12 March 2015

Swampers (livelihood in Okefenokee Swamp until 1937 national wildlife refuge designation) and Strangers - local knowledge

Tour service near east gate to the national wildlife refuge (10 min. west of Folkston, GA), 3/2015.

On a recent trip out of state to the Okefenokee Swamp far from the familiar climate of snow and ice, the contrast of being a local resident with insider knowledge to being a sojourner, just passing through, became clear. While enjoying the mild temperatures of Florida, the street organization and the design of traffic flow were unfamiliar. The names and faces also were strange. Of course the English (and Spanish) language, though sometimes accented to varying degrees, and many of the franchise business were the same or of a recognizable category (regional chains of grocery or hardware or convenience store, for example). And being a tourist meant setting each day’s schedule with little or no routine, responsibility, or recurring commitment. This lack of daily or weekly structure lent a sense of freedom and feeling of being unencumbered. But it also meant lack of connection to groups and individuals nearby, except for ones based on commercial transaction of hotel, restaurant, fuel for the rental car or any other purchases made along the way. In other words, being out of one’s element tends to leave on on the sidelines of local life; a spectator to the rhythms of the day and cycles of the season. What remains open to engage on equal terms to long-time residents with their layers of local knowledge, then, is the natural world outside of human affairs: bird watching, eco-touring, botanical observations and insect sighting. Then there is the historical and archaeological perspective: imagining what stood in a given location before the present scene, either the Big Events marked by brass plaques edited by historical commissions, or ones unmarked by label text but narrated in history pamphlets or detectable to someone with an eye for material culture and traces of by-gone times before gas-powered automobiles (e.g. narrow streets and no built-in garages; no parking lots), before telephones or electric power distribution, etc.
    After a few days of living in hotels and eating at recommended restaurants with some local ingredients or styles, it was time to make the transit back home. What things constitute “home”? What connections and meanings are available in a place long lived in, compared to the meager meanings one can extract in a few hours or days spent someplace? Whether it is out of state but in the same country, or it is abroad in a place based on different language and culture, the defining elements of “being a local resident” are much the same and set apart those with many days lived in the spot from those with few memories layered there. Knowing a place by “face and by name” means that the streets and landmarks are familiar old friends or at least acquaintances. Naturally a person’s habits, work, or leisure make some places more familiar than others. So there may be corners of a town or city that remain unknown or only dimly familiar. A stranger may see only the surface elements of a spot, while a local may have personal memories either good, bad or indifferent tied to the same place.
    Next to knowing a location “by name or at least by face” there are the responsibilities (school and clubs, work, family and friendly interactions) and recreational involvements of hobbies and community that introduce structure and shape the schedule of one’s day, week and each season of the year.
    Then there are is the “local knowledge” of being able to identify what a person, place or thing signifies; what meaning there may be in a given piece or news or local happening, or indeed opportunity for business or civic undertaking. The analogy to foreign places is “cultural literacy”; that is, recognizing what something or someone means as well as knowing what something means. Also analogous to foreign situations comparing insider and outsider experiences, there is “social proficiency” in knowing how to go about solving a problem, whether it is mending clothing, purchasing a specialty item, or finding the answer to a complicated (social or material) problem. Strangers  would bring their own toolkit of methods, but locals would have a much wider range of immediate solutions. The third analogy from foreign experiences besides cultural literacy and social proficiency is linguistic fluency; that is, being able to express oneself as well as to interpret the meanings of those who are all around. When the comparison is between local and outsider of the same nation-state or at least the same (native) language, then regional differences of inflection, accent or (local) vocabulary are relatively small and do not overly lead to different experiences of the local terrain. Whether one’s spoken signature style was learned in the north, south, east, center or west does not greatly set apart local and outsider at the onset. However, because locals can hear that “you aren't from around here” then they can take extra interest in assisting you (the host-guest function of ancient times), or on the contrary dismiss you as being inconsequential to the local affairs that most interest them.
    In summary, being an outsider in a warm, sunny place for a few days, where the language is about the same as home, but everything else is unfamiliar, the reasons for feeling like a spectator became clear: the bases for engaging in meaningful schedule and purposeful interchange were limited to commercial transaction for traveler services (food, transport, lodging, guiding), to observation and inquiring into the natural environment and seasonal cycles, and to some study of historical events and the observable material traces of bygone times. Then in turn the return to home ground quickly restored the familiar routines of the day and week: preparing meals, keeping house and yard and pets, answering mail and email, and catching up with work left temporarily aside. Knowing one’s life space “by name or at least by face” (as people normally say of those they recognize) is what makes a place familiar, day by day, as new memories and projects and envisioned possibilities take shape, layer upon layer, making meaning of one’s life.

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