Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Local Music

Small towns seem to have more than their share of musical talent. This past weekend I had the opportunity to hear a very entertaining local band. The Wild Turkeys from Echo Bay, Ontario call their music 'swamp stomp country.' I might tend to call it alt hillbilly. High energy, tight harmonies, fast, fiddle, guitar, bass, mandolin, and drum and even a trumpet on a few songs. And loud. Mainly fun, silly-in-a-good-way lyrics. The fact that I couldn't really hear much of the lyrics because of the raw on-stage sound just added to the experience. Our region of Eastern Lake Superior/Northern Lake Huron isn't exactly where I'd expect to hear hillbilly inspired music (and somewhat incongruous is that the core of the band is the Jääskeläinen brothers!). But I guess it's not that surprising. The same influences that gave us Appalachian traditional music are in play up here. Add some French Canadian and even some Scandinavian and Native American background to the mix and you end up with special music from a special place, with these guys as just one example of our rich musical confluence.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Two more random thoughts

On-line papers help us reach back to our home towns How many of you live away from your hometown but keep in touch via the newspaper’s on-line version? If so, what is your first stop on the site? The headlines to see what’s the latest in town politics? The sports section to see how the high school basketball team is doing? The obits to see which former neighbors have passed on? Or is it the Police Report to see either who you know in the list or to see what passes for crime in your former town? I know someone who used to live here that likes to read the Police Report to see the less-than-serious cases we get. One of her favorites was ‘woman reports burglar put old milk in her refrigerator.’ We have B&Es, assaults and unfortunately even a murder every few years. But most of what’s in the Police Report is not particularly life-changing events for those involved. One of the joys of small town life. Family spreads out geographically Most of the relatives of my generation are still in the middle of the country, but we now have representatives in the next generations on both costs. One has just been born in Los Angeles, another in Brooklyn. Since people tend to pick up their accents in the place they lived in their pre- and early school years, maybe we’ll have a family member who says ‘New Yahk.’ Regardless of where they’re born or where they choose to live, a sense of place doesn’t mean that one has to live in the family’s original home range. It may be that the current interest in sense of place has to do with the fact that many of us who moved for economic opportunities want to establish ourselves in our new places. Essayists of place have bemoaned the fact that we’re a mobile, un-rooted society that has no sense of place. But who has more of a sense of place? People who have chosen to establish themselves in a place they consider desirable or people who feel stuck in the place they happened to be born in? But that’s the wrong question. It’s not where you live, it’s how you live there that matters.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A few random thoughts about how this place informs our lives

Right before we had this unseasonably (unreasonably?) warm spell, we had more typical cold weather that got people into their winter coats and gloves. We all had to dig them out from where they’d been stashed in the back of the closets and then try to find which gloves matched. Walking across campus with the hats and hoods up, we don’t recognize each other from a distance, so the friendly hi’s happen when we’re a bit closer as we approach, or even once we’re by. Sometimes it’s a shout back, “Oh, hi, Bill!” There’s also the fact that hoods make people look older. Several of my colleagues have now gotten to be, well, let’s be generous and say middle-aged, even if they’re not likely to live to be 115. With their hoods pulled up tight, without their pouf of hair to distract the eye, they do look older. And I’ll keep thinking it’s just them, not me, who is looking our age. ….. Yesterday, we went to the Christmas Open House and Tea at the local lighthouse. The tea and cookies were great and it was nice to chat with some of the volunteers who staff the site and to meet the newest volunteer site-residents. The lighthouse property was surplused by the Coast Guard some number of years ago, as were all the old Great Lakes Lights. This one was picked up by the US Forest Service, renovated with the help of the local historical society and has been a great asset for our community. Thanks to all the volunteers who keep it up and running. The lighthouse is a local icon. It really does lend to our sense of place. It brings tourists and their money, but also is a place where locals go for a quick get-away. It’s just a few miles west of town, offers a spectacular view and connects us to the past. Plus what’s not to love about a lighthouse? There’s no entrance fee but people do put donations in the box. I hope enough people put enough money in the box so that it can stay free access. If there were an entrance fee, I’m afraid visitors would just drive by on their way to a more famous lighthouse farther to the west and locals would not visit so often. An access fee might thus result in less revenue than free will donations do. ….. Part of living in an out-of-the-way place is that we frequently travel, either to visit friends and relatives or to make runs for supplies not available locally. The distances are just far enough that a stop for dinner or lunch is often called for. We know the routes well enough to know that if we don’t stop here, it’ll be an hour before the next opportunity. Sometimes it’s a stop at a quick place, sometimes we like to take our time at a sit-down place. This past weekend, we stopped at a restaurant a few miles off the highway. It made for a nice surprise. I had heard it was a nice place but didn’t know it was a candles-on-the-table, cloth napkins, professional wait-staff kind of place. We even got seated by the fireplace. The food was good, very well prepared and not too pricey. That’s not the first time we’ve had pleasant dining experiences in nice, out-of-the-way restaurants. Must be some enterprising people out there who think “I know, I’ll start an nice restaurant away from the crowds.” Or maybe for some, an interest in being in the food service business matches their interest in living out of town. Either way, I like the fact that going out for good food doesn’t have to mean having to be in the city.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Background Noise

Every few weeks if I’m running early to a meeting across the river, I stop in at a nice little coffee shop. They have good coffee, pleasant servers, and a nice ambience. I don’t go often enough at the same times of day to know where I should sit, though. I fear that yesterday I sat in someone else’s regular spot (I know not to do that at my more regular place on our side.) The empty table was inviting, nicely lit, out of traffic. But after I sat down and began to sip my coffee, an elderly gentleman came in, glanced my way as he got his coffee then hesitated just ever so slightly as he passed what had become temporarily ‘my’ table. Other than that slight hesitation and a very few, very brief, furtive glances from the next table that was now temporarily his table, I would not have known of my faux pas. So thanks for being cool about it, you whose table I took inadvertently. Next time I’ll try a different table. The coffee was good as always – this time it was an Indonesian dark roast – and I savored it. The only distraction was the low-fi radio music playing over the shop’s speakers. I like music. Right now I have a music playing and I am paying attention to it as I write. But I like music too much to hear it played just as a backdrop. Similarly, I like the land too much to have it act as just a backdrop. Rather than just visual background noise, streaming by as one travels through it, I like to savor it even if just by noticing individual features as they go by. One of my favorite complaints from the students in my ecology class is that I ruin their lives. Where before they could just let the scenery work as background noise, now they see little details in it. The ‘ruined my life’ part comes in when they now feel compelled to describe to their travel mates what they are seeing. That’s a good way to ruin someone’s life.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Power of Place

I recently finished reading Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris. I enjoyed it and recommend it. Ms. Norris and her husband, both New York City poets, chose to move onto Ms. Norris’ grandparents’ farm after the grandparents had died. Norris is also a lay Presbyterian minister and a Benedictine oblate. In this book, she shares her growth as a resident of theHope, South Dakota area and the Great Plains in general and how she taps into its spiritual power. A few quotes might give you an idea of Norris’ views on sense of place and the power of place like the Hope, South Dakota area. “I wonder if a church like Hope doesn’t teach the world in a way a monastery does, not by loudly voicing its views but existing quietly in its own place.” She further wonders whether, “American’s urban majority…might be seen as immigrants to a land of asphalt and cement...[that] require access to the spirits of land and place…spirits [that] cannot be transported or replaced.” After finishing the book, I Googled “power of place” to see what else was out there on that topic. Many of the resulting web pages were for urban planning (creating places), some were on special places one can go for a healing reconnection with land. The latter made me realize that instead of living in places that drive us crazy then having to find a healing reconnection with a special place, we’d be healthier if we have a continuing, healthy connection with the land in which we live and work, just as preventive medicine says ‘we’ll help you stay healthy’ and not just ‘we’ll fix you when you’re sick.’ One predictor of health is whether one feels in control of one’s life vs. feeling pushed around by events. I haven’t seen the research on it, but I imagine that another predictor of health could be a healthy appreciation of the land on/with which one lives.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A couple of nice fall weekends

This time of year, with the shorter days and evening meetings at school, outside work on the place is limited to weekends. Sometimes the weather doesn’t respect that schedule. But the past two weekends provided nice weather to work outside at least on one of the weekend days. We were able to clear off what should be cleared off and cover up what should be covered up. The gardens and hops yard are now tucked in for the winter. The shorter days are all the sudden much shorter with the time change. Time change is always hard to get used to. The early dark just seems to sap our energy. We come home in the dark, make dinner, but then rather than working outside after dinner, denning behavior takes over (and by denning behavior I mean falling asleep early in the family room). This past Sunday, we got some outside work done early then headed out on a supply run (and very nice lunch) to our next larger town (Petoskey). Regardless of how many times I cross the Mackinac Bridge, the straights -- that expanse of water with the collection of islands viewed from 200' up -- still amazes me. As does the view of the Little Traverse Bay from Petoskey and as does any view of the St. Marys River up here. The view at Petoskey especially struck me this time. As you drive to the north from the south part of town, you see out over Little Traverse Bay, with the state park to the east and Harbor Springs to the north and open Lake Michigan to the west. I felt like stopping people and saying, “stop right now and look at this view!” Don't think I wouldn't do that. I was at a small group meeting of teachers in Petoskey a few years back. During lunchtime announcements, my announcement was "before you come back to the session, be sure to step outside and look out over the bay and remember why we live on the Great Lakes." A wide landscape perspective like that makes a place more special to me. Being trapped in a narrow viewpoint makes me claustrophobic. But it’s only natural that people who live in areas of spectacular scenery would get accustomed to it and take it for granted. But this time I didn't stop and make anyone look. Maybe they all were as they were going about their errands and business. But I’d be curious to know how many do and how many don’t even notice anymore. I often posed that same question to myself when we lived out west where the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains formed the western backdrop. I pose that same question here in the Sault, sometimes to myself and sometimes out loud. This past summer, one of our local enviro-groups decided to try to help people remember that we live in some great scenery. “Lunch on the River” offered people an excuse for bringing their lunch to one of our riverfront parks. In our series of four events, we were at four different parks. We did not provide lunch. We did not have a formal meeting agenda. We had informal informative presentations and friendly discussions about upcoming parks and habitat projects people could get involved in. But the real purpose of each event was simply to get people to take time out from their hectic days and come look out over the river even just briefly over lunch. We’d get a dozen or so people and they seemed to appreciate the excuse to come to take the break and let the landscape perspective recharge them. I hope some stay in the habit and every now and then remember to stop and look and see what we have.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Foods of time and place

