Thursday, June 19, 2014

What is "sense of place"?

I've just begun an intensive period of PhD work, so my posts here will be less frequent in the coming year. I'd like to share a short piece I wrote in one of my first courses, Ecological Thought. This piece is a reflection on several readings on ecological identity, and you're invited to reflect and share your own thoughts.

What is "sense of place?"

'Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion and appearance... till we come to a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality...'"

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

A sense of place is a complex mixture of sensory stimuli, memories, impressions, and stories which build a deep and lasting connection between person and landscape. To have a sense of place means to have directly and intimate experience with it, and to make meaning of that experience through reflection, comparison, appreciation, or some more active form of communion. It emerges over time; it cannot be gained by taking in the scenery from a car window or flipping through National Geographic.

More than an affinity for nature, it is a kind of kinship, "knowing" a place in the same sense that one knows him/herself - and therefore closely tied to one’s ecological identity. It provides the “soil” (foundation, context, and reason) for environmental relationship, thought and action.

In his 2004 introduction to Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Bill McKibben wrote:

"What nature provides is scale and context, ways to figure out who and how big we are and what we want. It provides silence, solitude, darkness: the rarest commodities we know. It provides reality, in place of the endless electronic mirages and illusions that we consider the miracles of our moment…”

McKibben, Thoreau, and other environmental thinkers would probably argue that to develop a sense of place requires an absence of contaminating influences - technology, industry, and other "mirages". Others might argue that appropriate use of technology can actually help a person to access first-hand experiences with nature (e.g., GIS, bicycles, assistive technologies for people with physical limitations). A sense of place can be established throughout a community, such as a farm, greenway, or urban park, but it is most often thought of as a deeply personal phenomenon.

Either way, once a person develops a sense of place, whatever happens with or to that place is real (as opposed to an abstract concept) - and as a consequence, cannot be ignored. The vanishment of farmland for real estate development, mountaintop removal, contamination of lakes by fracking, erosion of beaches due to climate change… these events are experienced differently by a person with a sense of place. Whereas someone without that sense of place might view them as an unfortunate consequence of progress or even deny them altogether, a sense of place provides a lens through which these acts are seen as the desecration of something sacred. A sense of place is the counterbalance to environmental ignorance and apathy.