Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Feel the place

Each week, my weekly schedule of meeting takes me to Sault Ontario’s Civic Centre. Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario was very clever to put their civic offices and in an office building right on the St. Marys River – the river upon which the city was created. In walking up to the building, one can not only see the river, but also hear the sounds of the river (wildlife and human), smell the river (I mean that in a good way), and even feel the microclimate of the river. I generally try to take all those sensations in, even if it’s while I’m hurrying to make my meeting. This week, the bright sunshine of a clear, cool morning and the atmosphere of the river practically forced me to notice. I hope that everyone else coming and going to the Civic Centre, or other riverfront destinations, does, too. It’d be even nicer to see people actually stopping and remarking on the wonderful resource we live on.

A nearby venue lends itself to that more intentional appreciation. Several years ago, Sault Ontario created a riverfront walk that runs about ½ mile from behind the Station Mall (also on the river) down past the Civic Centre. The river walk has really helped build awareness of the river. From what I understand, before that the area was industrial land; not a place people would want to spend time. Now people do spend time there, and in so doing have come to appreciate the river more. We have no hard data to show it, but those of us working on restoring and protecting the river ecosystem have noticed a real uptick in concern about the river since the river walk was built. It’s used extensively all times of the day. It seems that as more people get on the river, they begin to build a stake in the river. They begin to say ‘hey, that’s my river, don’t abuse it!’ In the jargon of this discussion series, the river walk has helped build a stronger sense of place and thus stronger stewardship of the place. Congratulations, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sometimes it is who you are

I recently saw the following quote posted on a colleague’s door: “It’s not who you are, it’s what you do.” At first I thought the point is “what will speak for you is what you do, not what your background is.” I read it the same wey I read “it’s not what you do, it’s how you do it,” or, pertinent for this discussion series, “it’s not where you live, it’s how you live.” (There’s also the cynical “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”)

But, as that colleague later explained, she intended the quote to refer to the fact that any one particular activity need not define you and shouldn’t be used by others to define you. She works with non-traditional college students. She meant it to encourage them to retain their ‘who they are’ and not think that their role of college student should elbow out their outside-of-school life of parent, spouse, community member, worker, etc. She wanted to encourage them to strike a balance in their activities and to avoid stereotypes. The idea might come across better with an opening noun, something like “Attorney: It’s not who I am, it’s what I do” (Just kidding, lawyer friends and relatives! Attorneys can be lovely people!)

But for some of us, what we do is a large part of who we are. For many of us, our career isn’t just what we do, it really is part of who we are. My definition of myself certainly includes parent and spouse but I think of what I do – my work in education, conservation, community sustainability – as a large part of who I am. Or is it vice-versa? Is it who I am that dictated that I would work the career I chose? Hmmm. Probably a little bit of both.

Following this train of thought, can ‘where you live’ be a large part of ‘how you live?’ To what extent does place – the aspects of where you live -- inform your life? To the extent can 'where you live' help direct ‘how you live?’ Can positive feelings generated by your place help you get through frustrations and barriers and lead a more positive life?

I’m not sure. Afterall, we talk about ‘sense of place’ not just ‘place’ A place cannot be positive or negative other than as people let it affect them. (Another quote I recently saw was Shakespeare’s “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”) Some places have many traits that many people would think positively about. But a place doesn’t define itself. We still need to develop our sense of place if that sense of place is to positively influence our lives. I guess it really is how you live, not where you live. Bu still, knowing about where you live – having a strong sense of place -- can help you choose how you live. Examples anyone?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

gardens and gardening

A sense of place has to do with the feelings one has while being in that place. It may be the historical significance, the cultural richness, the natural beauty. If it’s a sense of place for the place in which we live and work, our sense of place is not just about our current feelings but also about memories of past feelings.

