SCD Concepts: Sense of Place and Environmental Consciousness

by Joel Helfrich, HWS Visiting Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies


Joel Helfrich

A good friend of mine—noted bioanthropologist, polymath, and passionate advocate for the Southwest, Peter Warshall—felt strongly about individual spirit and sense of place. He said, “[T]wo things … can perhaps save the world. One would be the mastery of ones kindness to oneself…. And the other would be understanding your passion for place—for where you live—and really loving the place that you live in.” The deep-rooting thinking in Warshall’s words is that the more you love where you live and become familiar with your local environment, broadly defined, the more likely you will act quickly to protect it. In other words, you must “know your place” in order to do something. Author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams agreed, writing, “When we commit to a particular place, a certain element of choice is removed. We begin to see the world whole instead of fractured. Long-term strategies replace short-term gains. We inform one another and become an educated public that responds.”

There exists a tradition of commenting on sense of place. Oliver Wendell Homes stated, “Where we love is home—home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit argued that “A sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” Novelist, farmer, and environmental activist Wendell Berry quipped: “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Continued Berry, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared.” Novelist and essayist Scott Russell Sanders agreed. “Home is not where you have to go but where you want to go; nor is it a place where you are sullenly admitted, but rather where you are welcomed—by the people, the walls, the tiles on the floor, the flowers beside the door, the play of light, the very grass,” wrote Sanders. In fact, said Sanders, we should all work to create lives that are “firmly grounded in household and community, in knowledge of place, in awareness of nature, and in contact with that source from which all things arise.”

In a 1977 essay titled “Reinhabiting California,” activist Peter Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasmann suggested that bioregionalism and “living-in-place” meant following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place keeps a balance with its region of support through links between human lives, other living things, and the processes of the planet—seasons, weather, water cycles—as revealed by the place itself.”

Indigenous communities that have practiced “living-in-place” since “time immemorial” have, in some ways, unmatched connections to the land. A Western Apache man named Dudley stated,

Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their names. You must remember what happened at them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will see danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.

What all of these quotations point toward is that sense of place helps humans to create community, to evolve in countless ways, to learn about what is important and how to behave, to establish informed action, and to “do something,” as musician Jim Croce once urged his audiences. There is something personally and communally beneficial about establishing a spirit of the local, a sense of place. A sense of place is a strong basis for sustainable communities.

Understandingpeople’s view of and attachment to … communities and bioregions, and how this affects their relationship to and actions toward the environment,” is important, according to Deborah Tall, author of From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place. Geographers, historians, anthropologists, religious scholars, social critics, environmentalists, geologists, creative writers, and activists have examined and begun in the last few decades to truly understand “sense of place.”  My students have not only examined Geneva but also the Finger Lakes and Western New York “to discern how culture[s] inscribe [themselves] on a landscape, altering the environment to create a sense of place,” as Tall once put it.

Although sense of place concepts and studies have been largely the domain of scholars working within specific disciplines, activists, Indigenous peoples, and other environmentalists are now taking up the mantle. We see attachments to place especially in protests regarding fracking, tar sands oil, the Keystone XL pipeline, and even locally with regards to landfills and liquefied petroleum gas storage facilities. We see it at the neighborhood level in places such as Portland, Oregon, and with the BoulevArt Project in Rochester, New York. Local communities are now concerning themselves with placemaking, the establishment ofpocket neighborhoods” (and, and the creation of ecodistricts.

But sense of place is not solely an anthropocentric or human-centered concept. Plants and animals have a sense of place, indeed. Consider the marine iguana in the Galápagos, the lemurs of Madagascar, the Hawaiian honeycreeper, or the Sinarapan of the Philippines. Think of the plants and animals on isolated mountaintops, otherwise known as Sky Islands. The Mount Graham red squirrel, White-bellied long-tailed vole, and Pinaleño pocket gopher—along with 15 additional species, including mollusks, plants, and insects—are endemic to Mount Graham in Arizona. The Mauna Kea silversword has lived alongside several other endemic plants and animals, including 12 imperiled arthropods, for thousands of years on Hawaii’s tallest mountaintop. There are 37 known endemic frog species alone in the Hengduan Mountains in China. The Maltese archipelago, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, and many other places are filled with endemic plant species—the island of Sulawesi has more than 500 alone. Many of these plants and animals have evolved in specific locations, know no other homes, and are threatened with extinction. In New York, the Chittenango ovate amber snail is found only at Chittenango Falls. There is no other place that these critters can go and because of that reality, they know intimately their sense of place.

What I have learned is that place matters to all living things. I felt strong—in some cases, spiritual—connections to many of the places (and in two cases, actual buildings) in which I have lived and worked: Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Bath, England; Glasgow, Scotland; Minneapolis, Minnesota; the mountains and Indian reservations in Arizona. I have written about place from the perspective of the Mount Graham red squirrel in Arizona and commented in essays about the “Rusty Lake Belt,” my fond term for the Rust Belt along the Great Lakes. But where I feel most rooted to place is my hometown, Rochester, New York, and my neighborhood and house. Indeed, Western New York and the Finger Lakes in general, as well as Rochester in particular, are the places where I feel most comfortable. Because my family (my daughter, critters, and partner) lives here, this place is my home. More significantly, this place is me.

Additional Reading: There are a number of books and materials regarding “place,” especially amongst geographers, but in the Finger Lakes region, you should certainly read Deborah Tall’s important book, From Where We Stand: Recovering a Sense of Place. You might also consider submitting a contribution to Orion Magazine (and online), which has a regular “The Place Where You Live” section. The Sierra Club has a similar effort. And the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched a campaign a number of years ago to save our historic treasures. NPR’s music program, “World Café,” has a regular series titled “Sense of Place,” which highlights artists whose music is not only inspired by but also rooted in the places and music scenes in which they live. World Café recently highlighted artists in Havana, Dublin, and New Orleans, as well as a recording studio in Memphis.

Also consider reading the following:

  • David Landis Barnhill, editor, At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native To Our Place
  • Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache
  • William A. Dodge, Black Rock: A Zuni Cultural Landscape and the Meaning of Place
  • Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape
  • Steven Field and Keith H. Basso, editors, Senses of Place
  • James Howard Kuntsler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape
  • Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Landscape Wars of the American West
  • Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place”

About Finger Lakes Insititute

The Finger Lakes Institute is dedicated to the promotion of environmental research and education about the Finger Lakes and surrounding environments. In collaboration with regional environmental partners and state and local government offices, the Institute fosters environmentally-sound development practices throughout the region, and disseminates the accumulated knowledge to the general public.
This entry was posted in March 2014: Sense of Place and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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