Monday, March 29, 2010

Food of a Place

Think of what’s special about a place, and often it’s the food. Afterall, food is sensual and evocative.

Maybe that food is part of the historical culture of the place. From living in west central Kansas I have a fondness for bierocks (cabbage and ground beef in a bread pocket). It’s a favorite for Oktoberfest in Hays, Kansas and a favorite of our family even though we now live some distance from Hays. From our time in Colorado, we’re devotees of good Mexican food. Growing up in Kansas City left me with an appreciation of good BBQ.

Our present home in the Eastern Upper Peninsula of Michigan offers its own special, local foods that help make this special place even more special.

We haven’t really taken on the Yooper staple of pasties as a family favorite but it’s a special food for many up here. For my family, it’s more what nature provides. Collecting cranberries and blueberries is an annual family adventure. The cranberry sauce we make keeps for along time and the cranberry liquour even longer. We freeze blueberries and enjoy them year ‘round. Whitefish is another special favorite for us.

I even like the chokecherries. My fondness for them may be inexplicable when I’m in a woodland that simultaneously offers blackberries. I like the blackberries, but the chokecherries remind me of when I lived in the great plains and chokecherries were the fruit nature provided.

Special food of a place includes the foods people coax from nature. NW lower Michigan is rightfully famous for its fruit and we take a few trips down there in the fall to take advantage of the cherries, peaches, pears, apples. Stops at the local wineries add to the appeal of the trip. (On the same theme, while living in Colorado, we’d go out to the west slope for peaches, oh, yes, also the wineries).

We can't grow peaches, pears and cherries very well up here in the Eastern UP. Cold, wet, clay soils and short growing seasons doesn’t make for ideal growing conditions for very many fruits. But with timely rains in a warm summer, even here one can entice a garden to produce some great food. I've never had an easier time growing peas!

The French understand the food of a place. They understand that each place’s unique soils, climate, geography, and agricultural practices produce unique flavors of foods. Terroir is the French term for sense of place applied to food. It’s most expressed in the appellation controlee for wines. Single estate coffee and now single estate chocolate follow the same idea. The European Community protects the ‘brands’ of foods of place. The fact that only cheese made in Parma, Italy can be sold as Parmesan in the European Community is just one of hundreds of examples. That’s about as opposite of the homogenizing influence of national restaurant chains as one can get.

One doesn’t need government regulations to enjoy the special, unique foods of a region. So enjoy your local foods. Support your local farmer’s markets. Or grow some of your own. Our communities would all be better off if people spent more of their time baking and gardening.

A note about food miles. One of the arguments for local foods is to reduce the food miles – the distance food traveled from farm to your plate – and presumably the carbon footprint of your food. I’m all for fair international trade, and like to have access to bananas and coffee, but come on Dole and WalMart, do the canned peaches sold in WalMart here in Michigan really have to come from China? (I’ve made a hobby of reading labels for origin of foods.) The most extreme case I saw a few years ago was lake whitefish, labeled “wild caught in Canada, product of China.” That experiment apparently was not sustainable.

But there are limits to the food miles argument. It can be less energy-intense to truck fruits in from an area I which they can be grown under the sun than to grow them in heated greenhouses. The critics of the local food concept like to point that out.

By that argument, we shouldn’t cook our own food from scratch. It’s got to be more efficient to have the big plant make chicken nuggets for us to microwave than for each of us to heat up our own ovens to cook our own chicken and then discard the bones and other bits when we’re done. At the chicken nugget factory, every part of the chicken is used as a resource, not much is thrown away. And the nuggets are even made from parts of the chicken we maybe don’t always use (I admit I don’t make chicken stock every time I bake a chicken and even when I do, the bones eventually get discarded).

No thanks, chicken nuggets, I’ll invest some energy use and maybe generate some discarded bones by cooking my own. And I’ll look for locally produced foods.