Where we live and work most likely includes some human constructions, i.e., the built environment. Most of us live in a built environment. For a very few, that built environment is a house far from other neighbors. But even that isolated home probably includes some human-created landscaping around the house

The rest of us work or live in a much more built-up environment. We live with many buildings, roads, yards, and many people. Our sense of place thus includes not only the aesthetics of the built environment but also the community and how the built environment and community interact. Does the built environment lend itself to pleasant community or does the built environment isolate people and thwart community? Architects and planners study the traits of a place that most likely will lead to pleasant community. They talk about creating community spaces. Sometimes it works. Soemtimes it doesn’t. There are examples of spaces in which the concepts and data suggested that it should create community, but the community just didn’t gel. Conversely, some places feature thriving community despite the data that would indicate that they shouldn’t. Most often it does work. Places can be made intentionally according to a big plan, or be made organically, piece by piece.

Public gardens are important parts of the built environment. I recently read a wonderful book, Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, by Robert Pogue Harrison. The author is a professor of literature and his essays are about gardens and what they mean for those that view them and those that tend them. It’s not strictly about making spaces from a landscape architecture point of view, but the ties to literature and spirituality connect places, history and community.

Gardens can be community projects. The gardens thus enhance the community in their tending and in their viewing. For example, Charlevoix, Michigan is famous for the plantings of petunias all along the main highway through town. This tradition started in 1982 with a group of people who wanted to enhance Charlevoix’s natural beauty (

Some people feel so strongly about improving the appearance of abandoned urban lands that they resort to ‘guerilla gardening,’ which may include tossing ‘seed bombs.’

Private gardens also enhance the built environment. I have seen towns in which almost everyone has some carefully tended plantings around their house or on their patios. As a visitor, it really enhanced my feelings about that town. (But I also know of complexes that limits all owners to two potted plants on the patio. Apparently the homeowners’ association doesn’t want to break up the geometric symmetry of the townhouses with something chaotic like a potted plant.)

Sault Michigan awards ‘Garden of the Year’ prizes to encourage attractive gardens. I don’t think the criteria include working with nature, but maybe they could have a special category for that. Wise gardeners work with the climate, sun exposure and soil to select plants that can do well in the specific areas. Thus native plants are often a good choice. A garden that reflects the characteristics of its place will be unique and not just an imitation of the gardens of some other place.

Given the power of gardening for place making, some towns, including Sault, Michigan, have developed community gardens for growing vegetables. We have more than enough garden space on our property so I have not participated in the community vegetable gardens, but from what I hear, the Sault’s community gardens are growing community as well as vegetables. The gardens and the gardening add to the sense of place. My sense of place for the Sault is enhanced by knowing that it’s the kind of place that does things like putting together a community garden.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Take the time to see your place

The following article was written by a colleague and appeared in our local paper.
I post it with Jim's permission.

Sense of Place
by Jim Lucas

One form of transportation as well as exercise I enjoy is walking and bicycling. For the 22 years I have lived in this community it has helped me to have a better sense of place. A sense of place for me is knowing where the first patch of flowers that bloom in the Spring (south side of St. Mary's rectory two weeks ago), recording on a calendar the last snow of the year (last week, so far), the last ice floating through the locks (Memorial Day 1995), I record annually when the certain birds arrive and leave from my feeder and the last frost of the season.
This quirkiness is part of my training as a biologist. But over the years, it has given me a sense of place, a feeling of what to expect next and what I need to do next for this season. For many years I have kept these thoughts to myself, but I have learned many people also have a sense of place, but for different things.
A good friend has passed on where and when endangered native orchids bloom in our region. Some of the locations are secret and some are on secluded plots on public land. By my friend passing on these secret locations, I learned to identify other locations where these same plants seem to thrive. Understanding the sense of place for these plants has given me a better understanding of their niche and my responsibility to protect this place for future generations.
We live in an old home. It is a very comfortable place, but the mystery of the age of the house and its history always has intrigued me. We have the abstract that tells us who owned it before us. From what I learned, William Bell lived in this house (there is a W. B. etched in the glass on a bedroom window) and there were never any young children living in our home. It was not until we removed years of wall¬paper and we found "H. Carr papered this wall 10th June 1890" that I had a sense that real people built and lived in our home.
While digging in the garden years ago I found a clay marble. I still wonder who the child was who lost it. I also know that our property was built on a former wetland where the spoils of the power canal are the basis for my lawn. Dig more then four inches deep and you find basically stones and broken sandstone.
Understanding the history of my home has given me a better understanding of the place we occupy and that the floors must have been rather dirty until 1902 when Hewlett and Co. laid the sidewalk in the front of the house.
It has been a rather pleasant March and April. There has been a record high temperature set this past week but this last Thursday morning we found that the calendar will say Spring, but winter weather can reach out and grab us just about anytime in this area.
Plants are similar us, they thrive best in some places better then others. Plant biologist study these things and documented the best places for certain plants. I have learned that basil grows best in soils above 50 degrees Fahrenheit. My basil has failed for years and the main reason is because I need to fool the plants that this is Italy or Thailand and not Sault Ste Marie. I plan to put a cover over a raised gar¬den so it keeps it warm during our cool summer nights.
If you want to know about what grows in your region, go to the USDA website and consult the hardiness zone and you can choose what best grows in your region
From my experience, I have found the last full moon, around Memorial
Day, is when it is safe to plant seeds and plants outside of the possibility of frost. But with the possibility of global warming, that is another story for another day.