Part 1 A while back, my sister had the opportunity to visit Turkey. I got a Turkish coffee pot out of the deal (thanks, sis!). I make turkish coffee about every other week. I like it. Now the thing about making of Turkish coffee is that it’s something of a procedure. You need finely ground beans (right now I’m using some nice sustainably grown, finely ground coffee direct from Costa Rica, thanks to a student that visited there recently). You put a goodly amount of finely ground beans into the Turkish coffee pot, add enough for a cup of coffee, bring it to a boil pour some off into the cup to give some boiling room to the pot, bring it to a boil again, pour some off, bring it to a boil again, then pour the rest in the cup. You then leave the cup for a few minutes so the grinds can settle to the bottom. You then sip your coffee contentedly, but slowly so as not to get any of the grinds. You get the idea that Turkish coffee isn’t something you whip up to grab and gulp going out the door. It takes time make and, once you take all that time, you’ll want to take the time to savor it (and time to be careful not to gulp the grinds). The taste of the coffee is worth it, but also just taking the time out to enjoy it is also worth it. In other words, when I’m drinking coffee, I’m drinking coffee. Part 2 Today has been declared Food Day by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Food Day objectives include improved health, sustainable agriculture and local foods. I just got back from a pot-luck lunch for our Food Day Committee. Lots of good food prepared well. Not all of it was local foods, but much of it was. All of it was wholesome and prepared caringly, all of it was well appreciated. One idea of Food Day is that meals should be prepared well and appreciated, not slapped together and wolfed down. Every day should be Food Day. In our family, it often is. Last night we had a soup of end-of-season produce from the garden: tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, celery, carrots and rutabagas, with some turkey from the freezer. It took a bit of work, but not really that much. We just put it in the crockpot early in the afternoon and it was ready to eat for dinner. Good tasting, good-for-you food need not be expensive or overly time consuming. But eating it should be time consuming. When one takes time to craft a nice dinner, it shouldn’t be eaten while doing something else (no reading, no TV, no papers for work) and it certainly should not be eaten in a hurry on the way to something else. One should take the time to savor the flavors and think of where they came from and what it took to get it to the table. It’s about being mindful about eating. “But I’m too busy to do that,” you’re saying. I reply, “Yes, you are too busy.” Part 3 Part of eating locally includes eating what makes sense to grow in your area, and in eating them, thinking about how they are grown and how that ties you to your place. That approach takes you away from the homogenized national diet that the TV commercials say we should be eating. Just as placemaking is about celebrating unique landscapes rather than converting them to anywhere USA, local eating includes celebrating foods unique to your place rather than eating the same thing everyone else across the country is eating. I’m not saying that as someone in northern Michigan I will give up oranges, but a good part of my diet is based on what’s locally produced (some by us). Instead of a national diet that’s the same everywhere and the same across the seasons, diets should vary by region and season. They should be part of what makes your place a special place Diets used to be regional. The middle of the country had its beef, the coasts had their seafood. The northern states had their winter root crops, the southern states had their long-season vegetables. Let’s not go back to northerners only having rutabagas to eat, but some amount of rutabagas can be a good thing. Brussels sprouts are even good in small quantities (especially if sautéed in butter). So go visit your local farmers’ market, buy a some late-season vegetable you haven’t had. The vendor would be happy to suggest how to cook it. Make it part of a nice meal and take the time to think about locally produced foods. Part 4 Nothing says fall in Northern Michigan quite like apple cider, especially freshly pressed apple cider. Under Michigan’s new cottage food law, we can once again buy unpasteurized apple cider. The new cottage food law is designed to help promote small, local agriculture, but still provide for food safety. The law permits people to make and sell small quantities of otherwise low-risk foods, such as breads, jellies, fruit pies and some other products without having to have an inspected, commercial kitchen. The sales must be face-to-face and quantities are limited. The idea is that people a trust relationship will be in place between seller and repeat buyers. Apple cider is not exactly low risk. Several years ago, serious illness outbreaks were traced to E. coli in apple cider. In response, it became illegal to sell unpasteurized cider. I like unpasteurized cider much better, but I don’t like E. coli. It is a balancing act. The new law allows face-to-face sales by the person who made it and in limited. So this weekend at the Traverse City farmers’ market, I bought some. Food safety laws have their place, but in this case I am confident in the producer’s attention to safety. The cider sure is good and a real taste of Northern Michigan.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Small, local retailers

When shopping, I generally check first with the small, local retailers. I can often find what I want at a competitive price and I usually get better service and more expert advice. Sometimes they don’t have what I need and I end up at the big box, but I try the local places first. On a recent shopping trip like that around town, I found myself wondering about the interplay of local and national-chain retail. I found myself thinking back to when I was a kid and the small town I got to spend some time in with my grandparents. I make no claims to be an economic historian (or any kind of economist or historian), but in my amateurish musings, I thought about trips to the local retailers with my grandmas and how the attitude about local retailers was not always so positive. Back when the local retailer was the only place in town, he may have taken advantage of the captive market. Prices may have been inflated, business practices may have been a bit shady. In some cases, the national chains that moved in represented an alternative that offered predictable business practices and level of quality, and lower prices. A little competition may have helped the local retailer improve. Mind you, I’m not buying into the claim of the big national retailer that it doesn’t drive viable, well-managed places out of business. Their claim sounds a bit circular to me: “if that business went out, it must have been unviable or poorly managed.” But maybe in some cases, an expanded competitive pool has resulted in local businesses that work harder to earn their customer base, not just take it for granted, and as a result the current positive view of small, local retailers. They do work hard to earn our business. We should give them the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, the next time you want the local alternative, it won’t be there.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Fall Rains

September and October are the rainiest months for us, with a long term average of 6” of rain for the two months. For the past 5 days, we’ve been in that fall rains pattern for a total of 2” of rain. This morning, more of the same. Cool, windy, rainy. When picking out a shirt for today, I took a dark, long-sleeve shirt. I hadn’t started wearing the muted fall.winter colors yet, but today seemed like a good day to start. Can’t quite go sweaters. Not winter yet, but definitely fall. For me, the rainy fall season is in-between time of year. Too late for hiking, cycling, paddle sports. Too early for XC skiing. Too muddy to get in the garden for the last of the fall cleanup. It is a good time for catching up on some fun reading, though. I just finished two novels placed in the UP. South of Superior was a nice, slice-of-life about people getting new starts and learning to live with themselves in a small town on the east side of Lake Superior. No murders, just a realistic look at life in a place that some people have figured out how to make a go of it. In real life, the novelist owns a diner with her husband in Grand Marais. The other book, the Truth About Fire, took place at “Keweenaw U” in Houghton where a history prof gets entangled with a world-spanning racist plot. It’s an exciting page-turner. Several murders and a good deal of bed hopping give way to true love. In real life the author is a prof in the northeastern US. Both books feature the UP sense-of-place well. I recommend them. Rainy days are also good for getting caught up on inside chores and getting the supplies needed for them. When we lived out in one particular rural area out west, the local small town would increase in size on rainy days as ranchers and farmers took advantage of the break from outside work to go get things done in town. I have not noticed any increase in activity in the Soo on rainy days. Rains here are common enough that not everyone uses the same rainy day to go to town. A few more rainy days are in the forecast, then clear and cool. Pretty soon, sweaters will be the fashion.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Date Night

“Let’s finish the chores early and head out to see the fall colors. I haven’t really gotten out to see them this fall, and I need some pine cones.” That’s all I needed to hear to pick up the work pace a bit. By 6:00 PM we were on the road west to Taquamenon Falls, for leaf peeping and dinner at the brew pub. Two stops at red pine stands along the way yielded some cones for decorative uses. Red pine cones are good for that. They’re squat and solid with flat bases. And they're not sticky like white pine cones. Got to the park at about dusk. Walked to the first overlook to the falls. I had never been to the falls at dusk (I’m usually out there in the summer during the day, not late in the evening). The red-enriched light came in along the canyon. One particular trees with yellow-tinted leaves caught the light just right, almost making the tree glow. The falls were backlit. Now I need to go in the morning to see the falls lit by the morning sun. Someone in another group mentioned to his companion how cool it'd be to light the falls like Niagrara. I chose not to verbalize my disagreement. On the way back on the trail, the almost full moon shone between the tree tops. A photo would not do that image justice. One of those that makes a better mental image than a captured image. The fact that the view through the tree tops was so good because of the beech die-off made it a bit melancholy of an image. A nice dinner at the brew pub among several other people out enjoying what the fall scene has to offer and a nice drive home winding along the Curley Lewis Highway topped off a wonderful date night. We could have kept working on all the chores that still remain to be done, but it’s important to get out and see what there is to see. That’s why we live here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Coming to a University Near You

