Eugene Cultivates, Reno Extracts

Tom Ward and Scott Clarke met when they were students at the University of Nevada in Reno. Although (or possibly because) Clarke worked for a company that serviced photocopiers, he found himself drawn to originals. Ward was an original, and still is. He traverses Nevada as “Lonesome Tom” with his guitar and sometimes a band. His website claims that booking him for a live performance is “SURPRISINGLY AFFORDABLE!”

Ward had an original idea about Reno that has helped Clarke make sense of Eugene in a new and inventive way. Both cities have developed a specialty that draws on and reconfigures its land’s longer legacy.

Nevada is known today first for gambling, but its Anglo heritage is in mining. Ward pointed out how gambling and mining are similar. Reno’s economy continues to rely on extraction. Its practice has shifted from extracting gold from terrain to extracting it from tourists, but the underlying values haven’t changed. Whether the booty comes from a hole in the ground or a hole in the pocket — either way, there’s no point in leaving any behind. It won’t make more gold. You can only make more holes.

So it’s not surprising that visitors often leave Reno feeling ruined. They binge until they’re broke.

As Clarke continued his education, he left Reno and arrived in Eugene. He must have used Ward’s insight to intuit this place. Ward saw Reno was built on extraction. Clarke found Eugene to be committed to cultivation.

The two cities’ currencies have different colors. Reno trades in glistening gold. Eugene settles its accounts with green — literally. When local professors are called on to explain why they accept salaries lower than their colleagues in other towns, their practiced response is, “we get paid in scenery.”

If Crayola filled its biggest box with nothing but green crayons, it couldn’t match Oregon’s hues and shades of lush. That’s the Oregon known to Oregonians, but it’s not the deepest impression of this place held by the rest of the country.

They know Eugene to be one of America’s fabled college towns. Whether “Animal House” was fact or fiction hardly matters. Bluto’s toga party may not have happened here, but it could have.

Students come to Eugene to grow up. Families move here to raise their children, attracted by good schools, safe neighborhoods, and calm streets. Toga parties notwithstanding, Eugene is known to be laid back, nurturing, and tolerant of people who use words like “notwithstanding.”

Our national reputation for education and experimentation is well established, but also of recent vintage. We’ve been a college town for only about as long as Reno’s been a gambling town. Again the reputation is rooted — literally — in what was already going on in this place.

If Reno and Nevada is extending its economy of extraction, Eugene and Oregon must continue its climate of cultivation. Before we began churning out architects and attorneys and anthropologists, we were producing logs and lawns and legumes.

Maybe its the trees that line the ridges around us, but people feel protected here — able to set their roots or reach their ambitions. Students set the tone, but it’s true for the rest of us as well.

Cultivation and extraction draw from different values and they result in different practices.

Cultivation posits sustainability. Whatever you pull out of the ground, you intend it to become a habit. You expect to return to that same patch of ground over and over again. In the case of some trees, those return trips might be decades or centuries apart, but the value is the same. Take what you need, and leave enough behind so it can replenish itself. Then wait.

Ruined or replenished? Extracted or cultivated? Stripped or nurtured? We know the difference, and we know what a difference it can make.

Whether you spend this weekend working your garden or congratulating graduates, understand that the two activities are more alike than different. Each is fundamentally optimistic. Each is rooted in this place.

If you don’t have a garden or a graduate to remind you, you still can look around you and see more shades of green than most people can even imagine.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.