Sense of Place

In between the buffeting winds of the latest blizzard to howl down from the west, and before I relocate to Flagstaff, Arizona, in the shadow of Dook’o’oosłííd, I figured it’s about time I spent some words on the subject of ‘sense of place’.  Landscape documentor George Seddon brought the term into the popular lexicon as the title of his 1972 book on the biogeography of Western Australia.  Others, notably architects Christopher Alexander and Yi-Fu Tuan, educator David Sobel, and biologist Gary Nabhan, have used ‘sense of place’ to signify a variety of meanings, all more or less complementary.

A couple of years ago the school I was working for sent me to a Bioneers conference on ecological education.  Deep within the wierd corridors of the Marin County Civic Center, I heard Jeanette Armstrong explain that “land is a process.  Place is a verb, not a noun.”  (Incidentally, this is also the event in which I heard Armstrong’s partner, Marlowe Sam offer the comment on a slide of a garden of native plants installed in a parking lot median by some local students, “that’s good that they put that garden there, but it would be better to get some crowbars and tear up that parking lot; could grow a much bigger garden…”)  I did not understand what she meant by that at first, but it sounded strange enough to be worth remembering.  I spent the next year or so holding “place is a verb” in mind on my ramblings.  Transition times- dusk, snow-melting time, robin-fledging time, and others like that- are good for understanding this idea.

A sense of place, as I use the term, is an intimate understanding of the processes of that place, on it, in it, and of it.  None of us is separable from where we are, no matter how thoroughly our countrymen may have poisoned, paved over, or otherwise attempted to obliterate all others previously living there.  We are all in a deep and intimate relationship with the ground beneath our feet, as communicated by the language of gravity.  No matter how isolated we may believe ourselves to be, we are every day carrying on conversations of sustenance with the water we drink, the creatures we eat, and the air we breathe.  That the winds do not (always) speak with human voices or hold their intelligence in crennelated flesh in no way diminishes their ability to confer quite meaningfully with our lungs.  There are ropes of relationship that are woven between our footfalls and the grasshoppers that spring away into the tall grass; there are songs sung back and forth between a hungry flame, the kindling it eats, and a human hand that brings one to the other.  As many earnest young activists have explained at length, there is a real link between the gasoline we burn in our cars and the violent appropriation of this resource from other people elsewhere in the world, and also, perhaps, to the ferns and salamanders whose bodies constitute the fluid, and beyond to the ancient sunlight whose fossilized energy we finally harvest in the churning of our pistons.  Everywhere we go, we cause changes in the land; it is our choice to pay attention, or not, to what they are, and to commit, or not, to a mode of behavior that is beneficial to it and to us.  This is part of what constitutes one’s sense of place, and is one of the reasons I dislike the term ‘the environment.’

When I was working for the Audubon Society, I saw a poster which I though was hilarious.  It showed a map of the western coast of this continent, inland to the Sierra Nevada, marked with lines indicating ‘California,’ ‘Oregon,’ etc.  On it were a handful of tiny green patches widely scattered across a sea of grey, cheerfully marked with topographical features.  At the bottom, in proud letters, it said ‘Important Bird Areas of California.’  “Look,” I said, laughing, “this map shows all of the unimportant bird areas in the state!”  Nobody else was amused.

Insofar as we believe that we are at all separable from where we are, we will act as though some portion of that place is unimportant; it is the mark of a society that has forgotton how binocular vision works that we produce eyeglasses with lenses that only focus the area directly in front of our faces.  It behooves us, I think, to cultivate a deep and detailed awareness of what is happening where we are.

Songbirds are phenomenal teachers of this way of interacting with the world.  Almost everything you’re liable to see or hear a bird do is a reaction to something going on in the area.  I’ll say more about bird language in future writings, but for the time being, I offer a general recommendation to pay attention to birds when you’re out and about in the world.  How do different species react when a predator is in the area?  Can you determine where a predator is, based on the reactions of other birds?  Do birds react to a ground predator differently than they do to an aerial one?  How do birds react when you enter their sphere of awareness?  Can you change your behavior to alter their reactions to you?

We must live with attention to the needs and gifts of where we are.  The more aggresively ignorant of these processes we are, the more difficult the conversation between self and place will be to bring to the fore.  Is it any wonder that those who view the world as mechanism treat it as such, and is it any surprise that, like any machine when treated harshly, it breaks?  Suppose we held the land in the same esteem as a dear partner, building a relationship around mutual understanding, shared joy, respect, and gratitude, how then would we act in the world?  The cultivation of this latter worldview is also part of one’s sense of place.

To conclude this torrent of verbiage, I quote at length from Joseph Conrad’s ‘Lord Jim:

…I was going home- to that home distant enough for all its hearthstones to be like one hearthstone, by which the humblest of us has the right to sit.  We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account.  We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those whom we love, but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties, -even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer.  Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear consciousness.  All this may seem to you sheer sentimentalism; and indeed very few of us have the will or the capacity to look consciously under the surface of familiar emotions.  There are the girls we love, the men we look up to, the tenderness, the friendships, the opportunities, the pleasures!  But the fact remains that you must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp.  I think it is the lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal, and unchangeable spirit- it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience.  Yes! few of us understand, but we all feel it though, and I say all without exception, because those who do not feel do not count.  Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so man is rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life.


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