Jim Lucas is with the Chippewa County Office of Michigan State University Extension Service.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Local Media

Given the important role ‘sense of place’ plays in community planning, public input sessions on community planning often start with some exercise to gauge the participants’ sense of place. Often these exercises are inventories of the community’s assets – the natural, cultural, historical and other features that make the place distinctive for its residents. Does local media get mentioned in these discussions? It should.

The local media can be an important vehicle for building community if a) the media companies are willing to do so and b) if the community members are willing to view that local media.

As a rural resident near a small town, local media for me is the local newspaper, a few local radio stations, a local repeater of a regional public radio network, local repeaters of region-serving broadcast television stations and internet-based media. We don’t get cable out in the country. That’s one of the advantages of living out in the country.

Our local paper is a typical local paper. Maybe 16 pages weekdays, two sections Sunday. No Saturday paper. I didn’t appreciate them dropping the Sunday funnies, but something had to go. Facing declining subscription and thus declining ad revenues, it had to shrink. It cannot afford a staff of reporters or much of an art department. It is still a daily (except Saturday) source of local news not available elsewhere. I also subscribe to a weekly paper from the neighboring county. As a weekly, they do nice, in-depth stories of regional interest.

The local radio stations have some local reportage, as well, and send the news crews out on assignments. It’s nice to see them at the local events.

Our television comes from a regional network of repeaters but the stations take their regionalism seriously and provide adequate coverage all around their region (a radius of more than 100 miles). The regional public radio is also good about providing news coverage of regional concerns.

My favorite of the local internet-based news sources is one particular resident who takes on the role of town crier. She has an extensive email list of civic-minded people who ask to be on her list. When people want to promote an event, they send her an announcement and she emails it out to people on her list. Thanks, Mary, for doing that.

What if we didn’t have local media? And without listeners/readers/viewers there wouldn’t be any. Where would you get reliable, accurate information you need to know in real time? There was the story a few years ago about the train derailment up in Montana that caused a public health emergency, but the news couldn’t get out because the one local radio station had given up locally produced programming in favor of a national robot program. That was before tweets so I guess now everyone could just tweet the news. I’m sure it’d stay quite accurate from person to person.

I heard of one town, that when the local paper folded, the library took on the responsibility of putting out a local paper. That’s how important a local paper was to that community.

So hurray for local media. Maybe your local paper won’t win a Pulitzer, but it is your local paper and needs your support, just like your local artists, musicians, shopkeepers, farmers, educators and the rest of your community does. I’m not talking pity purchase here, I’m talking about local companies providing local value. I know it sounds naïve to say that if local businesses provide value-add, they’ll get customers and I know that it’s hard to provide that added value and still keep costs contained. But I have no choice than to think it’s possible. I don’t want to give up on the possibility of viable local businesses – including local media -- adding to a community’s sense of place.

