a sense of community. I had not realized that the frenetic and motion-filled choices I had made in my adult life's journey had deprived me of my sense of belonging and place.

As I approach being a senior, I am grateful that I have found a real sense of place here on the Peninsula. In the last decade, I have come to appreciate a much more intense sense of belonging and community as I imagine the photo of Earth shot from outer space. I have a protective sense of ownership that makes me want to occupy my home and its surroundings as if I will be here forever. But more than that, I feel compelled to do everything I can to broaden my understanding of the meaning of home, family and community.

A nagging question keeps bothering me: Is my sense of entitlement to clean air, clean water, green open spaces, gas and electrical power justified by my insufficient efforts to preserve the place I now call home? Am I carrying an outdated American frontier attitude of, "if I mess this place up, there is always another virgin place for me to start over?" If I consider Earth my larger sense of home, am I being a good citizen or squandering the resources I currently have full access to?

I wrestle with that question and I hope you are wrestling with it, too. We all have so much to lose if we don't continue to get this conservation and preservation issue resolved.

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.

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