I just learned that the special honors seminar I had proposed for next semester has been approved. So I and a colleague in English will be teaching a seminar on Developing a Sense of Place. Should be fun. As I developed the course proposal, I got on the web to see what other universities have such classes and was pleased to see that a number do. Some are in humanities-related departments (architecture, visual arts, writing). A few were in environmental sciences type departments. Some were in Honors programs. During the the next semester, I'll let you know how the seminar comes along. The course project will be a mini-symposium at which students present a scholarly paper or creative writing or visual art about how sense of a particular place has informed their lives. I already am eager to see what they will have to show. The mini-symposium will be open to the public and coordinated with our annual Environmental Summit and an artifact of each presentation will be posted on the web. Speaking of presentations, as part of my casting about on the web for that course proposal, I found a TED talk on placemaking in an urban setting and pass it on: http://blog.ted.com/2007/04/20/james_howard_ku_1/#more

Monday, September 26, 2011

Placemaking on a Great Scale

I find myself on the steering committee of a new initiative: the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Symphony. That’s ‘symphony’ as in united voices, not ‘symphony’ as in orchestra. As in the opposite of ‘cacophony.’ We just had our first meeting last week. The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Symphony is a project of the International Water Secretariat (IWS), a non-government organization based in Montreal dedicated to water conservation and environmental justice related to water. The IWS noticed that while there are several organizations working on the technical aspects of cleaning up the (Laurentian) Great Lakes, there isn’t a group that works on the more human aspects of appreciation for the lakes and what it means to be a habitué of the Great Lakes/St Lawrence watershed/coastal shed. How “my water is our water.” Part of the impetus for this initiative is that the Gt. Lakes programs tend to quit at the beginning of the St. Lawrence River although obviously all the Gt. Lakes stuff washes right past (and gets added to by) Montreal, Quebec City, etc. And the beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence get it all. At our kickoff meeting, one of the other participants stated that it seems like we’re talking about placemaking, but on a wide scale. Placemaking is generally about a specific location. Even placemaking related to the St. Marys River (60 miles long) is a stretch. Placemaking for a region from western Lake Superior and southern Lake Michigan through Lake Huron, Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and right down the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of St. Lawrence is even trickier. But what the IWS is talking about is essentially placemaking. The project wants to know: how living in this watershed/coastal shed informs your life, what’s so special about it, what do want to see as the future for it? (Then the hope is that once people see that, they will act on that new-found insight.) I’m very interested to see how getting people to work towards their local places (watersheds) but seeing it in a grand scheme (as a part of a huge watershed/coastal shed) will work out. I’ll keep you posted as this project on placemaking writ large comes together.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Do you need an excuse to linger?

This morning, as we were driving in to work, we went a bit out of our way to get a better view of a rainbow. It filled the sky and was doubled on the ends. It was one of those days with rain coming in bands with sunshine between. Perfect rainbow weather. We pulled over, then took a couple block detour to get a better view. It was fun to position the rainbow over one of the university buildings or to get a view over an open field. We took pictures (just with the cell phone). We probably won’t even download them (how many pictures of rainbows does one need) but the fact that we had the ability to take a picture gave us the motivation (and an excuse) to stop and notice. A couple of days before that, it was an interesting shadow that made me stop to look at and take a picture.

Sometimes you need an excuse to stop and or to linger. If you’re sitting on the bank of a stream with a fishing pole in your hand, you have an excuse to linger. You could just sit on the bank, gazing empty handed, but the fishing pole provide a typical excuse.

A sketch pad, camera or writing tablet work, too. A paper tablet is more picturesque but, for me, far less effective than the electronic kind. In fact, the process of capturing things one sees helps develop the habit of seeing. You might not need an excuse. You might notice and linger without having to produce an artifact. But I notice more if I’m in the habit of writing about it. Either way, noticing and lingering help you know your place and knowing your place helps you notice and linger.
The rainbow anecdote started as a comment on reasonsruralrocks.blogspot.com, part of a project completed by an intern with the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities. If you want to get in the conversation tweet #ReasonsRuralRocks to @sherbani or go to reasonsruralrocks.blogspot.com.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Thoughtful spots

I recall one afternoon that I was really dragging. I was traveling from one appointment to another and as I like to do, worked in a coffee and donut stop. About 15 minutes later I felt more energetic. I’m not sure whether it was the caffeine or the replenished blood sugar, but I felt remarkably refreshed. That’s the first time I really noticed the value of stopping for donuts, oops I mean of taking a nutrition break.

Thought breaks are just as essential as nutrition breaks. I can stay on task for a while, but at some point I need a thought break to refresh my thought center. I can’t start with the break – I need to apply some seat time to get the process started, but eventually I need a change of activity and scene to let additional thoughts emerge. How often have you sent a memo, then walked down the hall only to have thought of an additional point you should have made in that memo? So don’t send that memo until you’ve had a thought break. Before you consider some thought-requiring task done, set it aside, get a change of activity and scene, and come back to it. New ideas will bubble up.

You can make a pretty good guess about where I like to head for a change in activity and scene. Yep, a local natural-ish or uncrowded spot. We’re lucky to have plenty of them. If I had to develop a tag line for our area, I’d want to combine ‘real nature, real close’ and ‘uncrowded.’ That’s a good combination for thought breaks. Other places have forests; other places have lakes, rivers and wetlands. But we have the advantage of having all these places close by and without huge crowds to have to share them with. I guess we should be pretty deep-thinking people with all those thoughtful spots available. But then having them available and taking advantage of them are two different things. Just because they are there doesn’t mean we always use them.

Friday, September 9, 2011


I was down in southwest lower Michigan over the Labor Day weekend. One evening was one of those warm, humid evenings. The air was heavy and still. The crickets and cicadas were singing. Had it been any cooler it would have been slightly chilly, any warmer would have been unpleasantly hot and muggy. That combination of atmosphere and sounds made a pleasant ambience/context/setting/milieu (thank you, thesaurus, but I’ll not use mise-en-scène).

We don’t get that many warm evenings up here, so when I did have that sensation of a warm evening, it was nostalgic. Not so much that my favorite weather is warm and humid, just that I do have pleasant memories of such nights when I lived elsewhere. (It’s not all nostalgia, though. I also have memories from those places of nights too hot to sleep comfortably, with air conditioning making it tolerable but uncomfortable in other ways.)

Up here, our nights tend to be cool, or ‘good sleeping weather’ as the TV weather person likes to call it. In talking about this summer’s weather to a fellow resident recently, I mentioned that ‘there was that one week this summer that we didn’t sleep with a blanket.’ His response was ‘yes, it has been warm this summer.’ I forgot to insert the word ONLY or JUST in my statement to make the point that one week without a blanket in the summer is not very many warm nights. But it’s all relative. I hear back from students for which a rare cool evening where they now live brings back fond memories of chilly nights in the UP.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A nice sight

This morning I saw a dad walking is daughter to school. Nothing extraordinary about that, but it is getting to be a rare sight for kids to walk to school and especially for parents to walk along. This is only the second day of school here and the girl looked maybe 3rd grade. They were about a ½ mile from the local grade school when I saw them, so it wasn’t like a just-down-the-block walk the girl could do on her own.

It looked to me like they were having some real quality time together, conversing in a way they would not have been able to if dad had to concentrate on driving and the girl was safely seated in her booster chair in the back seat. Taking time to walk your kid to school is not practical for everyone, but it is nice to see that it’s not extinct. I also noted the ample sidewalks on low traffic streets which made it possible.

We have a complete streets ordinance here. With new construction on streets, sidewalks and other pedestrian and cycling friendly features are to be added when practical. Maybe that will help make the sight of families walking for transportation and recreation more frequent.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Three out of five?

So how does sense of place inform our lives? As I’ve shown in previous posts, there is evidence that sense of place can lead people to advocate for conserving the special features of their place – the features that give them that affinity for their place. But can sense of place make us happier? More likely to treat each other better? How about richer? Prettier?

I don’t know the psychology literature at all, but I imagine that one could find references that show that if one feels that he or she has made a good choice in place to live, as with any other of life’s big decisions, one is likely to be happier. I do see it around here in those that stop to think of all the advantages this place confers. And I imagine one could find evidence to support the hypothesis that happier people are more likely to treat each other nicer.

But what about richer? Very desirable places to live sometimes have lower wages. When we lived out in Colorado’s Front Range, there was a saying ‘the mountains cost you $7,000 a year.’ Apparently someone had done a comparison of average wages in the Front Range to similar jobs elsewhere and found that difference. The thinking was that the companies could get away with paying people less since they did not have to entice their employees to move to some undesirable location (similar to how really fun jobs like natural resources conservation don’t have to pay a lot to attract people to do them). So will a strong sense of place make you richer? Hmmm. Guess not. This wonderful place I live now isn’t known for its high wages. Guess we get our riches in the non-monetary form.

How about prettier? Not so sure about that either. I was just talking to a colleague the other day about how the people in some of those towns below the bridge are always so fashionable and dolled up. That’s not quite the case here. We have a style, a way of presenting ourselves, but we are not fashionable under the definition of “fashionable” as keeping up with changes in styles. (Thanks to local fashion expert Maria Guzzo and her IgniteSault talk on fashion for that understanding of fashion http://www.ignitesault.ca/2010/09/is-sault-ste-marie-fashionable/)

In our discussion, that colleague and I agreed that it’s nice to live in a place in which one doesn’t need to worry about fashion. I’ll take better stewardship, and happier people who treat each other well and not worry about being richer and prettier.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Keeping it Weird

I have not been to Austin, Texas. In fact, other than brief visits to Houston and to Dallas for conferences, I’ve never really been to Texas. I don’t necessarily have anything against Texas, just didn’t have any real reason to go there. After reading the book “Weird City” by Joshua Long, I might feel inclined to visit Austin sometime. I had heard that Austin was a city known for its music (well, OK, I knew that from watching “Austin City Limits” in my youth). I did not know it was also famous for fighting the homogenization that’s running rampant through the country. Having seen several, formerly unique places, end up looking anything but unique, I was intrigued enough to read the book.