No Pity Purchase
The message ‘Buy Local!’ is a complex one. Yes, money spent locally circulates locally, building the wealth of your local community. But when you hear ‘Buy Local!’ don’t think pity purchase. It’s an attempt to strike a deal. Your local businesses endeavor to provide value you can’t get elsewhere. They’re asking you to let them try. Don’t just presume that the national chain provides better value. Give the local businesses a try.

I support our local hardware stores, not because I think it’s my civic duty. I spend my money at the local hardware store because I get to tap into their expertise when I purchase something. They have experience doing what I’m trying to do and know what would work best in a particular scenario. It also helps that they know me by name.
I can afford to pay a little more for that value, but often I don’t have to pay more. Often, the local hardware store’s prices are as good or better than the big box store’s prices.

Can a local business continue to deliver that value while containing costs and providing an adequate return on investment for the company’s owners? That’s the life-and-death question for our local businesses. Some can find creative ways to; some cannot. It’s never a good idea to buy an inferior product just to support the provider of that product. It’s always a good idea to be mindful of the entire value involved in a purchase.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

One trip - three places

I had the opportunity this past weekend to visit two some familiar and some new places in northern Ontario. My destination was Earlton, Ontario, in the little clay belt agricultural area of northeastern Ontario.

The drive was quite enjoyable. I traveled east on Hwy 17, which was familiar territory until I headed north to take a bit of a shortcut to Hwy 11. The trip north on Hwy 11 takes one through an ancient mountain range featuring hills up to several hundred feet high interspersed with lakes and wetlands in the flat valleys. We have similar country in Algoma, but I had not driven through boreal mixed wood before. I’ve studied it, but I had not seen it first-hand. I didn’t take the opportunity to get out and hike around since I was on a time budget but it was still nice to see in-person what I had previously only seen in pictures and text. (I did see a moose on the trip, but that was actually down on Hwy 17.)

Eventually, the road dropped down out of the hills onto a wide plain, which is the little clay belt. I had not seen that area before.

It’s a bit farther north than I would have thought of as prime location for row crop agriculture. But the fertile soils and abundant moisture, and the long days, along with clever use of engineering, make for a rich agricultural area. It’s an impressive place. I can imagine a strong sense of place among the residents. The farms raise soybeans, wheat, corn, forage, oil crops, diary and more. The farmers are looking into dedicated energy crops (which was the reason for my visit).

Along the way, I passed through Sudbury. I’ve been to Sudbury several times and always enjoyed my visits. And each time I’ve come away wanting to think that we learned the right lesson from Sudbury. I’d like to think we’ve learned that it is possible to generate goods for some places without turning other places into an ecological disaster area, but that to do so takes a lot of work.

It’s not too difficult, especially in leaf-off season, to imagine the Sudbury area as it was a few decades ago (except it was probably worse than one would visualize.) Since the installation of the pollution management systems, the ecosystems around Sudbury are recovering, albeit slowly. Meanwhile, the mines continue to provide valuable resources and support the local economy. They didn’t need to be shut down. Nor did the installation of the pollution management technologies put the mines out of business. So I’d like to think people can be clever enough to extract resources without ruining a place. Too bad it had to be learned the hard way at Sudbury and too many other places.

Some despoiled places can be restored when there is the will and suitable technology to do so. That will and successful effort then becomes part of the sense of that place.

Sidebar – Another ecologically spoiled place:
Not too far west of Sault Sainte Marie is a natural memorial to ecological ruin – the Kingston Plains. The stump fields of the Kingston Plains are areas that have not recovered from cut and run harvesting and resultant fires of the big pine logging in the early 1900s. The landscape is dominated by a dense collection of large, 100 year-old white pine stumps in open fields. With enough work, all of the stump barrens might be able to be restored to forest (some has been successfully restored). But should part of that ecosystem be left as-is, as a strong example of a lesson that needs to be continually learned? Unlike the prior conditions at Sudbury, there is a plant ecosystem now in place in the stump barrens. It’s just that it’s not forest; it’s reindeer lichen, grasses and scrub shrub. I don’t think anyone recommended leaving the part of the ground bare around Sudbury as a testament to prior ecological damage. But in the case of the Kingston plains, due to the effort and expense that would be required to restore all of the stump barrens, it’s OK to leave some of it as-is. Some wildlife species prefer the open ground anyway. (I don’t think any wildlife species preferred the former barren hillsides of the Sudbury area). Another advantage of leaving at least part of the Kingston Plains as-is would be to study and learn other lessons from the very slow natural recovery.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

weather or not

After several weeks of very unseasonable weather (i.e., 10-30 F above long term average), we’re now back, for a few days anyway to typical early spring. Here that means temps in the 30s to 40s F and snow on the ground.

