Sunday, August 30, 2009

Sense of place

(Today's post is not humorous, so set the dial in your brain accordingly.  It is a little deeper, and more heartfelt than usual.  But it is a Sunday (the 1st or 7th day of the week?), so I assume you might have a bit more time than normal for reading and thinking.  So top-off that coffee mug, put your feet up, and let the cat get comfortable on your lap.  Oh, and no crying.)

I love my property. I mean, I really, really love it. It is not that it is a particularly beautiful place, because it is not---typical 50-year old second-growth forest in upstate New York. My maple, ash, and aspen woodland is certainly not as dramatic as the Sonoran Desert in March, or as majestic as the Grand Canyon, or as awe-inspiring as the savannas of western Kenya. I have been to many truly wonderful places during the past few years, but after I am there for only a few days, wherever it is, I long for my 12 acres near Ithaca.

Where does that longing come from? I am not absolutely sure, but that feeling contains emotional, psychological, and biological elements. After all, I have lived on this land for 29 years now, and it holds many memories for me. My children grew up here. I can look at the yard in front of the house to this day and remember playing catch with my sons there 20 years ago. I can still see in my mind the other accoutrements of my children's activities: the old tree fort, the skateboard ramps, the rabbit hutches. I can hear their youthful voices. I can smile at the memory of all those undergraduates who I duped into moving my firewood from one place to another over the years. I remember my mother emerging ghostlike from a dense fog as she returned from escorting our kids to the bus stop down our long driveway, during one of her visits. So the place holds memories of events, and objects, and people who are now gone. Imagine how strong this suite of emotions must be for people who still give birth to their babies and bury their loved ones on their land. I assume the concept of “sacred land” must originate from this.

But the longing for my land consists of more than old memories. There is a relevant vitality about it as well, which renews me every single day. I have an evening ritual (at least during good weather), which I have described many times. With a glass of single-malt scotch and a good cigar in one hand, and a folding chair in the other, I go to some predetermined spot in my woods to sit for an hour or so. Well, I don’t just sit there—I use the scotch and cigar for their intended purposes. But mostly I watch and listen to what is going on around me and conclude that it doesn’t get any better than this.  My wife understands this about me, and she indulges me this evening ritual, even though she has much she wants to share from the day’s activities.

May and June are my favorite months, because the forest is alive, especially with singing, territorial songbirds. The migrants have returned from Central or South America. The resident species are rejuvenated with new hormone levels that make them interesting again. The vireos, tanagers, warblers, and chickadees are mine; they are not legally mine, but in every other sense of the word they belong to me and to my land. They live here, build nests here, raise their babies here, and eat insects or fruits that grow here. I love this place so much in the spring that I have all but vowed not to do any traveling during that time of year so as not to miss a single day.

I have learned much about myself and about the human connection to the land from my time on this hill. I have learned that the most enjoyable moments I spend all year are when I am sitting among those organisms near my home. Once you have the land, those moments are absolutely free. It costs you nothing, and it can be more fulfilling than anything I can think of to do in town.

I have learned that it is not the same for me to sit in a publicly-owned forest, even though it may be more beautiful to the unbiased eye—it is not mine. That sense of pride I have when sitting in my forest is not there. I am not allowed to cut trees for firewood, to manipulate the habitat to encourage the residence of certain species of vertebrates, or to build a bonfire for social gatherings on the public’s land. I am strictly a visitor and, as valuable as that experience is to most, it is not enough for me.

And most of all, I have learned how powerful the connection of humans to their land can be. By extrapolation, I can only capture a hint of the powerful emotions of all those peoples across the globe who are in conflict over “their” land, who are moved around by distant governments, by neighboring enemies, by degraded resources, by market forces, or by global climate change. Most of the time my professional and personal goal is stated as “conserving the earth’s biodiversity”. But in a very real way, my goal in conservation is to allow the unadulterated "sense of place" to flourish in a manner consistent with the antiquity of human cultures and races, and with all other species.


  1. This is great. Its also why I crave my own land; when I'm in the woods I always start to feel a connectedness, but lose it when I return to my 3rd floor apartment with not so much as a blade of grass in sight.

  2. Tom,

    Please check out my own blog regarding the idea of place

    I too am interested in sense of place, though my questions look at social class, experience, and grieving, to name a few.
    Nice entry. We should talk about it some time.

  3. forgottenithaca: I just checked your blog, read most of it, and watched the video. A very different perspective on place than is mine, but similar to one I might tell about my "places" in my youth. I wonder how the stage of life influences the perspective on a place? You were looking back; I'm looking at the present.

  4. I feel similar to Mark L. I so hope to be able to have that feeling about my own land some day. I don't know if I would ever want to leave home, if I was able to have that feeling.

  5. Makes me want to drive up to my .25 acre patch in Narragansett, RI and sit for a while listening to the ocean and sea breeze. Nice piece. Thanks.