The book’s title refers to the “Keep Austin Weird” phenomenon that began with kitchen table discussions among Austinites concerned that the city was losing its character due to an influx of newcomers. What attracted many of these newcomers was the city’s reputation as supporting the cool, the creative, the bohemian. These Austinites were concerned that those coming to the city to appreciate that uniqueness were diluting that very uniqueness and thus the city would fall to homogenization and gentrification.

As the book describes, that group began to distribute “Keep Austin Weird” bumper stickers and it became the rallying cry for fighting developments perceived as threatening the soul of the city. Since, in addition to a strong sense of place, Austin also had a strong tradition of civic engagement, these efforts worked. The book also describes how the “Keep Austin Weird” motto was co-opted (and copyrighted) by a group that used it to promote local businesses and has sprouted up as Keep Boulder Weird, Keep Portland Weird, etc. It also describes that the feeling was not unanimous. There were others in Austin who used the mottoes “Help Austin Grow Up” and “Make Austin Normal.” But overall the story seems to be one of a city capitalizing on its unique character and resisting the tendency to look like every other city.

I recommend the book for anyone interested in a case study of the power of sense of place. It’s a spin-off from Long’s PhD thesis but is an easy read, told in story format (some chapters have an academic tone but readers are warned in advance of those chapters and they are not essential to following the story – as an academic I appreciated those chapters). The book also includes a nice summary of the concepts of how cities evolve and references to the ongoing work of those who study cities and help cities develop (such as Richard Florida who promotes the ‘attract the creative class’ strategy).

Here in my area, we need to develop the sense of place further. We have those who think that a mark of ‘arriving’ as an area is to have a new big box store or national chain restaurant and that otherwise we’re a cultural backwater. “Weird City” doesn’t provide specific advice about how to help build a sense of place, but does provide good background on what sense of place is and isn’t and what it can do for a town. It also shows that preserving what’s already good about a place can be good for a place’s economy and doesn’t mean that the place has to be frozen in time. Those are good lessons for many areas.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

New sticker for showing off UP

In a previous post, I had mentioned that the UP is somewhat unique in that we have our own area code (906). All of the UP is in that area code and only the UP is in that area code. The other day I noticed that one can purchase a white oval sticker with 906 in black so I did. And today someone asked "what's the 906 sticker about," but as soon as she asked, she answered her own question. Just a subtle way to show off where one lives.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Tourist Attractions

I suppose sometime I should stop by the Wisconsin Dells. Last week we were within an hour’s drive of the Dells, but, just as with so many such trips in the past, we’ve did not go. There’s just something about the promotional brochures that doesn’t make it particularly compelling to me; too much of an amusement park feel to it. Maybe there’s a place where one can view the river away from all that, just as one can view Niagara Falls without having to go to the tourist attractions. Maybe.

Years ago, I was discussing the potential for a new national park with someone who lived in the out-of-the-way area the park would be. This person was concerned that with such a designation the area would be overrun with bumper cars, miniature golf, trinket shops and other developments. That’s what this person thought of when he thought of tourism. A national preserve has opened there operated by the National Park Service and there are no such tourist attractions, but years ago, but I could understand that person’s concerns. Years ago, that was tourism. I recently stopped by a town here in Michigan (again, one of those finally stopped by after being in the area many times) in which the 1960s era tourist attractions are the dominant feature of the landscape. The landscape needed no such embellishment. It was a lovely lake with a small town, but in that era tourists expected such diversions.

Since then, nature-based tourism has come on the scene. Family tourism is no longer mom and dad with a station wagon full of kids needing to be entertained (well, OK, the kids may need to be weaned from their various LCD screens, but that’s another story). There is a group of tourists that want authentic experiences with nature and they have money to spend and they spend it. It’s not the nature crowd of the 70s about which one former Michigan governor said “they bring an extra pair of underwear and a $5 bill and don’t change either one.”

Nature, history, local culture, local foods all make for place-based tourism – tourism built on experiences one can only get in a particular area. Miniature golf, bumper cars, water slides and other amusements are pretty much the same everywhere. The local natural, historical and cultural features are not. A successful tourist economy can be built on those unique features and help conserve them in the process.

Monday, August 1, 2011

When the Grass is Greener On This SIde

I know some people who think that our area absolutely is the place to live, work and play. I know other people for whom this seems to be a terrible place to be.

Some of the people who really love it here grew up here, but many are people who moved here specifically to live in what they consider a great place. Those that think this is an awful place seem to be more people from here that for one reason or another are ‘place bound.’ They may have family obligations, or maybe their occupation keeps them here, or maybe they just haven’t gotten the get up and go to get up and go. It would make sense that this latter group is mainly from here – we don’t have the kind of employment draw that would compel people to move here for a job in an area they otherwise don’t like.

One place-bound person born and raised here recently told me what a dump this place is. Earlier that very same day, I was with a group of people, some from here, some who moved here, expressing what a delightful place this is. The contrast was interesting and it got me thinking that it’s probably a good thing that we have people coming to the area realizing how great it is and working to keep it great.

Again, there are people from here and who have lived most of their life here that think its great and work hard to keep it great and make it greater, but its also good to have an influx of enthusiastic people who really love it here. It is important for these newcomers to be able to express their appreciation for their new place and have opportunities to help keep it/make it great. Some of the environmental projects are started by such people who don’t take our natural heritage for granted the way the longer term residents tend to. Some of our new businesses are started by relative newcomers who see opportunities the long-term residents didn’t pick up. Perhaps the long-term residents were too used to seeing things the way they are and not how they can be (kind of the reverse of how it is when you see an old friend you haven’t seen for a while and notice that they’ve aged but you don’t see the aging of the people you see every day.

Towns need to be welcoming of new people who bring good, new ideas. It’s only natural that it would take a little while for newcomers to have some influence. We don’t want to swing back and forth with the latest fads. New people need to work themselves into the community. But some communities make it harder than it needs to be for new people to bring in new ideas. Community development research shows that successful communities welcome newcomers and new ideas and energy that fit into a shared vision of the place

Friday, July 29, 2011

Local Humor

You know you’re living in a special place when there’s a series of local jokes. For the central and western UP, it’s Toivo and Ehno, which are a bit more colorful versions of Sven and Olie stories of Minnesota (or Lena and Olie stories for the more family oriented humor). What’s the local humor of your place (other than sports-inspired state rivarly jokes)?

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Sense of Place" Makes Public Radio International

I don’t know how long ago this segment ran, but I recently found the podcase of the segment about sense of place on “To The Best Of Our Knowledge.” Check it out: http://castroller.com/podcasts/PriToThe/1559027-TTBOOK%20Sense%20of%20Place

Friday, July 22, 2011

Quantifying Your Place

Environmental scientists monitor rivers, wetlands, wildlife species, invasive species and other natural features of a place to keep tabs on the health of those natural features. But the environmental scientists can’t be everywhere. Several years ago, the natural resource agencies discovered that there is a whole group of interested people that could be put into service to provide that needed monitoring. Citizen scientists are ordinary people who have a strong interest in local nature and who receive training in documenting natural conditions and report their findings to an information network run by a professional staff. Bird counts, frog and toad counts, river watches, invasive species watches are all examples of this citizen science.

Beyond the data generated, these citizen science programs also help build ownership in natural features. Someone who has been out monitoring water quality on a river doesn’t want to see their river contaminated. I have not looked into any research about how many stream monitors who started out just as natural history buffs become politically active to protect their stream, but I do know of some anecdotes about that.

But even if you have no intention of becoming an activist, if you have any interest in helping quantify your place, look around for opportunities to participate in a citizen science project. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll have a good time, and you’ll help contribute to the knowledge base needed to manage your natural resources.

Monday, July 11, 2011

cherry picking, literally not figuratively

This past weekend, we did our annual trip to Rosenthal’s Orchards in Charlevoix to pick cherries. The orchard is 3 miles off the main road in beautiful rolling hills with farms and woodlands. It's a nice quiet setting. Yet the booming of the bird scare cannons adds to the ambience somehow.

They have large heritage trees, which also adds to the charm of the place. One tree we picked from is getting pretty old. Several limbs are missing, the bark is peeled off from the base to about 4’ up except for one narrow strip running up the tree. But it had the sweetest cherries of all the trees we picked from. Probably some kind of moral in that anecdote, but I’ll do like the math textbook authors and leave the completion of that idea as an exercise for the reader.

As I said, the trees there are large. I don't think they could shake these trees. I'm pretty sure they need to be picked by hand. Sometimes you need a ladder, which also adds to the fun. This year we were there the first day of picking so we did not need the ladder. We got the proverbial low hanging fruit. This year looks like a bumper crop. The cherries were in grape-like clusters.

We’ve been going to that orchard for 10 years or so. It makes a lovely trip and it’s a pleasant way to spend a few hours. One’s mind wanders while doing that kind of work. In addition to just taking in the nice feeling of a pleasant afternoon, I found calculus creeping into my mind. Here’s how calculus has ruined my life. I began wondering about dH/dC where H is the height of the branch and C is the number of cherries on the branch. I noticed that as I held a branch to pick it, if I were to let go of the branch after picking some cherries, the branch that was once in my reach was now out of my reach. Then I wondered if the orchard could model that for use in a pricing scheme. That way they’d get some revenue from the cherries that get picked but don’t make it into the bucket that gets weighed. Or would it be easier to weigh us before we pick and then after we’re done picking and charge $1.49 for that difference in weight as well? But I imagine the $1.49/lb already includes some loss to cherries falling into the pickers.

