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A Sense of Place or A Sensibility of Place

In my work I can always tell where a person is from. No, not from their accent but from what kind of landscape they desire.  Usually, this is a memory deep in their subconscious from their childhood–their initial Sense of Place.

Most city people will tell you they have no idea what a ‘Sense of Place’ is, nor do they have one.  But I’d have to disagree having dealt with hundreds of clients.  It’s there, they just don’t identify it.

I grew up in the West.  Granted, it was California West, and Los Angeles, yet I spent all my summers in the high mountains of San Bernadino.  I also grew up next door to the largest municipal park in the world–Griffith Park.  Most of Griffith Park is still undeveloped chaparral.  During the 60’s when I was growing up, I probably spent all my free time roaming the hills of the Park.  My father was an avid and very good gardener.  He loved to bring home plants from around the world and see if he could grow them.  That spurred my interest in gardening.  Along with the exotic landscape of my childhood, the dry desert environments and the mountains are my sense of Place.

That sense of environmental familiarity is like comfort food when you’re sick.  I believe that it’s hard-wired into us.  For most of our time as humans on this earth, we stayed in one area.  Even if we were nomadic, we were familiar with the environments we wandered and these environments were not too dissimilar.  But now we are on the move all the time.  Most of us are ‘not from here’, and probably grew up in a completely different landscape, with different weather patterns, plants, temperatures, and cultural elements.  All that moving around, as well as living in concrete jungles, misinforms our innate senses and leaves us Bereft of Place.

With the influx of people to California from the mid-west and East Coast in the 80’s and 90’s, these people brought their sense of Place with them.  Those clients want a landscape with plants like birches, lawns, hostas, or daffodils. One client I consulted showed me a fairly steep front yard and told me he wanted lawn.  I had to educate him on why that was not possible, nor desirable in Northern California.  He was, of course, from back East.

CA Madrones--Arbutus menziesii

Garrya elliptica-Silk Tassle bush...a beautiful CA native

Even though each of us, subconsciously, desires the psychological comfort of our childhood home, I would advocate that we have to become adaptive to where we are, casting out our old sense of Place for a new one.  In our modern world where we are going ‘nowhere’ and from ‘nowhere’, in a world where our role as caretakers of the Earth is becoming increasingly critical, this is essential.

What I am suggesting is that we take a look at where we are living now, and live there for a time before changing things around.  Understand the weather patterns, where the winds come from, how much snow or rainfall you get. Look around at what is growing there naturally; consider what the birds are eating, the kind of cover they might need; see what is invasive, not-native and intruding on the landscape; notice your drainage patterns, or snowfall drifts; understand how the animals are moving in your landscape, their corridors.  Research the history of the area.  Search for those clues.  Understand historically what took place that co-existed and what occurred that altered.  Once you get a feeling for all that, then consider how you want to ‘improve’ your property, nudging it into a more harmonic existence with the natural landscape, removing the old scars of someone else’s Sense of Place.

Earliest city in Montana. Homesteaders sense of Place

Scars of people confusing their own sense of Place with the existing landscape are everywhere and all pervasive no matter where you live.  Where I live, it began with the homesteaders coming to get their free 160 acres at the turn of the 20th century, to work this rocky barren soil, or run sheep and cattle.  In order for these farmers and ranchers to work this land, they had to first move the native Indians onto reservations, then exterminate the Bison which would ruin their crops, build dams, kill natural predators, unearth mountains of rocks, build barbed wire fences, and plant non-native crops.  They did all this not because they were terrible people, but because this was their comfort zone, their Sense of Place which they tried to impose upon this foreign landscape.

What Lewis & Clark saw in Montana

Today people are still altering this area by building homes on windy bluffs for the view (when the smart thing to do is to build down in the bottoms for protection), or using cheap, non-native building materials, over-building such as Mc-Mansions, building on wildlife corridors and habitat, planting invasive species, irrigating in wasteful ways, building fences not friendly to wildlife, over-grazing, and other acts of insensitivity to this Place called the West.

People have a short cultural memory, a few generations at best.  Long ago our cultures of Place were passed on verbally, through story and song.  Today its’ what you see when you got there, or how long you’ve lived in a place, or maybe the story of just one past generation.  That lack of continuity of Story makes us fragmented people without true History of Place.

I guided school children in Muir Woods/Muir Beach for many years.  Muir Woods is a National Monument, and a very much altered, although breathtaking, environment.  There are asphalt pathways with railings to keep you from wandering among the trees and damaging them.  But no one remembers that in the 1930’s, the landscape was altered even more, as people picnicked by the stream, trampling the understory and planting lawns.  A railway actually went through the Park till 1929.  And before that it was a well traveled route of trade for the Miwok Indians.  What we remember though, is what we’ve seen in our lifetime.

Ancient sense of Place and Wonder

In the Greater Yellowstone Area, outfitters who came here 20 years ago remember many more elk than today.  They use that memory as a marker against which to gauge what they think the reintroduction of native wolves are doing to the population.  But with the 1988 fires, the number of elk exploded due to increased habitat.  Locals will tell you that there used to be 5000 head of elk here every winter; now there are only 1500.  But if you ask my 86 year old neighbor who grew up here, he’ll tell you that there were no overwintering elk here when he grew up.  And if you go back further, you’ll be hard-pressed to find evidence of much use of elk by the native americans who lived here. They mostly dined on deer, sheep and some bison.

What we need today is to develop a Sensibility of Present Place–the ability to appreciate and respond to all the emotional, aesthetic, scientific, historical, and environmental complexities and influences of where we are living.

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2 Responses

  1. Great post – I love this concept of ‘Sensibility of Present Place’ — deep appreciation of where you are planted, how it came to be, and how you can become a sustainable part of what it will become.

    I grew up in the ‘little boxes’ suburbs of Long Island, NY. As a child I sensed, but could not articulate, the loss of “place’ that was occurring at such a rapid rate in the 60s and even more rapidly in the 70s. I haven’t been back there in 30 years, but I imagine that “place” has been occupied completely by strip malls and parking lots. When I was young, I found myself craving forests, streams, and meadows — places that were rare even then.

    Like you, I’ve settled temporarily in the high desert of the Rocky Mountains of Montana. I see the same thing you mention — people who want to bring their home landscape into an entirely different space. How beautiful it could be here if they would choose to use local, native plants for their homescapes.

    Soon, I’ll be relocating further west to Oregon and will be living in a new “place” that, perhaps, will suit my childhood dreams of forests and streams.

    Like

  2. Emma, you are right that a real ‘place’ also includes community. That too has been lost so quickly over these last 30 or so years. Good luck in Oregon.

    Like

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