Food connects you to your place. And the farther away your food is grown (literally or figuratively) the more detached you become from the food and from your place. That’s how kids end up not knowing where there food comes from, or, as shown on a recent TV show, can’t even identify vegetables. (On that show the kids knew French fries, but couldn’t identify a potato.) Whether you call it terroir or just call it support for local foods, the result is the same. Appreciate the specialness of foods from your place. And share your ideas of foods from your place. I'd love to hear them.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Negative space

When I think of sense-of-place, I think of positive emotional attachment to our places. In my work in conservation and community sustainability (and even in my work in public health), I see how a positive sense of place can motivate people to work toward conserving what’s good about their places.

But what if your place is not good? What if your place is toxic from chemical contaminants? Or had its landscape disjointed beyond recognition through mountain top removal?

You’d need a sense of some other place or of your place in the past. But you’d especially need a strong sense of your place in the future and the optimism to get you there to motivate you to build your place up not just from scratch but from scratch minus. It'd be too easy to give up on a place.

Some of us get to choose where we live and pick nice spots. Some don’t get to choose. It takes one kind of activism to keep a nice place nice and another kind of activism to restore a place from damaged-beyond-recognition to nice. I think I’m more the first type. I’m glad there are others out there of the second type.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

sense of place and well-being

You literally are what you eat. The atoms of which you are made originated in food you ate or that your mother ate before you were born. Maintenance of your health depends on you continually taking in compounds your body needs (nutrients) and not taking in compounds that damage you. If I said “Your physical and mental health are influenced by what you physically take into your body by ingestion, breathing or absorbing through your skin,” you might say “stop being such a scientist… just say ‘you are what you eat.’”

Is there an analogy to your sense of place?

In addition to physical compounds you take in, your physical and mental health are in a complex web of multiple dependencies with what you see, hear and smell in your home, work, and community life and how you react to those sights, sounds and smells.

If you intentionally go out to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of your place – whether from natural, cultural, historical, or other features -- your overall health will benefit. Like eating good food, taking in the sights, sounds and smells is good for you. And working toward maintaining or improving those features is even better for you

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Adventures in studying a place

I am happy to post the following contribution from a colleague. Thanks, Bill.


Bellows Island
by William C. Scharf

It’s early on a clear, sunny morning in mid-April. Lake Michigan is unusually calm and the water looks smooth as glass. Hold on a second, it is glass! That’s a common result in the spring, when waves are absent and temperature drops to freezing overnight. The aluminum outboard starts cutting through the nearly inch-thick skim ice. I throttle back because I’m frightened. There seems a real possibility that a planing boat could lift itself right on over the surface of the thin ice. That could spell some sort of disaster!
An imagined news report says, “16 foot aluminum puck with airborne, roaring outboard, skimming along ice, hits weak spot, then noses in on impact and slips under ice. Body found trapped beneath ice.”
Better to slow down. The sound of ice cracking is like breaking plate glass windows, and I wonder, could really sharp ice sheets puncture an aluminum boat? Directly behind the boat are room-sized, jagged, transparent sheets sticking out of the water at various angles, and as I look further back a black path is cut in the ice. It’s very easy to see where I opened-up the motor (straight black line) and, where I got worried (the many course corrections cause zig-zags).
Why am I doing this? It’s herring gull nesting season. I’m heading for Bellows Island, sometimes called Gull Island. There, I have permission from the island’s owners, the Leelanau Conservancy, to continue my long-term studies begun college field trips over thirty years ago. It started by studying the non-verbal communications systems of herring gulls proposed by Nobel Laureate, Niko Tinbergen. Now devoid of trees, and with the ruins of an old house, it is the gulls that are the essence of this place. That is sight, smell, and sound.
Generations of students will recall Tinbergen with his thick Dutch accent proclaiming, as he strikes an offensive clenched fist pose, “When I do this, you know exactly what I mean.” He did that to show that certain signals have universal meaning. His interpretations of gull sign language are still widely accepted as definitive communication among vertebrates, and his conclusions also have applications to human behaviors. For example, smiling expresses a friendly attitude universally accepted among humans. Or, a crying baby reveals discomfort and elicits maternal behavior. We instinctively understand these signals, and so too, the gulls have also evolved their own precise set of instinctive signals. The only way to study these is in a place like Bellows Island.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

remebering the aesthetics

I’m a natural resources ecologist. As part of my job, I get to canoe streams and lakes, hike the forests and fields, wade the streams and wetlands. But I don’t get paid just to appreciate the natural beauty. I get paid to study how it works and how we can keep it working that way and to train students to do keep it working.

