About fifteen years ago, we had dinner guests whom I’d never seen before and will likely never see again. I remember them by something they discussed, a topic I’d never considered that much—the trees in the Palmetto State: their variety, greenness, and abundance.
The guests were from California, here in South Carolina to pick up their son who had completed a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were excited to be taking him home and wanted to see some of the sights he had seen and meet some of the people he’d known. I don’t remember where the young man had served besides Camden and Charleston, but Charleston was a place his parents had read about, and the history, the Battery, the Citadel, the carriage tours—all of it captivated their interest and helped them decide to make the trip to South Carolina to collect their missionary rather than have him board a plane for home.
Before arriving at our home, they’d spent the day in Charleston, and rather than stay on I-26, they opted to ride some secondary roads that would allow a closer look at the real South Carolina. The foursome exited the interstate somewhere near Santee and discovered a charming little town called Elloree and eventually ended up in Sumter. All was well. But somewhere on Hwy 521 between Sumter and Camden, they (especially the mother) began to feel a bit overwhelmed by the curving, tree-lined roads that seemed to go on and on.
“It seemed like we’d been riding forever, and we were still fifteen miles away from Camden,” the mother told me. Trying to understand her astonishment, I said, “Uh-huh” and nodded in encouragement. I wanted to hear more.
“Where we’re from,“ she continued, “you can drive a straight line from point A to point B even though it might be miles and miles away. I’m talking fifty miles or more,” she said with more than a hint of perplexity and perhaps a little irritation, too.
“And there aren’t many trees to block the view either,” she said.
At the time, I thought it was kind of amusing. After all, I traveled that stretch of road nearly every day and knew exactly how to gauge the distance. I could feel the landscape and its beautiful trees, fields, hills, and curves.
When we visited Utah, Arizona, and South Dakota years later, I remembered the missionary’s mom and understood what she meant. If I’d grown up around Cholla cactus and Ponderosa pines, my psyche and sense of place would have been different—not better or worse, just different. Instead, I grew up around oak and elm trees—magnolia too, and dogwood. Green lushness, magnolia blossoms, profusions of pink azaleas, and the delicate blooms of dogwoods and crepe myrtles were my companions during the spring and summer. Red, orange, and golden leaves led the way from fall to winter. Interwoven with the seasons, native trees formed my life’s background and setting, something I’ve just come to know and appreciate.
Recently a friend introduced me to the work of Terry Tempest Williams, a writer, activist, environmentalist, and teacher from Utah. One of the reviewers for Refuge, the book I’m currently reading, said Williams shows how human emotional life can become intertwined with a particular landscape. So true, I thought. I’m beginning to recognize that more each day.
What about you? How has your environment affected you and formed the background for your life? Or has it?