Fortunately this strange line of thinking lasted only until the next scare cannon blast brought me back to reality.

We traveled 100+ miles to enjoy the cherry picking adventure, and we’re not the only ones to travel some distance to take advantage of access to fresh fruit that we cannot grow up here. When we lived in Colorado’s Front Range, we did similar trips to the west slope for peaches and other fruit. Even when we lived in Kansas, we’d journey off to the nearest apple orchards. We’ve been part of the ag-based tourism economy for a long time.

Ag-based tourism includes farmer’s markets, fruit stands and U-Pick operations. People come to enjoy a morning or afternoon or evening of picking, then find they would like to go to dinner or at least stop somewhere for some kind of snack or drink. If they happen to see a unique shop, they may well stop there, too.

Some ag-tourism destinations capture that additional business by having a café on their grounds (A popular restaurant in Kansas City started as the café on the orchard grounds. I went to look it up and see that it closes its doors several years ago. Too bad.) Some farms spruce up the grounds and offer a look at how the operation works. Some vineyard/winery estates do that and make an especially fancy form of ag-based tourism (although it’s also fun to visit the straight working vineyard wineries that aren’t all fancified.). I have not looked, but there are bound to be some hops yards that are doing that with on-site brewpubs.

Some farms offer corn-mazes, pumpkin patch activities, hay rides and other on-farm activities as a way of generating some additional revenues or even just to show off the farm. Some businesses even serve the niche market for people for whom an idea of a vacation is paying to stay and do some work on a farm (the western guest ranch idea applied to farms). I have done no research on the number of such businesses and their success rate. I’ve heard of some successful ones, but also know of one in northern lower Michigan that apparently didn’t make it. The less elaborate versions of ag-based tourism are much safer bets.

Regardless of the form, ag-based tourism can be an important part of local economies and creation of the sense of place of an area.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Report from Halifax

I recently had the opportunity to spend a lovely weekend in Halifax and I can report that that’s a city that knows its place.

My hotel was on the waterfront and I was able to explore the town from the naval base to the public waterfront to the shipping terminal to all around Point Pleasant Park and up to university, the Citadel, and Public Gardens Area. (A lot of walking in three days!)

When you’re in Halifax, you know you’re in an area with a rich history and cultural heritage. And there’s no doubt that you’re in a maritime city. The sights and sites are a constant reminder, as is the seafood. There’s a wealth of restaurants from upscale to diner-style.

The city has done many things right in terms of placemaking to help visitors and residents know all about the history and culture. Of all the places I saw, two stood out as especially excellent and unique places, Point Pleasant Park and the public waterfront.

Point Pleasant Park is aptly named. It encompasses the south end of the Halifax peninsula. It’s a large park with a great network of trails. Judging by the high level of use by residents, it is an important part of the quality of life in Halifax. (Although as I was marveling about how wonderful the park was, I did overhear one young boy asking his mom ‘why am I here again?’ to which his mom replied, ‘to spend some family time.’ Kids, eh?) I greatly enjoyed sitting on the cobble beach looking out across the water and listening to the mild surf of this protected waterfront. Even mild ocean surf has a much lower, booming sound than our Great Lakes waves. But upon entering the park, I saw two familiar but unwelcome views – a beach closure sign due to bacterial contamination after a heavy rain (the ocean wasn’t contaminated, it was where a city stream empties onto a beach), and an invasive plant site (they were controlling Japanese knotweed with geoblankets). Otherwise the park was excellent, with many small monuments and other features and lots of way finding signage.

The public waterfront consists of about one mile of boardwalk/public spaces right at the downtown area, from the naval base to the shipping terminal. It features slips for tour boats (including tall ships and even Thomas the Tugboat), eateries and pubs with waterfront seating, monuments and lots of way finding signage. The downtown ares just up hill from the waterfront includes hotels, shops, restaurants and bars, office towers, and a skywalk. It all makes for a great place to spend an afternoon watching the harbor (or should I say harbour) activities and the people.

This mile of public waterfront is a small fraction of the miles of waterfront, the rest of which is mainly industrial, and includes what appears to be a petrochemical plant across the bay. What is now the public waterfront used to be industrial as well. Several decades ago, a group of forward-looking individuals who realized that the economy was shifting away from heavy industry got together to see how they could help the town thrive despite that shift. A waterfront commission was created and designed and nurtured the development of what is now a wonderful public waterfront that is an important economic asset to the town. So even in Halifax, placemaking needs to be guided. I don’t have any information on the controversies of the time or how well the plan was originally received, but it worked. The pace of construction indicates that the area is still seen as a good investment. Thousands of visitors and lots of residents appreciate the commission's work.

My area, Sault Sainte Marie Michigan and Ontario, is known as a place of natural beauty, not for boutiques and lots of fine dining and upscale nightlife. That point was made clear in the in-flight magazine I read on my flight to Halifax. Porter Airlines is a regional carrier based in Toronto with service to Thunderbay, Sault, Sudbury, Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax, St. John’s as well as Chicago, New York, and a few other major US destinations. The in-flight magazine offered highlights of each of the airline’s stops. For all the towns, these highlights were shops, eateries, night clubs, except for the Sault. The one spot highlighted for the Sault was Whitefish Island, a natural area on the remnant rapids of the St. Marys River. I like that.

Sault Ontario has done a great job of making a public waterfront. We on the Michigan side have a way to go. Our working waterfront offers challenges to creation of public spaces, but so did Halifax's (and like Halifax, the lovely public waterfront in Sault Ontario used to be a crumbling industrial site). We can figure out how to do it here, too.

Monday, June 20, 2011

output side?

When 'sense of place' gets discussed, the agenda always includes topics about where your food comes from, where your water comes from since that helps people connect their every day lives to their landscape/watershed.

Should we also include 'where does your trash go?' and 'where does your sanitary sewage go?' and 'where does your storm water runoff go?' These latter points aren't generally held up as points of pride for a community, and thus may not play into building a sense of place, but they are important aspects for people to know regarding their ecological footprints. Grade school field trips sometimes include the waste water treatment plant.

But how would a city go about bragging up their up-to-date sewage treatment in a tasteful manner?

Our town is partly through a very expensive sewer separation project. Most people know that some portion of the city's streets are torn up any given year because of some sewer project, but I'm not sure everyone understands the, ahem, ins and outs of it all.

The fact that the city is updating our waste water handling is a good thing for our local water quality, just not really something that someone is likely to hold dearly as fond memories of their place.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Local Ag Feeds a Sense of Place

I was going to school the other day and noticed that one of the local farmers had started his hay harvest. Early June is a bit earlier than most, but the hay grasses are starting to flower, so it is getting to be that time.

It made wonder whether the seasons of local food production is part of the sense of place for people who don’t get out of town much. How would it be? Should it be?

People who attend farmers markets also know the seasons of local agriculture, as do people who shop at grocery stores that like to feature fresh, local foods. People who pay some attention to the landscape they are travelling through also notice* when various agricultural seasons are occurring. Sometimes local media outlets feature planting and harvesting news, but generally only if there’s some problem that will lead to higher food prices (‘this wet spring corn farmers behind schedule for planting, which might result in higher corn prices’ or ‘this late frost will likely reduce this summer’s peach crop’ kind of thing).

Some regions make sure people know the seasons of local food production. Local ag themes make for great festivals. Traverse City Cherry Festival makes sure a lot of people know about TC cherries (even though cherries from other parts of the country make up a large portion of the cherries served there since it’s generally before the local cherries are fully in). On the opposite end of the size spectrum is Stalwart Hay Days. In the world of television comedies, there’s the Pawnee Harvest Festival.

Aside from the tummy, pocketbook or reason for a festival, a general awareness of local ag also could benefit conservation. People even a little attuned to local food production and its challenges might be more likely to support preservation of farmlands. They might be more likely to further support local farmers who can thus afford to keep their lands in ag production. They may wonder why a mega-store in their town is selling canned fruit from across the globe when there’s plenty of local canneries. (In the Michigan stores of one mega-mart, the canned peaches are imported literally from ½ way across the globe but you have to read the tiny type on the label to see that.)

Do you know what’s grown in your place? Beyond that do you know what activities that involves during what seasons of the year and what challenges local growers face? Does that knowledge help you know what’s special and unique and worth preserving about your place?
* Not to get all Andy Rooney, but I’m bothered just a bit by the car commercials in which the young boy brags a about the great entertainment system in the family van. When rolling through the countryside, wouldn’t that child benefit from seeing what’s going on in the landscape?

Another local product
A part of my sense of place is the fact that we can buy excellent, fresh, wild-caught fish. Lake whitefish, lake trout, walleye, lake perch are all available at stores and restaurants. When I’m at a restaurant and I overhear a tourist ordering some kind of ocean fish off the menu, I want to tell them ‘No, eat the local fish!’ but I don’t. I instead think ‘more for me!’

Like the knowledge of local agriculture, maybe people would be more inclined to support habitat restoration and other water quality projects if they knew a little bit more about the fish other than that it sure tastes good. One need not be a fisheries ecologist to know a bit about where the fish come from, how they live there and the challenges of catching them and managing the fisheries. Fisheries outreach (beyond just to anglers) is always a good thing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Live Water

If I had to pick a single word to describe this area as a place, I would pick the word water. It’s all around us and informs our lives in several ways. Some people live on the water, even more recreate on the water – even if it’s just gazing our over the water. Many of us travel past any of a number of water bodies on our way to work or elsewhere and some even pay attention to it as they travel by (unfortunately many do not; as indication of how much we live with water is the fact that it's easy to take for granted). And all of us benefit from the abundance of water available for our use. I read in a recent edition of Sault Star that Sault Ontario has a bylaw to restrict water use when needed, but the restrictions don’t reflect a shortage of supply as they do in the Great Plains but rather a shortage of processing capacity. So, for example, when use approaches a given percentage of pumping capacity, watering of lawns is restricted to stated days by address in Sault, Ontario.