When I’m in the field with a class we’re mostly taking field ecology measurements, talking about how to set up studies, how we’ll analyze the data, what quantitative models we’ll use. As we’re hiking thru a woodland or along a coastal marsh, I’ll stop and say ‘Look!’ The students are expecting me to point out some technical detail of the ecology of the site, but instead I say ‘How pretty is this?’ Then we take a moment to step back and look at the beauty of the site.

Many of my students intend to be natural resource ecologists. It’s too easy to get all wrapped up in the science and overlook the sheer beauty that should inspire our work. I generally relate the following anecdote to illustrate the need for scientists to remember the aesthetics…

I had an opportunity to attend a training workshop on a particular outdoor-ed program for grade school students. Our school puts on such camps and I wanted to get some training for that. The audience of this particular workshop was university students about to graduate in elementary teacher ed. For the workshop, we did some of the activities designed for grade school students and one such activity was the carpet square sit. So we all took our carpet square out into an on-campus woodlot and were instructed to sit still for 10 minutes and just look. We were then to note our observations using a format of our choice. Back in the classroom, it was time to share.

The first student said “I wrote this little poem…” and she proceeded to read this superb poem she apparently dashed off in those few minutes. Everyone sighed with appreciation of how she truly captured the feeling of sitting still in a woodland. The next student say “I made this little sketch…” and she showed us this wonderful study of how a pair of joined red pine needles had fallen to the ground and gotten caught on a maple leaf lying sideways on the ground. Everyone sighed with appreciation. It went on like this for the remainder of the students and then it was my turn. Knowing I hadn’t really gotten the point of the exercise, I tried to beg off. “No, it’s the rules, you must share,” said the instructor. Hesitatingly, I explained how I had written down a mathematical representation of nitrogen cycle kinetics. “Umm, yes, well, OK” the leader said. No one sighed in appreciation.

That’s why I now go out of my way to make sure my students remember to appreciate the aesthetics of our field sites.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Getting Intimate

I saw a statement somewhere from the US Forest Service that the most popular recreational use of our nation’s public forests is driving through them in automobiles on roads. I can understand that. Some of my special spots are actually auto tours. I enjoy my drives across the Mackinac Bridge, I enjoy driving the tunnel of trees north of Traverse City, I enjoy the Curley Lewis highway along the south shore of Lake Superior’s Whitefish Bay, I even enjoy the drive along the 28 straight flat miles of the Seney Stretch (yes, I am from Kansas). Generally, I enjoy these drives while I’m en-route to somewhere, but I’m not above taking a drive just for its own sake. Do any of you recall Sunday afternoon drives in the country with the family? It used to be a common practice. I don’t know how common it is now, with more expensive fuel, more congested roads, and family members’ disparate schedules. But apparently it’s still common enough according to the US Forest Service.

If I’m driving through an area, I try to stop, get out of the car and get a little more intimate with the place (My desire to get out does not extend to trips across the Mackinac Bridge. It’s not permitted and my respect for heights precludes me from walking it on the one day it is permitted). As a botanist, I can spot many plants at highway speeds, but not quite like I can if I get out and walk around a little. Getting out of the car also lets me actually take in the weather, the sounds, the scents (which is why other special places are bike rides, but more about that later). If I'm time-limited, it's only a brief stop but even that adds to the experience of the place, especially if the stop is at one of the many waterfalls we’re blessed with up here. If I have time and it’s summer, I’ll wade the stream or lake (Curley Lewis Highway offers several great places to get out and into Whitefish Bay). Getting right into the water is another one of those publicly acceptable intimate experiences, even when one is just wading while fully clothed*.

