A Sense of Place

I’ve lived in Michigan for a little over a year and and still trying to figure out my “Sense of Place” here. Every geographical location I’ve lived in over the past few years (rural Connecticut; suburban Kansas City; Long Island, NY) has been an opportunity to engage with this concept, which is something both inherent to a place and held in the perceptions of the people who live there. It’s more that just being able to navigate successfully through a town’s maze of streets or identify plants in local ecosystem (though these are part of it.)

Photo by Joe Loong (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr//82G4u5

“Sense of Place” in a particular locality is something you can feel, just like proprioceptors give you a sense of your body in space. However, the internet (which is usually so good for this stuff), offers no quick and pithy definitions for this lived experience of being in a particular spot.

From Wikipedia’s entry on Sense of Place: “… a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence.”

Wallace Stegner (1992) cites Wendell Berry’s observation, ” ‘If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.'” Stegner continues, “[Berry] is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. … He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in.”

As environmental educators, we talk a lot about “place-based education.” It’s the idea that for kids to learn effectively, they need to have a connection (historically, geographically, ecologically, emotionally) to the space that immediately surrounds them. We are not only connected to the land through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but the stories of the people and creatures and rocks that came before us.

I experienced successful place-based pedagogy as undergraduate at Biosphere 2 Earth Semester in Oracle, AZ. Not only we were studying the physical topography and ecosystems of the Sonoran desert, we also studied the human stories of the Southwest. We learned the stories of the Tohono O’odham people, and those of the Spanish ranchers of the hacienda to the Anglo-speaking tuberculosis sufferers who came to “take the air” at the mountain resorts in the early 20th century.

Fifteen years later, here in Michigan, I am now attempting to learn to learn the stories of the humans, animals, plants and rocks of this place. For my first few months in Detroit, I was plunged into the human history and culture of the city, acutely conscious of my status of newcomer and outsider. I attempted to absorb as much as I could from reading articles and from talking to residents. And to try to fill in the details about what was left unsaid.

Everything was strange, from how “going Up North” (which is not the same as going to the Upper Peninsula) was an acceptable description of weekend plans, and “the Michigan left” required a U-turn around a boulevard rather than waiting for a left-turn arrow in a turn lane. It was especially how Michiganders explained the location of their hometowns by using the palms of their right hands as a map of “Mitt.”

I have now moved from midtown Detroit to the outlying Wayne county. I have gradually become more acclimated to the practical realities of navigating the metro sprawl, such finding the grocery store and post office. I continue to remain mindful of the quirky details learned from living in this place.

I am fascinated by invasive Phragmites reeds that clog roadside ditches, and the historical routes of the highways through downtown Detroit and outlying areas. I’m even curious about the landfills of western Wayne County, that rise like ziggurats from the flat glacial plain. You can easily see them (and their attendant flocks of gulls on the active surface) as you drive down I-275 freeway.

I’ve checked out library field guides to the flora and fauna of the area, read about the geology and repeated glaciations, traced the watershed of the Huron River and walked the wooded trails of the state parks in a succession of seasons. My attempts to recognize the landscape, and to identify its human and non-human players, all contribute to my slowly accreting sense of place in Michigan.

Additional Links:

Rebecca Solnit’s Detroit Arcadia, published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007, was among my first introductions to the history of Detroit.

Jennifer E. Cross (2001) has a good analysis of the different relationships humans develop to a place.


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