In addition to the Great Lakes themselves, our abundance of water (more technically the combination of precipitation and temperature regimes)leads to several other features our area is known for such as wetlands, lakes and streams, and more.

The flat water of a lake or the low gradient streams we have here in the eastern UP is serene. Live water, tumbling over rapids or overa a waterfall, is fascinating. There’s just something about seeing the water tumble and hearing the white noise that people really appreciate. One can see flat water is many parts of the country, but live water is unusual enough to be a tourist attraction. We have 100+ waterfalls here in the UP, lower Michigan has only a few, so waterfalls often form the theme of a visit to the UP.

Our waterfalls are mostly in the central and western UP but here on the east side we have Tahquamenon Falls. The upper fall, one large freefall, is the most famous but the lower falls, more a series of rapids, have a charm of their own, including the ability to play in them. And of course here on the eastern UP, we have the remnants of the St. Marys rapids. ‘Though less than 10% of the original flow of the rapids and restricted to a narrow strip surrounded by industrial and transportation development, the rapids are still good to see and fish in.

So, our place in a word? Water.

Not everything about our water is pleasant. We don't have floods or other really dangerous consequences of being around water. We do have biting insects.

The black flies, mosquitoes, deer flies, stable flies, and other biting insects aren’t everyone’s favorite part of living by water. The first black fly bite of the season (mine was last week) isn’t as much fun as seeing the first, say, trilliums, of the season. Ever the optimist, though, I’m happy that our biting insects don’t include chiggers, the mite larvae that burrow into your skin and leave a terrible itch and a swollen nodule. Both the itch and the nodule last several days. Chiggers find the warmest part of your skin to burrow into, which adds to the discomfort. Some people don’t smell right to chiggers so don’t get attacked and some that are attacked are less allergic to chigger saliva or whatever it is that makes one itch so severely. Chiggers do like me, though. What positive spin can I put on that? At least I can’t say I’m never appreciated. I’m always good for a blood meal for a chigger when I’m in Kansas for a summertime visit. .

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Residual effects

Your sense of place informs your life. Sometimes a sense of a previous place informs your life, too. In a previous post, I had mentioned how an aroma can take you back in time and space. Earlier this week, I had a tactile experience that took me back in an uncomfortable way.

We were on an ecology class field trip at Robertson Lake Cliffs, which students often describe as the highlight of the class field trips. We climb a high hill in the Algoma Highlands for a spectacular view across a hilly forested landscape with Lake Superior off to the west. The hike up is great, too, crossing streams that tumble down these remnants of ancient mountains and taking in the natural history of the maple forest. It’s about a 1-1/4 mile hike one-way, climbing several hundred feet.

This time, about a third of the way up, I insisted that we turn around. The weather was making me quite nervous. Hot, humid air; swirling winds. I knew the forecast had called for thunderstorms in the evening, but we should have been able to get to the top and back down and on the road back to school before the t-storms struck up. The students thought it was all fine, but just that sensation of the hot, unsettled air mass made me unusually nervous. So we turned around. Within a short time, the cool air won out, the wind settled in to a steady breeze. We would have been fine. Then it occurred to me that the sensation I was feeling was the exact sensation one gets just before the skies open in a great plains thunderstorm. That particular sense of that particular place caught up with me.

My spidey senses weren’t completely failing me, though. There was a large-hail-and-damaging-winds thunderstorm going on to the south of us, just not in our immediate location.

But safety first. I encouraged the students to return on their own and complete the hike. I hope to hear from them later this summer and fall about their great, safe, hike

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Spring blossoms

The first blossoms of spring in the forest understory around here are the trout lilies. This seems to be a good year for them. They must like cool and moist. One particular woodland site is a carpet small, yellow, nodding flowers and waxy, green/tan patchwork leaves. The trout lilies are ephemeral and soon will not be apparent in the forest floor plant community.

Another flower blooming now offers the promise of a future treat: Amelanchier, which has a list of aliases worthy of a pulp fiction crook (a/k/a shadbush, a/k/a juneberry, a/k/a serviceberry, a/k/a sugarplum). But this native shrub is no crook. It graces the woodland margins and shrub areas with a splash of white flowers that later will be a tasty fruit.

Yesterday, as I was traveling through the NW lower Michigan orchard country, I saw another profusion of white blossoms, this time in the apple and cherry orchards. It’s alovely sight offering the promise of delicious fruits later this summer and fall. But I couldn’t help but think that the farmers probably view the sight of all those blossoms with a combination of delight and concern. To paraphrase Knute Rockney’s quote about the forward pass (‘only three things can happen and two of them are bad’), I would think the orchard growers are probably apprehensive since so many things can happen to the flowers and fruit and only of few of those things are good. So here’s to a good fruit season to the fruits of summer, wild and domestic.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Earlier this week, I took my class on one of our usual field trips. We travelled about 60 miles of two-lane roads through sparsely populated country. There’s nothing like driving over miles and miles of two-lane road without seeing another car to help you think about place. I wasn’t day dreaming, I was driving carefully while re-observing the familiar landscape.

We passed through three distinct landscapes. One was the clay lake plain, dominated by open hay fields. Another was closely managed jack pine forest – essentially variously aged patches of jackpine. The third was aspen, spruce, fir forests that have grown up after heavy logging of decades ago. All of these landscapes are attractive in their own way, all show the signs of extensive human activities, and all inspire a sense of place for me. Part of that sense is that they the fields and forests are currently well-managed and thus engender positive feelings about the human activities.

In this case, the sense of place isn’t about a specific spot, it’s a more general context, in this case the landscape and the people in that landscape.

When thinking of landscapes as places, some people might think of idealized settings. Small villages interspersed in rolling hills of forest and farmland patches. A cluster of houses facing a harsh coastine. Snowcapped peaks in the background of broad valleys. Miles of open Great Lakes beaches. Those are all great landscapes, but probably for most of us, they’re places to see on a vacation. Our everyday landscapes are cities and towns. Our neighborhoods may be iconic, rows of brownstones with people sitting on their porches talking with passers-by. It may be a downtown setting, it may be apleasant subdivision with people on their daily strolls. Or it’s just your plain old everyday neighborhood made special by your memories of it and your interactions in it, kept attractive and tidy by people who care about such things.

People round out the context. I asked a friend of writer-type colleague of mine who s to put together something about his sense of place regarding our town. He said “ all I can think of to say is that it’s a place with lots of nice people who help each other out.” That actually says it pretty well. Talk of sense-of-place should incorporate the context people create through their positive interactions. People who do awful things can make an otherwise ideal physical landscape not worth living in; people who do great things can help make an otherwise ordinary landscape well worth living in.

Landscape contrasts
I grew up in Kansas. I like prairies and plains. I get a special feeling standing on a high point, viewing a distant horizon in each direction. No longer in the plains, I rely on the Great Lakes to provide that visual outlet for me. I’m not sure I’d like to live deep in the woods and have my visual sweep so limited. When our relatives began visiting us after we moved up here, we’d ask them ‘what did you see on your way up?’ They’d only half-jokingly reply ‘we couldn’t see anything, too many trees in the way.’ Likewise my students from up here who end up traveling out to the plains and prairies say ‘I couldn’t see anything, it was all just open country.’

Friday, May 13, 2011

Word Gets Around

Thanks Northwest Earth Institute for running in their anewsletter an essay based on the post "Sense of Place: Is It Really a Thing?" from this blog.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Under a big tent

Like other conservation and sustainability work, place-making draws an interesting mix of people. One day a few weeks ago, that point came to me as I attended two separate meetings that had to do with sustainability projects.

One meeting consisted of the usual suspects. I live in a small town and tend to know most of the people who are engaged in the usual civic affairs and pitch in in a positive way. That’s one of the advantages of a small town – when you want to do something, you know who to bring together. In fact, meetings for different types of projects often have many of the same people.

The other meeting was in a way more interesting. It had a much more diverse group in terms of outlook. There were people who live off the grid, people who wanted to see a major overhaul of the political landscape, people who were more concerned with working toward the global community rather than local issues. They were all nice, sincere, articulate people. They were not hot-heads. They were idealistic enough to be interesting but none live in la-la land.

I was just reading a wonderful book, “Looking for Hickories: The Forgotten Wildness of the Rural Midwest,” by Thomas Springer. It’s a great collection of essays about the renewing role of the nature that’s at our doorstep. I recommend it highly. In one essay, Mr. Springer describes the diversity of people in the local land trust he belongs to. I belong to a local land trust but it sounds like it’s a more homogeneous group. All the active people in our land trust see the goals of the land trust fairly similarly. We might disagree on some specific management activity, but we’re mostly in agreement overall. I also belong to a citizen’s advocacy council for specific, local environmental issues. Again, members of the council may disagree on some specific approaches, but we’re all pretty similar in our overall goals for the project.

It occurs to me that I have not had the opportunity to work on an ongoing basis with a group of people with strongly varying conservation and sustainability goals. I’ve certainly hosted meetings where opposing opinions are expressed stridently, even by some hot-heads, but I have not had to work closely over a long period of time with people of strongly differing points of view. Achieving a synthesis of opposing viewpoints can result in a powerful organization and would be quite an accomplishment. (Visit sustainablenorthwest.org for an example of some skillful coalition building.) But not being able to accomplish that synthesis would be quite frustrating. Should I feel fortunate that I haven’t had to form difficult coalitions or should I feel deprived of such an experience?

Monday, May 2, 2011

It's Official - You can now have fun at this site

Building a sense of place can include adding features that help people interact with that place and each other. This place-making is typically the stuff of city planners working to create public spaces or designers of park sites. The places typically show off some natural or cultural feature but also further interactions.