That made me wonder about how weather helps define someone’s sense of place. For instance, I’ve always liked winter so I like places with reliable winters. I don’t think that’s a sign of a mental disorder (although Silent Snow, Secret Snow is still strongly in my memory from reading it once as an assigned reading in middle school). I think it has more to do with many fond memories of winter activities, such as sledding during snow days off from school, pond skating, and skiing. Conversely it may be due to my dislike of ice storms and slush. Let’s keep it all frozen all winter and have one thaw (Ice-9 anyone?).

So I enjoy living where there is consistent snow cover in winter and up here I have a lot of company in that way of thinking. Sometimes it’s nice to be with like-minded people. When we’d get our periodic snows in Ft. Collins and I’d hear people talk about hating snow, it made me sad and it made me wonder why in the world they’d choose to live somewhere that gets frequent snow (these were not place-bound people, these were people who intentionally chose to live there, but apparently for reasons other than snow).

I’d have to check with the experts in psychology-of-place (and there’s bound to be grad programs in it and at least two academic journals devoted to it), but I would think that the weather of a place has some bearing on the type of people who live there. Do the wild swings of mid-continental weather (80+F one day -10 F the next) make people optimistic or would it make them grouchy? Does the stereotypical southern California laid-back lifestyle come from their lack of weather worries? Conversely, there’s the stereotype of snow-country residents as self-reliant and un-excitable. I think there’s something to the latter. Unlike the air travelers who get angry at the airlines about snow delays, those of us who live with winter realize that nature rules. If we get snowed in for a day or two, we enjoy the time off. We don’t go crazy thinking we simply must go out. A day or two of being stuck at home (OK, not at an airport) is a nice break from the routine for otherwise healthy people who like the people they live with.

Obviously some people choose where to live based on weather. But we need to look beyond those choosing the sunbelt to avoid ‘bad’ weather. Some people like cooler climates. Some of us enjoy snow. There are fans of thunderstorms. Some people like drizzle and fog. There may even be people whose favorite weather is high winds with hail. It’s an ill wind, and all that. Your weather likes and dislikes are likely colored by how you associate weather with other things and events in a place. How does your place’s weather figure into your sense of place?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Local Talent

A place can be special because of the local visual and performing artists. And you don’t have to live in Sante Fe or Interlochen to have art as a part of your place. Your local place is sure to have local musicians, artists, a local theater group. Does it make your place special and unique? Do you take advantage of that?

Here in Sault Michigan we have a thriving arts community. The Alberta House showcases local visual arts. We have several theater groups. The Soo Theater Project (the group that’s restoring the old Soo Theater) has classes for visual and performing arts. Our high school has an excellent arts program and music programs (I hope we can continue funding art and music despite the fact that there’s no State Assessment Test for arts and that some people say ‘These kids aren’t going to become professional artists and musicians so why are we offering those classes?’). We have a large number of local musicians. The Sugar Island Music Fest is one venue for these local musicians as are other civic events and, shall we say, local hospitality businesses. Our local native American tribes also add a unique dimension to our visual art and music.

Whether it's kids doing covers of their favorite national acts or local, traditional musicians whose art is informed by their place, the availability of local music adds to the value of our communities. Support your local musicians.

I'm reminded of when I lived in Hays, Kansas, I enjoyed the works of one of the local visual artists who sculpts in limestone. The local limestone is part of the place. It’s a common building material for some iconic structures in the area. It was used for fenceposts by early settlers. That history added to the appreciation of Mr. Felton’s sculptures.

