A Sense of Place
“People who root themselves in places are likelier to know and care for those places…When we cease to be migrants and become inhabitants, we might begin to pay enough heed and respect to where we are. By settling in, we have a chance of making a durable home for ourselves, for our fellow creatures, and our descendents.”
Scott Russell Sanders, Settling Down, in At Home on the Earth, D. Barnhill, ed., pp. 77-92, Berkeley, U. of California Press, 1999.
Surely, one is formed by the community where one is raised, by the people of that place, and by their connection to the land.
The smaller and more diverse that place is, and the more relatives around you, the more you come to know the place and its people. You come to understand yourself, and them, and to love them. You learn to grieve when they die, learn to grieve when the land is lost, and learn to become active when the loss is born of greed. In this process, you are woven into community—your mind is crisscrossed with patterns of work and play, of
achievements, and of mistakes.
As I grew older, and went to the university, then to the Army, and finally to work in the area, I kept close touch with this place, though it grew harder and harder to know its many subtle changes. My memory of it did what memories do, it sifted out the painful and kept the joy, and these memories were elaborated into stories, told many times to children, nephews and nieces and eventually to grandchildren. Throughout it all, my underlying question, answered only with the death of uncles, aunts and finally, of parents,
was this: was my attachment to this place, my deep sense of this place, rooted in its history or its present and was this strong sense coming through the people of the place or the landscape?
In my years of environmental activity, I realized that my growing concern for the local environment came from the deep association with this place and its people. I
noticed that many of my close environmental colleagues were also of nearby places. Each seemed to understand that somehow, the things we loved were dissolving before our eyes. The rate of this dissolution had finally become fast enough that we could notice it within a decade rather than over a generation or a lifetime. We realized first in theory and then in stark reality that the people we loved would someday be gone. Was this why we struggled so to keep the place from changing, “degrading” as we called it, and “progressing” in the words of the proponents of change? We could not hold onto life but
we might hold onto place, and if we were lucky, set into motion the processes that would preserve the elements of nature around us here.
In general, we were successful in defending the place from external forces, the dams proposed by state and federal agencies, the landfills proposed by distant corporations, and the incinerators and coal plants proposed without pollution controls. But when we had to turn inward and face the farmers, the drainage districts and the various parts of the massive structure of agricultural business, we were much less successful. When faced with our own, we seem to fail. The farmers too have a sense of their place, both aesthetically and economically. How can we form a collective sense of place to build a sustainable agriculture, including local production of food, including
preservation of the little towns along the great railroads that would nourish them, all without destroying the nature that once was associated with them?
As a member of the university, I see people come to our community, stay a few years and then move on. I have tried over several decades to sort out those who could and would help us in the effort to achieve a sustainable local environment. I have had limited success. I am inclined to attribute these failures to their lack of a sense of this place. We are a nation of movers. Our labors seem to flow like waters across the landscape of the market and exchange. We are a nation of migrators: if we do not move across the country, we move across the city. How can we form a sense of place while we are so constantly on the move? If we do not form a sense of a place, can we, will we defend it against destructive environmental forces? Can one learn a sense of place? Is there an educational process by which we stop chasing careers long enough to examine our place and, with step-by-step instruction, become woven into this newly recognized place? If we could do this, would the newfound, ever deepening connection help one hold to a place and begin to defend it?
Finally, I realize that while the tangible aspects of place, its people and physical attributes, the deepest attachment is an aesthetic one. This emotional connection is based on an array of images of one’s place, sifted and sorted, some forgotten, some embellished
and remembered. The best word I find to describe this is the remembered beauty of the place. First there is beauty in our handiwork when it is well done and useful…the craftsmanship. This must be true for the watchmaker as well as the farmer. But when we try to craft a system that has its own agenda, such as a system of nature, the best we can hope for is a graceful interference. Second, there is an aspect of self-justifying circularity
in the argument that what we do well is necessarily beautiful. Can we call efficient human execution of a landscape beautiful? Is efficient bulldozing and burning of the rainforest beautiful, at least to some? Beauty must surely result from a matching of craft with sustainable purpose and the purpose must be highly regarded by nature. Thirdly, there is the problem of self-referencing education. That which in one society is considered ugly may come to be thought beautiful if it persists, out of necessity if for no other reason. Around here, a verdant field of soybeans or corn without the sign of another plant is considered by farmers a thing of beauty, even though these fields require large financial subsidies, special hybrids, heavy use of pesticides and much mechanical tillage. Such a field viewed by a Kaskaskian Native here in the 1600's would be seen as dangerous as he would wonder where the supporting food plants were. These early people here planted as many as three different plants in essentially the same spot. Their careful choice and timing reveals an agricultural understanding which is rare today. Surely such a person saw their form of agriculture as beautiful. Our problem is then: what do we think is beautiful? Every system of beauty needs a reference. While we can choose our own reference system, certain forces are at work these days in the US if not in the world, to make that reference system Nature, sustainable, self-reproducible, maintenance-free Nature. So, can the most permanent sense of place be based on this perception of beauty? Is there another standard of beauty than that of natural systems that can provide such a durable standard?