As someone mostly involved with natural sites, I sometimes wonder how much ‘improvement’ needs to be done to an area. But I know we sometimes need to entice people to a spot by adding human-made features. Signs, benches, boardwalks, kiosks, roofs over picnic tables, foot bridges, paths, and more make an area more enticing to more people. My previous thought was ‘it’s water front, make your own fun,’ but now I realize that most ‘normal’ people are attracted to areas with some additional human-made features. I’m sure I knew that all along , I only just recently stopped to think it through.

Similarly, when I hear people complain about ‘there’s nothing to do around here,’ I’m usually tempted to tell them to lace up their hiking boots, learn some bird songs, learn some of our native plants, put on their snowshoes or XC skis, swim in the lake or river (might want to buy at least a shorty wetsuit first!), get on the bike and so on. But I realize not everyone wants to strike off on their own that way. We do need to provide easy, convenient ways for people to interact with each other and our environment (natural and human-dominated). Even in more natural settings, we need marked trails not only for safety but also to let people know it’s OK to walk through here. It’s official – you can do it. Maybe it used to be that you needed a 'No Trespassing' sign to keep you from going into an area; now we might need an 'OK to Enter' sign so that we know we can go into an area.

When I was a kid, we rode our bikes along unofficial pathways in vacant lots, finding challenging hills and turns on our own. We would not be able to do that now because of liability issues and all kinds of other things that have changed over the decades. Now we need officially designated bike parks. I'm not saying that it was better back then. Officially designated bike parks probably are better than dispersed unsafe trails. Aside from safety, there is a need for officially designated places for adults and kids to play. One cannot just tell people ‘go have fun,’ we need to help them have fun to some degree.

I’ve started working with a group that wants to establish an official walkway along a local water feature. There’s nothing to stop people from walking along that feature now, and some people do, but we can work to improve it so it isn’t muddy in parts, and, again, just to make it official so that more people will realize they can use the route. Having that officially designated, improved route will help foster appreciation for that water feature and the environment in general and will help others see that we do have a special place here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


Placemaking is about helping a place become somewhere people want to stay in instead of somewhere people can’t wait to get out of. Third places can be an important part of that effort. Not only are they pleasant places to be, they are places where residents discuss their aspirations for the place, cook up projects to make those aspirations a reality and in general keep informed.

Cafés, outdoor public places, the library, civic centers, are the usual things that come to mind when one hears of third places. Civic organizations are third places for many people, especially in the sense that people come together to take on community projects. Recreation groups could be third place communities for civic projects, too, since the discussions among parents watching their kids’ games may turn to such issues (perhaps between episodes of being little league parents). Adult recreational athletes who get together after the game might end up discussing local events. Anything that brings local people together can be thought of as a third place. The more it promotes deliberate discussion, the better.

I’m curious about on-line communities as third places. The book “A Different Kind of Engagement” described how on-line communities are part of the civic engagement of youth (and countered the decline of civic engagement described in the book “Bowling Alone”). Recently the rural development website reimaginerurual.com, based in South Dakota, described the large number of South Dakotans on facebook (http://reimaginerural.com/tech-trendy-south-dakota/ ) and how that could be serving the role of a third place. Other posts on reimaginerural also described how tools such as Front Porch Forum (http://www.frontporchforum.com) have helped bring communities together.

I started this blog learn about how sense of place informs peoples’ lives. I wanted to post my thoughts and have others respond. Thanks to those of you have. Keep ‘em coming. I also have learned about sense of place from other people’s blogs. But blogs don’t seem to be interactive enough to be a third place. The facebook page keeps like-minded people informed and connected regarding sustainability topics and events in our town is fine, but it does not seem to be quite the right venue for discussions either. Facebook seems to be more for quick check-ins.

So I return to my question about how on-line communities can act as third places for discussion of community development/sustainability/conservation/sense of place. There’s an interesting set of articles in the scientific literature about how gaming communities can act as third places for youth, but that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m after. I want people to see how people within a geographic community can come together on-line to discuss _their_ community, not a fictional life, not a virtual community but a virtual gathering spot for a real community. How to get people engaged in on-line discussions?

I use on-line discussion tools in some of my classes. They’re not that different than tools we use to generate discussions in face-to-face classes. As an instructor, I can’t just say ‘what do you think?’ or ‘any comments?’ I need to pose prompts that are pertinent to students, that help them get into the topic. But it’s a bit easier with students – they are trying to earn a grade. Getting busy people to take time to articulate a response in an on-line community is not easy. People have to see the benefits of making time to respond. I would think it would have to be timely, concrete topics or current projects. I’ll keep working on that, but if you have examples of particularly effective techniques for promoting participation in on-line communities related to place-making, let me know. It may be that, as with university classes, a hybrid approach is best (periodic face-to-face supplemented by on-going on-line discussions/check-ins).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Thank an entrepreneur

My interest in placemaking combines my conservation background and my desire to see sustainable rural communities. The two are intertwined. Sustainability often is equated to conservation-related topics, but for rural communities, sustainability includes maintaining a vibrant local economy. A vibrant local economy feeds back to conservation since a) a local economy can be built on natural assets and b) towns with hope for the future are more likely to be concerned about conserving the natural assets of their area. As I said, they were intertwined.

According to the recent talk in rural economic development circles, vibrant rural economies depend on promoting local entrepreneurship. Farmers were the original rural entrepreneurs but as employment shifted away from agriculture, other employers needed to be found. Not too long ago, for some communities finding those employers meant luring a company with tax incentives (with some of the companies banking on being able to get away with paying low wages since the area was job-limited). When the tax incentives expired, the company looked for the next place that would offer tax incentives. That’s not a sustainability based approach.

The sustainability based approach is to build up entrepreneurship among people who want to stay in the area. “Economic gardening” refers to encouraging residents start enterprises that make jobs for them and perhaps for others. These local entrepreneurs help put the ‘stay’ in sustainability (thanks to an unidentified street artist in St. Marys Australia for that play on words).

Local entrepreneurs may be placemakers directly. The ice cream vendor that adds more things to do at the waterfront (in the manner of Project for Public Places’ Power of 10 Concept) is an entrepreneur of place. The owners of the locally flavored cafes and pubs and other third places are entrepreneurs who help make the place as are local food producers, local artists/artisans, outdoor recreation vendors (i.e., the kayak rental on the waterfront).

Other local entrepreneurs help build and maintain the community, even if they are not directly involved in placemaking. Like all entrepreneurs, they are investing their time and treasure, with the goal of making money to be sure, but also because they, in some sense, want to help build the area. Afterall, there are easier ways to make money and one of those easier ways might be to leave the area. But your local, independent [fill in the blank from list below] stays and perseveres and probably supports the local community in ways national chains do not.

Look around. You may be surprised at the number of entrepreneurs in your community. I never really thought of our area as a hotbed of entrepreneurship until I thought about the number of contractors, auto repair shops, personal care businesses, restaurants, cafes, pubs, professional services, small manufacturing enterprises, and more, all of which make the town what it is. We all rely on them. I’m glad the proprietors of my favorite places are still hanging in there. They work really long hours. They have a lot invested in their enterprises. I hope they’re able to get some return on that investment when they choose to retire but in the meantime, thanks for keeping the lights on.

I’d like to see a “thank a local entrepreneur day” in our community. Do any of your communities out there have something like that?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Lost my source of donuts

For the past several months, I had gotten into the habit of stopping in at a local restaurant for midmorning donuts if my errands took me over that way (or I could stretch the errands to take me over that way). Stopped in the other day at 9-ish. Sign on the door said "New Hours." Unfortunately, the new hours did not include breakfast and thus the bakery had been closed. Downsizing I guess. Darn. I had gotten fond of fresh/local donuts/pastries/scones all of which were quite good. I've had good donuts and I know the difference between good and bad donuts. These were good. And the only source of good donuts in town.

That's the third good donut source that's closed here. What's the matter with an upper midwest town that can't keep a donut source in business? This morning a possible answer came to me when I filled up the car with gasoline. I wonder if the expense of feeding the automobile is leaving people short of cash for luxuries such as donuts? Maybe it's time to put the car on a diet and leave yourself some extra pocket change for donuts.

As one door closes another opens. Losing the donut source is sad (although as someone who works in public health I do have mixed feelings about donuts... remember, everything in moderation!). But the first local brew pub recently opened downtown (again, remember, everything in moderation!) And one of the vacant storefronts states that a new coffee shop will be opening. Maybe they'll have donuts.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Turn Around Town

I enjoy reading stories about towns that have been able to overcome problems. It's uplifting. My interests are more about rural areas and small towns but seeing how large cities have turning around makes me more optimistic about the chances of any area overcoming its problems. Also, since rural economies require thriving urban areas, those of us interested in advancing rural areas need to be at least interested in progress in urban cores.

Time Magazine is running a series on Intelligent Cities about how cities are overcoming urban problems with technology. Last December, they ran a story about Torino, Italy's conversion from an old industrial center to a new economy center. The title was 'What Torino can Teach Cleveland.' Poor Cleveland. Always the example of industrial strength problems (such as burning rivers).

But apparently even Cleveland is getting a make-over, according to Charles Michener's story in the April Smithsonian Magazine (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/Clevelands-Signs-of-Renewal.html).

Michener credits a spirit of re-invention among the populace but also cites natural assets such as a chain of parks and smart development along the waterfront. He didn't say 'placemaking' but it sounds like some good placemaking was involved.

I haven't had a chance to see Cleveland but now I'd be more inclined to consider a trip to Cleveland an opportunity instead of thinking 'what did I do wrong to have to go to Cleveland?'

