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 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.