Attempts at Answers
Salman Rushdie in his latest short story, The Shelter of the World (New Yorker, 25F08, 64-71) speaks through an imaginary Queen Jodha in scolding her adventurous king: “They came in search of what exactly? Nothing of use. If they possessed any wisdom, the inutility of their journey would have been obvious to them. Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and spirited you away into fairylands where you were and looked, frankly absurd.”
It seems that we have few alternative paths in life. Some people never leave their
original place, or leave but eventually wind their way back home. Others somehow learn to establish a new sense of place where they can hold fast. Some will continuously wander. Those who never leave home could have the deepest sense of place and thus the most well-founded basis for environmental defense. Involved routinely in this defense, that sense for me is continuously deepening. Those who start later must learn faster but the involvement in environmental action is clearly a learning aid. In the words of Queen Jodha, those who fail to find their place lack meaning and do look, frankly absurd.
Brian Norton and I described in detail the philosophy of sense of place in Democracy and Sense of Place Values, in Norton’s edited book, Searching for Sustainability (Cambridge University Press, 2003). One of our focuses was on identifying the nontransferable values associated with a place. These are the losses that truly weaken us when we leave our place. They could be memories of the birth of a child, a wedding, a walk with a grandchild or the knowing of good neighbors. In moving, we translate these values from reality into memory and are diminished. These values can be associated with the physical aspects of the place or with the people and our interactions with that place.
The sense of place it seems to me is defined by our continuing actions in defending that place from ill-conceived degradation, and in changing that place to one that is more sustainable in the long run. It is paramount to connect to nature in your place if you wish your place to become sustainable. Sense of place is nature among us, not nature afar: It is knowing nature as a guide of sustainable actions, as a true source of beauty; we respect local nature as the indication of a past we once shared so intimately. Possessing a sense of place is a sufficient condition for connection to nature. The necessary condition is that there exists a nature in one’s place, available for connection.
The Effects of Childhood on a Sense of Place
The anthropologist Joseph Campbell championed the idea of group decision making as a way to prevent or subdue conflict. You cannot publicly argue for selfishness. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman reminds us that our memories of life-shaping experiences depend mainly on the extremes of that experience and how we felt at the end of the experience. Columnist David Brooks sums the results of many social-science experiments by saying that our strong preference in community bonding is for the opposite of diversity. He points out that if you separate people arbitrarily into different groups, each group will soon begin to discriminate against the other groups. These views seem to cover the variables that give rise to a sense of place.
An Illinois town the size of my childhood Ivesdale, today with only 330 people, is like one of Campbell’s groups. It was clear to me early on that all the village decisions
were communally made and that the village seemed to run so peacefully. Is there a community size above which communal decisions cannot be successfully made? (From the 2000 U.S. census, we learned that the most common city size was 20.000.) Kahneman’s criteria for remembering include events that shape our memory of our place; these are the turning points and the end points, when you leave the community or when parents die. Brooks’ point about our dislike of diversity was seldom manifested within my little town, but we did revel in our unanimous disdain of nearby Sadorus!
The small, enclosed village, not only all white but nearly all of Irish Catholic descent provided the backdrop of my childhood. All of my “greats” emigrated from Ireland in the late 1840s and settled in the area. My father’s grandfather, who emigrated with his parents, tried farming the wet prairie near Ivesdale but must have decided that the village life was better for him. He built the first grain elevator there and sold seed, lumber, coal, salt, farming implements and buggies and he shipped grain to various parts of the country on the new Great Western Railroad. He, in turn, enlisted my grandfather to work in the business rather than follow his heart to the Illinois Industrial University in Urbana. He in turn drew my father into the business when the school superintendent’s daughter took his teaching job at the local public school. By 1904, the business had been sold to the farmers as a Cooperative. My grandfather bought land south of town with the proceeds. Great-grandfather died in 1914, grandfather in 1936. I knew neither of them. My father retired from the grain business in 1965, ending over a century of direct association with our family. In the 1950s, the cooperative board asked me to take over the business but I had by then finished engineering school and was employed as such at the new chemical plant at Tuscola. I sometimes wonder where that other path would have led.