One of our visual artists here, Mary Demroske, does very nice sketches of lighthouses. We have prints of several of her sketches. The art adds to our appreciation of the sites and vice versa.

Just as food nourishes your body, arts nourish your spirit. Just as the local farmers market lets you get to know the people who grow your food, the local art scene lets you get to know the people who make your art. I enjoy talking to the artists just as I enjoy talking to the food growers. I’d like to hear about how local talent makes your place special.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Scents of Place

Scent is the most evocative sense. An aroma can take you back many years and thousands of miles. For a brief time, I lived in a steel town. I presently live in a steel town. Every now and then, there’s an aroma (well, OK, an odor) that brings flashback memories of that earlier place. More pleasantly, sometimes the aroma of baking bread take me back to that same earlier place. It wasn’t all steel town smells. It was also small neighborhood bakery aromas.

Not all aromas trigger that kind of flashback. When I smell feedlot, it doesn’t take me back to towns in the Great Plains. I have pleasant memories of my times there, but feedlot smell wasn't one of them and so apparently doesn't trigger the nice memories. It just triggers a 'yuck.' For a few years, I lived in Fargo, close enough to the sugar beet plant to catch a whiff of that from time to time. My time in Fargo was quite enjoyable but I’ve not been near a sugar beet plant since then to see if that smell would take my mind back to Fargo.

Natural scents here in Michigan’s Eastern Upper Peninsula include the pleasant aroma of peatlands in the spring and summer. It’s a bit of a decaying vegetation smell but it really is much more pleasant than that description makes it out to be. Maybe my pleasant association with the peatland aroma is from enjoying my walks near the peatlands and the views across the peatlands. There’s also an aroma of the first few warm, moist spring days. I heard somewhere that that aroma is related to a soil bacterium but I’ve not looked that up to confirm it.

When communities do visioning exercises that involve listing community assets, the participants often list natural beauty, high quality natural environments, and cultural and historical features as some of the physical assets of their community. I’m not sure how often scents and aromas make the list of community assets but they should.

Monday, April 5, 2010

sounds of a place

This time of year, the sounds of my place are spring peepers and woodfrogs, sandhill cranes, canada geese, woodcocks, coyotes. Sometimes I need to say to all these noisy animals 'Shut up, we're trying to enjoy nature here.'

It is nice that the sounds of our place are wildlife. I don't mind the foghorns of the boats and I have never minded a train 1/2 mile off. Those are industrial sounds that are actually evocative and so are nice in their own way. A train a few yards away would be annoying. We can also hear the freeway from about 1/2 mile off when the wind is right. That sound isn't particularly nice. No sirens anyway. If you grew up in the city but are now living in the country, would horns and sirens evoke pleasant memories like foghorns would for someone who grew up here but is now living too far inland to get that sound?

Thursday, April 1, 2010

postings for 1 april 2010

Today, I pass this link on to you:
and I’d like to say that I’m happy to post the following contribution from a colleague:

Natural Landscape Criticism
By Hugh Roberts

So this friend of mine says ‘Hugh, you gotta come see this special place of mine.’ ‘Oh, great,’ I thought, ‘another forest to traipse through.’

We get there and naturally it was just the same old thing. So clichéd. I mean the grey foliose lichens on the darker grey boulders. It’s been done to death. The odd yellow birch snags scattered in the sugar maples and the ironwood. Yawn. The coarse woody debris. So representational. Like it was put together by Frank Lloyd Wright or something.

Who am I to say that? I’m the first landscape critic. It's not a major in college yet, but just wait.

As a natural landscape critic, It’s my job to make a case for the avant- garde in natural landscapes. To get people to think beyond the typical nicey-nicey. Natural landscapes are nature’s art. Art should be challenging. Art should make us think deeply about our place in the universe. It should lead us to hard questions. Come on, nature. Show us something new. New colors. New tree architectures. New juxtapositions of geology and organisms. Challenge our sensibilities. Enough of representationalism. Shock me with something new. Where’s the Frank Gehry of natural landscapes?