It’s not all just about nature, either. I enjoy checking out the local history and eating at a local food establishment. Eating is another one of those intimate things you can do in public. Last spring, we were on our way back from an appointment in NW Indiana. It was lunch time and we went to downtown Coldwater, Michigan, found a nice local restaurant, ate in their sidewalk cafĂ© and really enjoyed feeling the place.

I extend this eating metaphor to my classes. When I have students out in the field, I have them sample the edibles of our field sites. In the fall up here in the Soo, that includes blackberries, chokecherries and of course the wintergreen berries and leaves (blueberries are gone by then). I suggest that the students take some Labrador tea and give it a try at home. In addition to helping students realize that there are nice things to eat from the field, part of my purpose is also to give them a more intimate sense of the place. I try to make sure they get beyond the science and taste the berries, feel the weather and smell the scents. For example, if we’re lucky to have a brisk wind for our field trip to a local beach, I emphasize the feeling of the wind coming off the lake as an enjoyable experience and not just as an ecological factor for the plant life. I’ll write later about the importance of instilling aesthetic sensibilities in ecology students.

Special places make for special, intimate feelings. I’d be interested to know how you get more intimate (in a public way) with your special places.

*The idea of getting to know a place better by getting into the water and eating things from the place makes me realize the importance of swimming and safe fish consumption as indicators of water quality. Unfortunately beach closures and fish eating advisories are still too common in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. We want our lakes and rivers clean enough to swim in and to eat the fish from, not just because that shows that they truly are clean, not just because of the economic benefits of fisheries and the property values tied to being able to enjoy one’s waterfronts, but also because it shows that we value the spots enough to want to be able to get that close to them. Again, there’s not much more intimate you can get in public than eating or immersing your body into the water of a lake or stream.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Changing of the seasons

I’m not skiing this afternoon. There is adequate snow on our self-groomed trail by our house but the trails right here in town have too many bare patches. Other than in the interest of an America’s Funniest Video, sliding down a hill and tumbling over a bare patch has little appeal to me. I think cross-country season is about over.

But not to worry. One of the things that makes this area a special place to me is its three-season outdoor silent sports recreational opportunities. Officially we say the area is blessed with four-season outdoor recreation, but the too-thin ice, the too-thick mud and the too many biting insects make spring less appealing than summer, fall or winter. I’m usually a bit glum as the snow begins to disappear and leaves me thinking that I didn’t get quite enough winter activities in. But then the warm air (not just warm sun and cold air) works its effects on me and the plant life and spring seems pretty nice in its own way, afterall.

So what’s next in outdoor recreation up here in this special place? I’ve considered mud-shoeing but on that really doesn’t look like much fun. So instead I’ll wait out the brief awkward time when our road is too muddy and the ambient temps are still a bit chilly. After that, it’ll be road bike season. (I don’t want to drive in the car somewhere to ride my road bike – seems to defeat the purpose?) I used to consider temps just above +10 degrees Fahrenheit warm enough for cycling, but that was when I was 1.younger, 2. without good XC skiing and 3. more ambitious and 4. still able to fit into my wool cycling togs. I now wait for temps of at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit and for the sand to wash off the roads. Once off the gravel road we live on, there’s enough paved roads with light traffic through nice scenery to make for great bike rides. I’ll write about those trips a bit later this spring.

Pretty soon, the trails will dry out and the hiking will be good. Next to open up will be canoeing. After the last of the ice melts and the water is a bit warmer, I’ll get out onto some special canoe spots. I have to admit that I have to drive to canoe spots, but there are plenty of them close by.

I’ll have to wait just a bit longer until the trails dry out sufficiently for mountain biking. Ashmun Creek Natural Area makes for a nice, short but hilly, mountain bike loop just right to add to the ride home from school. There are a few other spots I’ll get to as well. At about that time, Lake Superior is tolerable in a shorty wetsuit.

Outdoor gardening season will be upon us, soon, too. Much more about that later.

