Some people put roots down where they were born. Others find fertile ground elsewhere and sow their own seeds. Either way, if we stay somewhere long enough, and make a connection, it can become an important part of who we are and how we perceive the world.
Author Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and author of six books, including Grand Avenue and Watermelon Nights, has a lifelong connection with the local landscape. Likewise, Bohemian columnist Jonah Raskin has grown deep roots in the North Bay, both personally and with regard to the wider literature of California—authoring and/or editing over 20 books. Together on Jan. 29, the two writers will discuss and explore the notion of “place” in “A Sense of Place: Author Greg Sarris in Conversation with Jonah Raskin,” hosted by the Rohnert Park–Cotati Library.
A sense of place is something familiar to those who have it. And for those who don’t, there is a sense of something else, maybe a vague feeling of disconnect. Some people just live with that. Others travel until they find a connection. And many find it in the North Bay.
Raskin explores the diversity of those who are native here, those who grew up here, and those who came here and found what they were looking for. He himself is one of the latter.
“I came here as an outsider in November 1975 and didn’t feel any attachment to the place then. Over the years I’ve developed an affinity—a connection to the land, the people, the agriculture and the literature,” Raskin says.
Sarris grew up in Santa Rosa and didn’t leave for the first 20 years of his life. Growing up in a single place allowed him to learn to perceive the world’s connections in a focused, interdependent way.
In Raskin’s book about Northern California writers, Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives, he writes, “Sarris has burrowed so deeply into our region that he’s hit the bedrock of our national experience. He’s made Sonoma County into a metaphor for the nation at large.”
In his books, Sarris explores growing up partly Native American in Santa Rosa. He was born mixed race and adopted and raised by a white family. Like many with complex family situations, the land offers refuge—whether it be a rural, urban or suburban landscape.
“I grew up in and around many different families and cultures here, so I see the place as a complex interweaving—a tapestry if you will—of a unique history,” Sarris says. “Many different people in cultural perspectives inform Sonoma County and populate it with stories.”
And these stories largely informed who he became as a person.
“Much of what formed me as a conscious human being has to do with people as well as places here in Sonoma County,” Saris says. “Everywhere I go here, I see and remember stories. I can walk to a grove of redwoods or up here on Sonoma Mountain where I live and it is like the landscape begins speaking. Of course, I have lived [in] other places—including Los Angeles—but because of my long and first history here, I could say that Sonoma County has filled me with more to think about and write about than any other place.”
For those looking to connect with a place, it’s literally about the land. If you grew up here, you already had your hands in the dirt as children and the landscape holds your stories. In Raskin’s case, he became closely bonded with Sonoma County while working as a field worker at Oak Hill Farm doing research for his book about Sonoma County agriculture, Field Days.
“I believe that it was a turning point in my life when I worked at Oak Hill Farm,” Raskin says. “I wanted to write a book about it and I said, ‘The only way I can really write about this place is to work here, not just interview people, but to get down into the ground and be part of the whole process.’ It made me feel more connected to this place emotionally, psychologically and not just intellectually.”
When you are in a long-term conversation with the landscape, it becomes a text you can pass on. Raskin and Sarris alike now understand the area so well that they are mentors to others.
“A sense of place is sort of like a book or a play,” Sarris says. “You can begin reading it and then know it. But if you are very familiar with the book or play, you’d know it very well, all of its parts. For me, the local landscape is a sacred text full of stories that have been told to me by my ancestors, as well as where many historical events have taken place—and in some cases continue to take place.”
For Raskin, growing up reading the American literature of California instilled in him an appreciation of it.
“This place is changing very rapidly; one reason I’m writing about it is to preserve a record of what has been here,” he says. “It’s important to have a connection to the earth and not just be alienated. It helps to look to people who’ve been there before you.”
For him those people are other California writers. Raskin has written extensively about the literature and landscapes of California—from Jack London to Sarris, from Diane Di Prima to Rebecca Solnit, and, more recently, about the agriculture of the area.
Sarris says of Raskin, “Jonah himself has been a long-time resident of this county and has covered and written about so much of its history and life. Both of us share, albeit in different ways I’m sure, profound love and respect for the land and people.”
Raskin believes in getting these ideas out into the public sphere.
“I believe it’s important to be a public intellectual, to be out there with your ideas, your values and share them,” he says. “And it’s good to remind people of the Native American history and culture—Native Americans have shaped this landscape.”