Scene I: Somewhere in Brooklyn
One of my oldest friends and I are walking around Brooklyn, talking about the future and the past. Our past, my future, and a bit about his present. We had grown up in Portland together, walking around and sharing theories about the world and hip-hop music in the days before the internet had made such topics commonplace. He grew up and became a touring musician, and moved on a circuit of America and the world's biggest and coolest cities. I, as you might know, drifted in the opposite direction, a situation I was trying to rectify. For the young, educated or artistic in America, there are a few different options for places to move. You can move to one of the boutique cities where the politics are progressive, the arts are appreciated, and the sidewalks are clean. I was from one of these cities, Portland, perhaps the crown jewel of American boutique cities. Further in this direction, many people move to resort or college towns that are even more dedicated to the arts, and even more insulated from reality: Madison, Wisconsin, Burlington, Vermont or Aspen, Colorado. But there is a case to be made for jumping in the deep end of the pool and moving to one of the cities that, with all of its grit and problems, is a cultural center. Los Angeles, Chicago, and of course, New York City. As we walk, I acknowledge the strengths of Brooklyn, but everytime I pass a pile of trash on the sidewalk, I mention the charms of being back in Portland.
"Portland is nice" he agrees "but it is a bit of a cultural vacuum"
"Well, maybe that is why it keeps on sucking me back in."
Scene II: Portland, Oregon, three weeks later.
I am at the Dollar Tree, paying for some purchases that will help me on the last three days of my trip back home. As usual, I ask for a paper bag, before remembering I don't need to. This is Portland: all bags are paper, here. Not just in grocery stores, but in the cheapest of retail outlets, stores only use paper bags, by municipal law. It is nice to not have to ask for a bag that won't rip and tear and end up as a flimsy piece of garbage. It is nice to recycle, too. I had always thought the jokes about Portlanders recycling were a bit of an exaggeration: that they referred to only the most hyperactive type of recycling, like where you separate your compost out at a restaurant. But I visited other parts of the country where even the idea of recycling an aluminum can would have been treated like a subversion of general practice.
There were other things I saw in Portland, too: the Wishing Tree, a tree on a residential boulevard where people could write a wish they had and affix it to the tree. Some of the wishes were silly, some were serious, but they were a sign that people were interacting with their environment. There were Little Free Libraries, small wooden boxes on posts, usually decorated, where people could take and leave books.
To make an obvious point, all of this is culture. The fact that when I go to a convenience store, I get a paper bag and not a plastic bag is as much a form of culture as when I go to an art show. In fact, in some ways more of one: culture is part of how people live on an intrinsic level, not something you "do". Confining "culture" to something that starts and stops when you enter a building to look at art or listen to music is a limited version of culture.
There is still a few problems here. As mentioned, Portland is a small and relatively ethnically homogeneous city. For Portlanders to spend too much time patting themselves on the back when they've managed to freecycle a box of clothing doesn't really address all of the world's problems. It could be that all of this stuff is just a twee playground while the irreversible processes of resource exhaustion play themselves out, which brings us to:
Scene III: North Dakota, a few days before Brooklyn.
Miles of construction projects, some barely interrupting the hayble-strewn rolling prairies, some blotting out whatever landscape was there before. The conductor warns us that if we get off in Williston, we might have to spend 250 dollars a night for a motel room. The oil and gas boom has come to North Dakota, drawing in workers and tearing up the landscape. Many of the people on the train are returning to North Dakota, where they work 3 weeks on/1 week off schedules that allow them to go home to Seattle or Tacoma or Spokane. I don't recall any of these roughnecks having any swagger, or being roughnecks at all. If they are aware of the politics of the fracking debate at all, it is probably to know what what they are doing isn't going to last forever, and that they would rather not be in North Dakota anyway. But they need jobs and this is the place to go: retail jobs start at 20 dollars an hour and those working in the fields are often making in the three figures, for jobs like driving a truck. And all of this, the consequences of which can't be foreseen, are what pays for the party to go on in Brooklyn and for the gardens of Portland to grow so greenly. A culture that is in denial about the physical roots of its society, and its physical necessities, isn't much of a culture at all.