So, yes, one of the things that make this a special place is all the various things we can do. But as I stated in the opening of this web discussion, the point isn’t to brag about what any one of us can do, but rather to show that we get out and enjoy taking advantage of the opportunities presented by our special, unique places. How are you marking the changing of the seasons?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Zone

One thing about a special place is that it can put you in the zone. You know the zone. It’s when you’re doing something and it’s as if time isn’t passing. Before you know it, 30 minutes or 60 minutes have gone by. It’s not alien abduction. It’s that you’re in the zone, also known as “in the flow.” Artists and athletes know it.

It’s been a long time since anyone would use the term ‘athlete’ to describe me and I have no talents in the fine arts. But I know the zone. I can get in the zone when I’m appreciating a special place. That special place could involve human-created art, it could be a historical site, it could be a natural area. It’s easier for me to get in the zone in a natural area. The beauty of the place along with the rhythmic nature of hiking, XC skiing, or paddling seems to help get in the zone. Cycling works, too, provided I don’t have to concentrate on hazards and it’s in a quiet place. I do not recommend getting into the zone while negotiating automobile traffic on the road or dodging trees on a single track mountain bike course.

Being in the zone enhances creativity. It helps you see things in a new way. And it’s a positive feedback loop. The more you think creatively, the more zone-ish you get and the more creative you get. (You can also get into the zone at your desk working, but it sure is a lot more enjoyable if you’re in an aesthetic place and, for me anyway, some physical activity adds to the zone-ishness.)

I’d like to hear about your zone and how special places figure into it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The history of a place

Sometimes what makes a place special is the sense of history related to the place. Lincoln’s neighborhood in Springfield, Mesa Verde, Cahokia Mounds are just a few of the big historical sites I’m glad to have visited and hope to revisit. (Walking through Dealey Plaza 30 years ago was an entirely different experience I really would not like to repeat.) But in the spirit of know-your-place, I’ll describe a few that are (or were at the time) close by and therefore not only easy to visit frequently but also added to my sense of appreciation for the general location in which I live(d).

My present location, the area around Sault Sainte Marie, sometimes feels like one big historical site. Historical buildings are all around (including many of the buildings on my campus). The natural features, such as the St. Marys River Rapids and the pine forests have their own history. Of the many historical sites in this region, one of my favorites is the Mission Hill cemetery out in Bay Mills. Nothing brings history to life quite like a cemetery. Wait, does that make sense? Well you know what I mean.

The local historical society maintains several nice historical buildings and museums and several books are available on the history of the St. Marys River area. An especially fun book is the new Then-and-Now photo collection. Thanks, Bernie! A group is also working hard to preserve a bit of local history, the old Soo Theatre.

Local history walking paths are a nice way to preserve a town’s history. We have at least two here. I lived in Hays, KS for a while and the downtown history walk as well as old Ft. Hays were always fun ways to imagine life in frontier Hays City. It was a shame the Union Pacific station got demolished. Since there were so many of them, no one of them had any big historical significance. Too bad. They’re probably all gone now. A group in Hays did preserve the old Fox Theatre, though, similarly to how the local group is working toward preserving the Soo Theatre.

I’m reminded of another place made special for me by its local history. As a kid, my brothers and cousins would scramble through the woods near Grandpa’s house to visit the ruins of a canal lock in Groveport, Ohio. Scrambling through the woods added to the fun, but imagining what it was like moving freight by canal (i.e., before railroads) was also part of the fun. A small part of the canal bank has now been saved as part of a park. Good job, Groveport. Groveport also managed to save its downtown. It’s kind of yuppie-fied and not the out-of-the-way small town it used to be, but at least they were able to avoid betting completely phagocytized by the amoeboid growth of Columbus, Ohio, suburban development from which now surrounds Groveport.

Historical preservation has a long, well, history as a way to preserve the uniqueness of a place. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s also dollars. Old historic buildings can literally add value to the built environment via increased property values, increased tourism and just overall neighborhood preservation. Uniqueness = more valuable and more civic appreciation. As we moved to new areas, I generally tried to learn about its history. Thanks to the work of the local historical preservationists, I have always been able to. So, if you haven’t already, support your local historical society’s work toward keeping your area’s special, unique places intact.