Geologue: Guess what world location is being described.
Sound echoes up through three stories of narrow stone corridor. It’s the rise and fall of animated conversation, children playing, the exchange today’s news. The birds too are chatting as they sprint over the grey slate rooftops toward the shimmering foothill lake and lush green hillsides in the warm afternoon sun. The wood ovens are firing up in preparation for the dinner hours and the tourists mill in the piazza eating gelato. Can you guess the name of this GeoLogue location?
This is Italy. There is no denying it. The place is called Lago d’Orta, in the lakes region in the Piemontese northern portion of Italy. Like any good geotourist destination Lago d'Orta has a unique sensory print, a mix of sounds, sights and scents that are its own and give the visitor a clear sense of place.
Does Tahoe have a unique sensory print? There is the chickadee whose song awakens with the forest in spring. One can feel the altitude in the deep blue of Tahoe sky and the dry air so lovely to inhale. The sweet scent of Jeffrey pine in the springtime is delectable. The occasional taste of cold clean water while swimming in the lake is a surprising treat and the quiet crunch of quick footsteps on pine needles exhilarates the way it recalls dawn runs on lakeside trails—footbridges suspended over turquoise blue water. Ah yes, like any good geotourist destination, Tahoe has a unique sensory print.
What I love about the Italian scene is the comfort of the people in their place. It’s not just the sense of being settled in buildings sometimes 600 years old, it’s the ease with which music is played in a church, poetry is shared in a corridor, modern reflections in art are shared in a continuum with the reflections of centuries of cultural evolution. There is self-confidence in the expression of people’s place in the Italian landscape. In Tahoe how can we become more confident of our place in this magnificent space? If we take a lead from the Italians we’ll commit to centers of commerce and social gathering, appropriate in scale and distributed throughout the built environment. It’s in these shared places that communal self-perception is nourished, where laughter blooms from discourse and where problems are addressed through both concentrated and casual interaction on the topics of civic life.
In his book Americans and the California Dream, Kevin Starr gives an overview of some key moments of cultural evolution in western self-perception in the period 1850-1915. Reading this account of some of the attempts to “connect imaginatively with the environment” reveals how much our current perception of life in the Sierra Nevada owes to early pioneers’ attempts to connect creatively with the broad expanses and natural drama of the scenery. Are there contemporary equivalents to John Muir, Henry Hittel (Grizzly Adams) or the painters of the Hudson River School exploring the unique character of the Sierra Nevada in the world today? In a recent Tahoe Project interview with Claire Fortier about SB 271 she notes how “we” (contemporary Tahoe) are failing to recognize the cultural evolution that has shifted Nevadan perception of Tahoe in the past two decades. If she is right, why has this been missed and what would help perception of Nevada’s sentiment about the Tahoe Basin catch up to the reality of Nevada’s sentiment about the Basin? Is this an example of a gap that better communication through the arts and cultural dialogue could fill? How can Tahoe communities collectively become centers that put art and culture at the forefront and center?
Envisioning the future of any place is an ongoing and multivariate effort. Good initiatives occasionally open the conversation in Tahoe communities only for the momentum of that dialogue to be lost in the absence of cultural spaces to host it on an ongoing basis. Tahoe suffers from a lack of venues to keep those good conversations going, to explore in the arts and in discourse what different versions of those visions might look like. Absent the creative space to “try on” a variety of looks and feels for Tahoe it strikes me that we may be using planning meetings and the courts as a surrogate for community spaces. Would we do ourselves a favor by creating spaces and supporting arts in a way that enables self-reflection in our own unique Tahoe style?