(The Cleveland story is part of the My Kind of Town series in Smithsonian Magazine. The magazine invites prominent writers to describe how their towns evoke a strong sense of place. Most of the entries are famous towns (think Portland and Seattle) but a few are of more rural towns. Some are flattering portrayals, some not so flattering. It is good writing about place. To check it out, follow the My Kind of Town link from the Cleveland story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Story of No Place

The town of Dishwater, Michigan, is unique only in the sense that it’s the most ordinary place anyone has ever seen. And not very many people have actually seen it. Who would bother to come see a place so ordinary?

History? There literally is no history here. Even the Native Americans considered the site that later became Dishwater to be so ordinary as to not warrant visiting. They didn’t even bother to give it a name. Not even ‘The Place That’s So Ordinary We Didn’t Bother Naming It.’ The few white settlers that took up farming here all had hoped to establish farms elsewhere but they ended up in Dishwater instead. Then most left due to sheer boredom. No one bothered to write down any stories of the early white settlement days because it was just all so boring. The settlers weren’t even from any colorful ethnic group. No special foods or customs or fun holidays or anything like that.

In the 1950s a company got cheap land from the county and set up a factory to make dishwashing soap. The company thought it’d make for clever advertising, playing off the town’s name. It didn’t. The factory was closed, the equipment taken elsewhere, the buildings dismantled. You can hardly tell the factory was there.

There’s not even an amusing story about how the town got its name. It’s just what popped into someone’s mind at the railroad as a place name on the line.

Natural features? There aren’t any. No streams. Nothing special about the woods. Just plain old woods with some farm fields. There’s nothing here to attract any special wildlife species. Even the soils are just plain dirt. In fact the soil series name is Dishwater Dirt. There’s no environmental problems because, aside from the soap factory, no one’s done anything to harm the environment. No one’s done anything.

Culture? Nope. No one does anything artistic. None of the architecture is special in any way. The buildings look just like any other building in any of countless other towns.

Third Places? The town has a coffee shop/diner but they only sell prepared foods from a restaurant supply company. No one really hangs out at the diner. Most of the orders are to-go.

Somebody recently had the idea to hold a Dishwater Ordinariness Festival. But nobody was interested.

You know what it’s like to live in Dishwater, Michigan? Of course not, nobody does. There’s no place that ordinary. Every place can engender a sense of place, some more than others and for more people than others. While you can’t create a sense of place in people, you can help keep places special and you can help people see what’s special about a place.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Sense of Place - Is it Really a Thing?

According to us boomers, we’ve invented everything. Well, if we didn’t invent it we popularized it. Now, following the natural progression of the generations, the millenials are thinking they invented everything. Only some of what we (boomers and millenials alike) invented may not be real. There’s a long list of physical, mental and social maladies unverified social or natural science. Or in the words of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, “is that really a thing?” So is sense of place ‘really a thing?’

Along with conservation types, artists, authors, architects, city planners, public health professionals and others are interested in Place. The academics have gotten hold of the topic and written extensively on any of a number of arcane aspects of it. I’m sure there are specialized journals on the topic. I haven’t started wading through all that, but eventually I should. For now, I’d rather naively explore the topic. I might end up in a blind alley or might end up either re-inventing the wheel or treading a path that’s been closed off, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take. I’d like to wander around a bit to discover the territory rather than following someone else’s map. Eventually I’ll need the map, just not quite yet. Besides, once I get lost, then I’ll be ready to ask for help out (no comments from my field students needed here). Here’s what I’ve been thinking lately about where the sense of place comes from, unaided by the structures of the academy.

Does sense of place come from a desire to resist the inexorable growth of suburban development and its homogenizing influence? When we talk of a lack of a sense of place, we may be referring to a sprawling suburb that looks just like every other sprawling suburb. So that may be it.

Is sense of place in the news now because economic planners want to capitalize on it? Due to technology, more people can choose where they live rather than having to go to where the job physically is. Communities that want to attract these new economy workers tout their places. That may account for the growing attention to sense of place.

Is sense of place on our minds now because we are able think of the land differently, as something to appreciate, not something to master? It’s easier to appreciate a woodland if your livelihood doesn’t depend directly on the board feet of lumber it can produce. As more of us get farther away from land-based economies, the land is increasingly seen as resource for more than just extracting commodities. The history of organized conservation movements throughout the less-settled quarters show that appreciation of place vs. economic exploitation is not new. Conservationists in the late 1800s and early 1900s were seen as outsiders who could afford their romantic notions but didn’t understand ‘economic reality.’ The sagebrush rebellion echoed the same sentiments in the 1970s. In our region, a new mine and a new wood technology plant are replowing that same ground. Money now or greater but less tangible value later?

Is sense of place a desire to return to something we used to have, when more of us were tied closer to the land? I was fortunate Maybe, but not in the same way. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to conversations extensively with my grandparents and grandparents-in-law, who were born in the late 19th century. And from what I could tell, they had a sense of place, but it was not today’s sense of place.

They were connected to the land and its seasons. But much of that connection was around how to make a living off the place in which they were born. Some years ago, I was traveling with various family members, including one of the grandmas, through what to me was absolutely gorgeous country -- a wide sweeping river valley in the northern Great Plains. When I commented on the sheer beauty of the landscape, that grandma replied, ‘I wouldn’t give anything for it, the land doesn’t look like you could grow anything on it at all.’ Not the same as my perspectrive, but I could understood where that perspective came from.

My grandparents had a strong sense of place, but not in those words. I heard them speak thoughtfully of the land and its natural history and their history. As far as I know, my grandparents didn’t read Wallace Stegner, one of the first writers of place, but they knew their place. They knew of its beauty, and of its challenges. They were attuned to its natural cycles. Those that lived on the family place had an even stronger tie. Sense of place runs deep if you’re living in where your forebearers lived and where they are buried.

I don’t think what we mean now by sense of place is quite the same. I don’t think we’re entirely trying to recapture something we used to have and lost. So, yes, sense of place really is a thing. The boomers didn’t invent it, nor did the millenials but it is a new thing. What we now mean by sense of place is an evolution of our natural desires to be connected to each other and our environment, whether that’s a more natural or more built environment.

Now I am curious to know how my take on it compares that of the academics.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Some random relative merits

Our area is partly remote, partly connected. We're a small town, but large enough for most services. If you're working on a plumbing project and need to make that 4th trip to the hardware store, it's not all that far away.

And we are right across the river from a larger town of almost 70,000 people. But crossing the border is so inconvenient that it makes it seem much farther away.

We're not on the way to anywhere else in the US, so we don't get people just passing through. The advantage is that people have to want to come this way. A disadvantage is that we don't, say, get performers stopping in to play for us while they're in the area anyway. I lived in one town which was about half way between two larger venues and we did get acts that way.

We're a small town and like other small towns, there is a tradition among some of the retailers and service providers of sometimes having to close up shop to attend to other important personal matters. I actually like that. I don't find it annoying. I know that if there's a day where the shop is supposed to stay open late, it never hurts to call ahead and save a trip in case they did have to close early. I recently found myself calling a business in a larger town to make sure they were really open that evening. The person at that business replied, 'yes, as we state in our hours, we are open until 7 on Thursdays' as if to say 'of course, why wouldn't we be open if we say we are open?'

One other random thought: Living near the shores of Lake Superior makes it easy to find our place on a map, even a small scale (i.e., broad range) map. We were visiting a location away from lakes or other natural geographic features. We were watching the weather report from the local TV station. The weather map was entirely without any distinguishing features. Just a big blank space other than human-made lines (i.e., roads and county lines). Someone in our group said to no one in particular 'how would someone who lives here know where they are on that map, there's nothing to go by.'

Notable natural geographic reference points on a map may not play a large part in people's opinion of their place, but it is kind of fun to be able to point to a map and easily find where you live. We'll take what we can get for advantages.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's a place where they make...

Can local businesses help define a sense of place?
Some examples come to mind:
Austin, Iowa (home of Hormel Foods and willing to call itself SpamTown, but Spam is not actually manufactured there);
Battle Creek Michigan (home of Kellogs and Post Cereals, also known as Cereal Town USA);
Hershey, Pennsylvania (I don't need to say what's made there);
we could go on and on with famous companies and their home towns.
Regions are known by clusters of industries. Our obvious example is Detroit.
A recent Chrysler commercial (I think it was one of the superbowl commercials) seems to say about Detroit 'sure it's a gritty city (one line in the ad states "and it's certainly no one's Emerald City") but it's where we make cars.' Not sure I quite get the point of the ad.
Grand Rapids area is known as 'where they make furniture' with Steelcase and Herman Miller and many others in the area.

These are the kind of factoids we learned in US Geography back in grade school.

Thinking more about smaller, local-scale examples of 'it's where they make...' brings to mind places such as:
Zeeland, Michigan can now be known as the place where they make the backup cameras you see in the rear view mirrors;
Pinconning, Michigan (lot's of cheese gets made there and there's a nice cheese shop I stop in when I'm passing through -- 10 year aged cheddar is quite tasty!;)
Conner Floors in the western UP makes the flooring for NBA and NCAA tournaments as well as the permanent floors for several bball arenas;
Again, we could go on and on. These are fun products towns routinely use as points of pride. Places will also build on their existing appeal for labeling products. Who doesn't get a warm fuzzy feeling from "Vermont Made." "Made with Kansas Sunshine" may not engender the same warm fuzzy feeling in everyone. Up here, "UP Made" might work better than "Genuine Yooper" but maybe the latter would have more funk appea.

I can't help but think that the appeal doesn't work as well when the products aren't so fun. "It's where they take the tops off of mountains to provide the country with cheap coal" doesn't have quite the same type of appeal.

How has your area built on what it's known for or conversely built on it's fame to promote what's made there?