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Will Shonbrun
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Will Shonbrun

A Sense of Place

At a recent talking heads (albeit with visible bodies attached) event labeled, “A Community Conversation,” the opening question thrown out to the audience was, “What does Sonoma mean to you?” to be answered in a few words or a short phrase. I thought about it and the only thing that came to mind that answered truthfully was, “A sense of place.” I’ve asked myself that question before, often times actually over the years and the answer still comes up the same.

So then the natural response is … what does that mean, and here for the first time I’ll try to answer that only in the sense of what it means to me, one resident of this place.

The answers voiced by the audience that night were varied as so one would expect from a question like that, meant to spark a dialogue, which is not a bad way to get a conversation going. Only flaw in this is that besides the audience’s terse replies only two speakers gave their thoughts and ideas, on a variety of matters of local interest and issues of the day with a focus on how those things affect life in Sonoma for most of the conversation.

This is not to denigrate in any way the two key speakers; smart, articulate, experienced and I’d say genuine people, but it is not a conversation by my reckoning of the word, which implies a lot of give ands take. Yes, time was carved out in the last 20-30 minute segment of the program for submitted written questions, but again the two speakers did most, actually all of the responding to these questions. So I got to hear an audience’s short questions, but nothing else from them, from us, the community mentioned in the program’s title.

Back to the question at hand: What does Sonoma mean to you? Let me answer with a little story, which is what I often do.

Shortly after landing in Sonoma in the mid 80s and finding a job, someone turned me on to Sonoma State University. I drove up on Old Adobe and then onto Petaluma Hill Blvd, walked around the then-smaller campus, liked what I saw and got a brochure of courses. Upon later review I saw a few classes that looked interesting and enrolled in one or two, all I had time for.

One the courses that grabbed my attention was titled, “Nature, Man & Woman,” taught out of the Psychology Dept. It looked interesting and new to me, offered ideas I’d not thought much about and I enrolled.

One of the earliest assignments my class of 20-25 or so was given was to agree to “study” something, one thing, anything the chooser wished for 100 consecutive days. The only proviso was it had to be something directly related to the natural world. That was pretty much it. After the 100 days we were expected to report back on our experiences and what we found out.

Well, since we are a part of the natural world I figured the project was wide open and I could choose to study almost anything, and since I was doing a fairly regular practice of yoga and meditation I might as well do and study that. Yoga is a doing kind of thing and meditation is a study of sorts. But it didn’t have a “natural” part and that stumped me.

Then one day driving that wonderful Adobe Rd. up to Cotati either going to or from class it hit me. I’d study; I’d immerse myself in this new place in which we’d come to live, Sonoma. But that was too big and there was no practical way to do that.

My wife and I had recently bought an old house in the Springs on a small plot of land, maybe one third of an acre at most, and were settling in. We’d started a small winter garden, it was fall, clearing weeds and cutting back unwanted vegetation and scouting out good spots to plant some trees, adding to those already there.

At a far corner of the lot that was open to the view from the road going by we planted five or six young redwoods because we loved redwoods and knew eventually they’d block the view from that road as we also loved privacy as well. In a sense they were our first five babies and we surely dotted on them.

So watching our redwoods grow became a part on my 100 days project and the rest of it kind of fell into place.

As said, Sonoma was new to me as well as the land I was living on. I could fulfill the assignment by simply spending time on this new (to me) tiny speck of nature – the land, the air, the smells, sounds, other creatures, all of it – and bring as much consciousness and awareness to it as possible for some amount of time every day for 100 days. In a sense it brought meditation, yoga and exploration together, and that’s what I did.

What doing that assignment gave to me was a dawning sense of place. The place – land and house – and its place – the neighborhood – and the place in which all this sat – the Valley called Sonoma.

In those 100 days of immersion, of attention to one part of nature in one place I began to become familiar with its sights and sounds and smells and movements, and its stillnesses. In doing this kind of practice feelings emerge and of course thoughts. And I attended to those as well, as that was the assignment, no? It was a practice in conscious awareness, awareness of what’s going on around you and at the same time what’s going on within you.

The 100-day assignment ended, but my lesson in observation, outward and inward has continued.

Shortly after landing in Sonoma we became aware of SDC’s lower reservoir and the trails to and from and around it. We’re dog people so we began walking our dogs around the reservoir. Entry to SDC and its lands from either Hwy. 12 or Arnold is a very short drive from out place and in the ensuing 30-years it’s been a regular destination and walk. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked it, but it must be hundreds. I know that land and water better than any place I’ve ever lived.

A little digression. I was born and raised a city person, a big city. Concrete and asphalt was the land I knew. There were some parks, one very large one, but those weren’t what I saw and heard and felt every day for almost my first 30 years. They were the oases in a desert of concrete and steel. And over time I did get to know that place pretty well, well enough to know I didn’t want to live there anymore.

Being in nature, in Sonoma, was not being in the wild, but living in it, on the ground, only separated by a low foundation was for me a new experience. Over time my connection to it has gotten deeper. I am now, after 30 years here beginning to feel a part of it. It is where, if fortune will have it, I’ll live out my days and what remains of me will stay. I find this very comforting. It feels to me I have found my place in life.

And besides the place on which I dwell, where I’ve built a house and raised a family and found a community of kindred souls, there is the lower reservoir and the hills and trails around it. This comprises my sense of place. It’s here I want some of my ashes scattered to the winds.

My preference at death is for the body to be burned and rendered to ashes. I’m a fire sign so it’s a natural. The rest of those ashes, that being who was and is no more, will fall upon the place where we made our lives, Suzanne and me, and the only place my daughter has known as home.

It’s said that in Native American lore decisions are made with an awareness of how it will affect the people for generations to come, seven is the number I’ve heard repeated. It’s also said that it takes generations for people to truly know a place. I believe that is true.

It sounds corny, but the land at SDC is sacred to me. In times of trouble I’ve walked it and found solace there. In times of grief it’s eased the pain. In those rare moments of equanimity it’s brought peace to my soul. This is my sense of place.

Post script: The state is hell-bent to sell off all the SDC lands it can to the highest bidders, i.e., commercial developers because it, 1. Wants the money, and 2. Is not that truly concerned about the more than 400 residents of SDC who comprise the most profoundly ill and vulnerable men and women among us. These are the individuals whose welfare should be of the most concern in our society, but it is least in the eyes of California state government. This will never be admitted. When pressed they’ll offer bureaucratic rationales and financial excuses, but it’s at base political palaver to cover up the fact that money – the most money they can get for the land – is what makes them dance. And that’s the name of that tune.

This does not mean that the many non-profits and county agencies and concerned individuals who are banding together to preserve and keep SDC as a facility to serve its current residents, even expand it, and to plan how some of those SDC lands can be used to serve the commons, i.e., non commercial uses should give up. Sonoma does not need more high-end resort hotels, vineyards and wineries or palatial estates on the hills for the ultra wealthy to play in. Many of us are committed to this never happening and if the state thinks we’re just going to roll over and give up they’re in for a big surprise. As far as I’m concerned this battle is only just begun.

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