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Every locale shows a sense of place or self. In some areas this is watered down by mass market food or retail outlets aimed at perfectly wedding low cost with its equal in quality. But even where local establishments or culture have been eroded to fading echoes there remains a tiny hint of what was. Under the mantle of the mass are fragments of what was. These remnants are borne in the individual who incorporated these things into themselves with the air, milk, and bread of growing up. That person may stand in line for a lunch of soup served in a paper cup and eaten with a plastic spoon. That person may act satisfied as any of the other hurried diners hastily gulping a grab-and-go meal, but inside they recall a time when soup bowls were small ceramic oceans where flavor was cooked in rather than substituted for by a teenage cook quickly adding more salt.
The place where old culture/old society lingers longest and strongest is in language. It does not require a trained ear to distinguish a Chicago accent or recognize Mexican/American tones. Loss of native languages over past centuries is often marked as a form of mass cultural murder. It’s true. Once a language is gone its character and contribution to sound and sense go with it; vanishing into what was. The loss is real, but the gain in function or in common understanding may be of greater value and use than keeping alive a language with little relevancy other than as a cultural artifact. I say artifact because living languages change whereas preserved ones do not. Take Latin; in its preserved form it is dead.
(An aside – We sometimes hear missionaries, specifically Christian, held accountable for the destruction of native languages/cultures. They surely played a part, but all expanding cultures do the same. Mayas and Aztecs obliterated surrounding groups as the Conquistadors did to them. You could say English is an aggressive language family because its form makes for efficient use of nouns and verbs for action. You could say the same for a form of old Arabic required for use in religious and legal matters in the expanding Caliphate. The more tyrannical the objective the more manners of dress and language and behavior will be imposed.)
OK, I wandered off there, but all you Reader readers are easily and often aware of loads of little cues and clues in the sound of verbal/non-verbal communication. Most of us would figure out in a reasonably short time where we were if whisked off to a new location and awoke suddenly in a mass market store. Even in the uniformity/conformity of a big box operation you’d soon gather clues that would distinguish Edina from Eveleth. People are naturally alert to slight shifts of tone. We acquired this as toddlers needing to stay alert to the moods of the giants all around us, and of course the species survived being able to stay alert to potential danger stalking them while they were heads down picking berries.
We are an alert species; not always smart enough to recognize what we notice (as those who walk toward doom when they see a beach recede before a tsunami hits) or we misread because we’re too immersed in the “herd” to take seriously the danger signs being vigorously flashed by those on the fringes whose DUTY and FUNCTION has always been to give warning. An all-is-well, follow orders mentality is calm and soothing, but it is exactly the sort of soothing that helped the “peaceful” resettlement of millions of European Jews into gas chambers. Any society is vulnerable by its own blind spots and more vulnerable again when con-groups speak “peace” with swords behind their back or preach “equality” with robbery in mind.
The preceding four paragraphs (five if you count the aside) are preamble to a reflection on the North Shore as a place that could be mildly compared to Alaska in terms of admirably stubborn individuality, resistance to change, and fiercely adamant distrust of anything big in business or government. (The local male, however, does dote upon the largeness of big engines and bigness in certain female body parts.) I can testify to the annoyance factor of neighbors who honor complaint as high civic virtue, but I also know we need to hear their complaints out if we’re to have solutions that stand a better chance than the usual repetition of past mistakes with a new paint job or tummy tuck. Since a fair number of the people up here came here and stay here because they wanted to escape BIG anything it is not surprise they try to snuff bigness at its first toddling step. People have been “running away” to the North Shore for a long while and they have not done so with the intention of staying close to larger society. The North Shore is little like Alaska. Think of it as Alaska Lite.
When we moved here one of those I most admired and enjoyed had been a run-away from an unhappy home at age 14 when he found refuge in a logging camp where he “slept” among the steam engines to keep them fired through freezing winter nights. He moved with logging jobs to the Shore where he stayed because it was far enough from where he’d come from. There were many stories such as his of young men fleeing something or other (sometimes a young wife) to escape and start over. The North Shore was an Alaska within reach. One escapee gave his name as Ollor, which if spelled backward is Rollo, the same trick he performed with his last name to fool everyone.
People who escape always bring more than a little with them and it is that which very often is the soul that gives a local community its peculiar and distinctive aura. F’r instance if I spoke of a place where you’d walk in and find fourteen women wearing plaid shirts you’d know in one skip whether it was Grand Marais or Grand Rapids and I’d not have to say a word about rotund build or hiking boots as clues. You knew what was meant without another word said.