It would have set me precisely on the turf of the preceding four generations. As it turns out, I moved a scant 18 miles to the university town, whose night-cloud glow on the northeastern horizon had beckoned me all my young life.
When I was a boy, my brother and I would pick up the leftover ears of corn from the nearby fields, and shell the corn by hand until our wagon was full. We would pull it to the elevator, park it on the giant scale platform and ask that our corn be bought. My father, without so much as a smile would weigh us and we would proceed up the long drive to the grate where the trucks and wagons dumped their grain. We would empty the wagon, return to the scales and be presented with a receipt and the exact value in coin for our deposit. We were modeling the men of our world, a world so compact and clear that even a child could understand it.
We eventually understood how the whole community worked—the power of the
mayor, the doctor, the vet, the banker, and the priest.—These powers were simply not
concealable in such a community. Everyone knew everything it seemed, (although as I found out through discussions with some of the older people in recent times, I really did not quite know everything).
My father’s grain office was a kind of gathering place for farmer and townsman alike. They talked of grain prices, future’s markets and hedging. They told jokes beyond my years. They talked of the distant places they had been, of hunting, of good dogs and bad ones, of the weather, especially the weather, and the qualities of the land. The banker had foreclosed on some of the farms in the 1930s and a fight broke out in the office over the true need for the sale.
The office had an outdoor toilet where according to my father’s hired man,
yesterday’s Wall Street Journal at last served a useful purpose. The pot-bellied stove was
superb at almost instantly sizzle-drying gloves, wet-through from snowball fights.
In small towns like Ivesdale, the well-off lived intertwined with the poor. The village was not segregated by income or occupation or in any perceptible way. This layout seems to have provided a kind of evenness or equity that is a fundamental part of the successful functioning of small towns. It is also very likely an attribute of a sustainable community.
The village had a central telephone system, run by the very discreet Cain sisters. To place a call everyone had to twist a crank on their phone to send a signal to the sisters who then asked to whom we wished to be connected. Since their office window opened onto the main street, they could observe all of the commercial comings and goings of the merchants. If my father had gone to the Post Office or the Bank, they knew it and would either connect to those places or tell the caller to try in few minutes, as he would then have returned to the grain office. It seems that even the technology telephone was well accommodated in this little village.
In those early days, the village also had a hardware store, a meat locker, three groceries, a gasoline station, an implement dealers and a blacksmith’s shop. But my favorite place was the hall of the Ancient Order of Hiberians, up a long, steep stairway, over the bank. The AOH was a quasi-secret organization of the Irish. They had ceased to meet when I was a child but the hall was used for many paegents and plays, especially ones about the Irish. It was the place where ever Ivesdale youngster learn to shed their shyness!
The church was a powerful influence on my sense of place in Ivesdale. I went to a Catholic elementary school taught by Benedictine nuns. They lived for the school year right next to the school. It seemed to us they were completely devoted to our education, an education that consisted of the very basics:—reading, writing and math. Each nun
taught in one room with four grades. While the curriculum was necessarily abbreviated, we did have the value of lesson repetition. We could not prematurely advance in grades but we could be sent back a grade. The nuns were strict, and seen as very special in their head-to-toe black habits, each with a dazzlingly white starched headdress and cowl. In such a small community, the nuns, the parents and the priest formed a tightly knit circle around their children. When coupled with the story of the holy family, I could form parallels. Just as Jesus, Mary and Joseph were a special family, my mother and father and I were, too, and so in a sense were the nun, the priest and I. The thoroughgoing tightness of these layered images coupled with the smallness of the town produced a profound control over all of us. And yet, growing up in this situation, I was completely unaware of it.
As if this triplicate family was not enough, my father had four brothers and one sister and—my mother had four sisters, all of whom lived locally. This band of uncles and aunts and my father’s centenarian mother only added to the tightness of the community. (I have written of them all elsewhere.) Their very presence and the wonderful stories they told were the foundation of the sense history that must intertwine with the acquisition of a sense of place. It is no wonder that the Great Depression and World War II seemed far, far away and harmful only in theory and story (and the disappearance of a farm boy-solder).