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.

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