Recently I was taking a walk with my dear friend E.P. Beaumont. We were walking along the river talking about our recent projects and Day Job frustrations when she paused to notice how green the trees were. It took me by surprise, not because I hadn’t noticed that the trees were green, but that it was worth mentioning. I had a similar response to my Great Aunt’s visit and her constant chatter about trees in the city.
I should pause for a moment to mention that I grew up right here in Minnesota. In fact, I’m currently living just five miles from the home where I grew up. There were four years when I lived in far Western Minnesota while attending school and a smattering of vacations and other travel that have taken me out of Minnesota (and a few out of the country). Other than that, here I have been, and it looks like here I will stay, although Portland, OR is tempting. Both E.P. and my Great Aunt grew up elsewhere.
The home environment, especially the home environment as a child, has a great impact on the expectations and viewpoint of a person. Take my Aunt. She was literally wide eyed that there were trees everywhere. In my neighborhood, for example, almost every house has at least one tree in the front yard (and many have two or three in the back). My Grandmother’s condo complex has one tree for every unit. Closer into the city center, you find neighborhoods where the city plants and maintains the trees on the boulevard – in nice evenly spaced plots. To me this is normal – it’s what cities do. Sure the leaves are a pain in the back come fall, but they are totally worth it for the shade, air and beauty. My Aunt lives in New York. She thinks her city is doing it’s job by making sure that there is at least some grass in most neighborhoods (that isn’t growing in the cracks of the sidewalks).
I’m not going to talk about the natural environments of Minnesota and New York. That’s a whole other rant, er… I mean post. The thing is that my Aunt is used to very little green life within a city. To see green, you have to go to a park or travel out of the city. That’s just normal. Here, though, green is everywhere. Trees are planted and encouraged. They are given space within the city to thrive. Not just in parks and special places, but all around us. “It’s like you are living in the middle of the woods with all the modern conveniences” Aunt said when I mentioned that it was the tenth time that day she’d talked about the trees. I could see her point, once she said it. It’s not something I would have come up with on my own, nor is it something that I will say without attributing it. I just don’t think of it as living in the woods (I’ve seen some neighborhoods – far out in the suburbs – where it really is living in the woods).
Had the visit been reversed, and I went to see her. I would probably have been just as vocal about the lack of trees and green as she was about their presence. When I was in London, I spent a lot of time noticing how close the buildings were to the streets. In some cases there was a sidewalk on only one side of a street. I actually said something about it to a native Londoner. She laughed as though I’d told a joke, but agreed it was true. For her it was just something that was until someone pointed out that it didn’t have to be that way. The same thing happened in Ireland when I complained about the lack of straight lines. Especially in the small towns where I was staying, there isn’t a road that goes straight for more than about 50 feet (at least in my perception). It made it really easy to get turned around and quite lost for a foreigner. One man, with a cheery smile, told me they did it that way so they would know the foreigners. It was effective. He was sweet enough to walk me to my destination so I wouldn’t get lost again.
Even my husband, who grew up in Chicago, and I have different perspectives on our city. To me, Minneapolis is a big city. To him it is a suburb. In Morris, MN (a town of about 5000 during the school year) half of the students are there to get away from the big city and the other half are coming to the big city. My first roommate was from a little town in South Dakota, pop 250. She told me that the idea of going to a school any bigger than UofM Morris scared her. It was bad enough that Morris had a student cap of 2,000. She was impressed that the town had three gas stations, two grocery stores and a movie theater. I was too, but from a totally different perspective. I saw it as ONLY three gas stations, ONLY two grocery stores and the movie theater had ONLY one screen.
What it all comes down to is perspective. You imprint on the environment you call home. That becomes the basis for all your judgments of the rest of the world. Anything bigger than your home town is “the big city” and anything smaller is a “town”. Any difference in the welcoming of nature will seem odd, no matter how natural it might be for that area.
This is great when you are describing your character. You don’t have to say that she comes from a small town, you just have to show her reaction to the “big city”. A reaction to a public fountain could tell you more about the character’s life in the desert. Even a character from low tech background would have interesting things to say about a gas stove. Or, going the other way, a high tech character dropped into low tech world would have interesting things to say about cooking over an open fire – “You’re going to burn that poor little rabbit and call it food?”