There are many “parts” to a sense of place, including these:
the spirit of the place itself, its atmosphere, its character (some subsets: sacred places, healing places, spooky places, authentic places, natural places, etc.)
the way a place makes us feel, our human experience of it in the moment
our identification with a place, based on any number of things, singly or in combination: the sense of community we feel there; our familiarity with it, knowing its landmarks, its flora and fauna, its landscapes, its cultural ethos; our history there, including our ancestors’ history in the same place
a feeling of belonging, of being at home in a place
our love of a place, for whatever reasons, which might include those listed above or might be completely intuitional, sensual, instinctive
a sense of meaning we feel with regard to a place, i.e, deriving deep meaning from being in a place or from remembering or dreaming of a place (geographer Yi-fu Tuan calls place “a territory of meanings”)
intensely positive or negative feelings about a place; I’m focusing primarily on the positive side in this series, but on the negative side, there is something called a “poisoned” sense of place (expressed by Edward “Ted” Relph), which could be pathological attachment to a place (from gated communities, potentially, to national ethnic cleansing), feeling trapped in a place, feeling a sense of ownership for a place that’s actually shared by all, topophobia (dread of some places), etc.
I’ve never really had a shot at having a history in a place, having moved so many times from infancy to now, certainly never living in the same town as my grandparents (except for a month some summers growing up) or other relatives. But I have experienced a sense of place in terms of feeling community, belonging, familiarity, and pure love.
When I was a kid, my sense of place — in whatever town we happened to live in — came with a sense of joy when I began to know all the shortcuts through people’s yards, by foot or on bike, to get where I wanted to go. By the time I was 9, I could find my way to the candy store, the ice cream parlor, the public library, all my friends’ houses, any place within a 3-mile radius of our house, on my own, climbing over fences, walking or riding a bike through woods and on busy roads, crossing multiple back lawns.
In a couple more years, this became a 7-mile radius and included taking local buses. I knew the shopping centers, the drugstore soda fountains, the bus stops, the hospital cafeterias, the two public libraries, the sandy, weedy, junk-covered patches of land behind stores, the way to my dad’s downtown office, the woods and ponds behind our house. I’m not sure I felt I belonged or felt a sense of community, but I felt a happy familiarity for the place.
After college, in my 20s, living in small-town Virginia for 2 years and then in and around Baltimore, MD for about 7 years, I never really felt a sense of place. I was renting most of that time, working downtown at a job I liked with people I liked, and though I had a number of good friends and lots of acquaintances in both spots, I never felt connected to the places somehow. I wasn’t connected to the land, and I didn’t feel completely safe in a wholly built environment — or what felt like that to me; I know now, and see on return visits, that there was a lot of “nature” in these places, but not nature as I had known it growing up: not mountain after mountain, meadow after meadow, beautiful scenic vistas and clear woodland streams.
By my early 30s, I was living in a beautiful, handmade house on a 10-acre mostly wooded property in a small rural town in Maine. My sense of place was strong, firmly rooted to the actual house and property — on which we had porcupine, moose, bears, and a blank slate for gardening — but not to the community even after 8 years there, though I served on several civic boards, volunteered almost full-time in town, took adult ed classes, liked our neighbours, and had one or two friends there.
The town just never clicked for me, and if I could have moved that house and those 10 acres somewhere else, I would have; it hurt my heart to leave them. Though my house and yard were familiar, and very loved, I never belonged to that place, that community. I think partly it was because, ironically, many people living there were from families that had made their home there for generations and they were not really welcoming of newcomers, those without the sense of place that was their unbidden birthright.
The feeling that I belonged to the community finally came to me in my next place, about a year after my spouse and I moved to a small town in mid-coast Maine. Almost-daily walks to the coffee shop in town to meet friends that I met quickly — through church, volunteering, two bookgroups … and later friends I first met at the coffee shop itself! — gave me true familiarity with the main road in that town and the people who walked and drove it.
On the other hand, even in 7 years I never loved the house and yard like I had the previous one, never felt that I completely belonged in either. And I never felt a strong connection to the land in or around that town, except to a beach about a 25-minute drive away.
Here I am now in another small town, this time in New Hampshire. I’ve lived here for 6 years. I still get lost on the roads in town when I try to take a shortcut (in the car); I’ve never quite got the map of this town clear in my head. And yet, it feels like my community, I feel I belong. Some of the factors that have contributed to this are my love of the house (instinctual love at first sight) and yard (built over time and work in it, a daily practice of walking in it); knowing my neighbours; having many friends in overlapping groups (a permaculture group, bookgroups, arts and poetry groups); regular contact with people at the grocery store in town, at the library, in adult ed classes; and, just as important as the social ties that bind me to this place, which are strong, walking (or snowshoeing) at least once or twice a week, in every season, on the many and varied trails in town and nearby. This practice has given me familiarity with the non-human beings who live in this place, which literally grounds me, which matters to me, which gives me some sense of meaning.
And yet … I am not a placed person, as Wendell Berry would say; I know I can find community and belonging in other places — though, and this is important to realise, not in just any place. Place matters. The people in a place, the landscape and topography, the sensibility, the style, the climate, the open and green space, the accessibility, the amenities, the mystique — it all matters.
I know I can become familiar with another place, the built environment, the natural world, their intersections. And I can love another place without reason, without a history, without knowing it well. I don’t have nostalgia for any place, but I dream of living in many places, many environments: New York City, a tourist town on the Atlantic coast, a tiny house on a large wooded plot of land by water, a European city, another lovely small town some place. Some place.
“So there’s a tension between my desire to be still and my desire to roam, as there is a tension between my love of silence and my love of words.” — Scott Russell Sanders
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen. Thanks for stopping by.