Tuesday, May 24, 2016

My Disdain for "Sense of Place" Explained

A couple weeks ago or so, one of my friends from the internet expressed concern over my disdain for the concept of "sense of place." He is doing dutiful, important work documenting the organisms of his home city on the east coast, and I sincerely admire him for that. He made a good point that I have not adequately explained the title of my entire blog, and so I offer you that in this post, along with a humble apology for not doing so a lot sooner.

The Missouri River at Leavenworth, Kansas

What I object to has nothing to do with any individual person who chooses to live in one particular place and develop a deep relationship with the land, its wildlife and plants, and human neighbors. We need more of that if you ask me, or at least more of the ideals that come from that sense of rootedness, and reverence for a place.

What galls me is the "sense of place" in the context of nature writing. There is an intolerable overemphasis in the literary community on the idea that you cannot write intelligently and responsibly about a place unless you have lived there a very l-o-o-o-ng time, preferably your entire life. This romanticism is baloney. It probably goes back all the way to Thoreau, or even farther. It was a reciprocal concept, too. The land gave inspiration to the writer, and the writer in turn fostered a greater appreciation of the landscape and its ecology. Some of our best contemporary writers still work off that very principal. Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry in particular come to mind.

Me? I am a semi-nomad. I tolerated the rain of Oregon for my first twenty-seven years, in part because I had little choice. I moved to Cincinnati, Ohio for a job, and while that didn't last, I remained in the Queen City for a total of eleven years before moving to the rural town of Forsyth, Missouri for another job. The job lasted eight months, my stay about a year or so. From there it was off to Tucson, Arizona on pure whim. By the time I was finally making friends and getting to know the area, I met my now spouse and moved here to Colorado Springs to be with her.

Now, because I have lived so many places, does that mean I cannot write about any of them with any sense of familiarity or understanding? Hell, no. In fact, I would argue that you cannot readily write about any place without having another place to compare it to. Travel leads to better understanding of the last place you were. Immersion in a community is certainly recommended, but maybe that is difficult because of the very nature of the place. Tucson is not a welcoming city, for example. People are friendly enough, but mostly superficially. They already have their circle of friends and are not generally prone to expanding it. This is due in part to sheer demographics. There is the geriatric set, and then there is the collegiate set at the University of Arizona. There are also the "snow bird" retirees who migrate to avoid the cold winters of their native states. So, only a few people are "desert rats" who stay year-round, and those folks exist in small, close-knit circles.

I lived in the land of "Taneycomo" (Taney County, Missouri) for a very short time, and had there been sufficient job opportunities I might still be there. However, anyone with the slightest degree of observational skills could have reached the same conclusions about the region that I penned in Orion magazine. It is not that Forsyth and other towns there are "simple" or somehow less worthy of attention and appreciation. It is just the opposite, in fact. Easily overlooked, residents are rightly insulted by stereotypes, and tired of being dismissed.

So, nomadic I may be. I suspect I am less like Thoreau and more like John Steinbeck writing Travels With Charley, but on a much slower pace. It is not the place of anyone in the arts to tell another artist, especially a young one, how to approach their craft, or dictate to them what they can or cannot do. Limitations have no place here. The whole enterprise of art flourishes by the uniqueness of its participants. Write on your own terms, and don't be afraid to call out those who would bind you with expectations and rules (aside from grammar, anyway).

I will leave you with one last personal experience that illustrates how expectations of a new place can be colored by a familiar one. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I was encouraged to visit Mount Airy Forest, second only to my hometown of Portland's Forest Park as the nation's largest and mostly undeveloped city park. Well, in my experience of coniferous forests, I found very few insects and other animals in a forest. When I finally broke down and took a hike through Mount Airy Forest, I obviously found the deciduous woodlands to be far richer in diversity than dark, evergreen forests. Now I long to get back to those woods, or at least travel to them regularly.

How do you define "sense of place?" How do you reconcile your personal lifestyle with the public perception of your locale? Let me know, I am nothing if not open-minded on concepts like this. I would once again like to thank my friend for taking the initiative (and risk) in asking me for a proper story about this topic. Carry on, "Thomas of Baltimore."


  1. I am glad for your explanation about disliking the term "sense of place." I, too, have moved around a great deal - much more than you, actually. As I have gotten older, I have found that I can't really settle into a new house and community without learning about the area we're now calling home. Especially as I start gardening, I want to learn about the plants and animals native to the area, as well as the geology, climate/weather, seasonal stresses, intersection between history and nature, etc. I think of it as trying to become as much a part of the new locale as possible, although I will never be able to be as much as home there as someone who's lived there most of their life.

    Although I know now that I will never really put down deep roots anywhere, I feel like I have absorbed influences from all of the places I have lived, enriching my life. Hopefully I've had at least a little positive impact on each place, in return.

    So I'm a proponent of trying to explore "a sense of place" - for my own selfish reasons, in the long run.