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.


Books I read when I was other people

Bookshelves by Germán Poo-Caamaño (2013) CC BY 2.0, via Flickr

Yesterday was my birthday and the library was closed for the holiday. Today was the day after Labor Day and the library was open again for business.

I returned two of the books I checked out last week, (while keeping 8 additional ones partially or wholly unread in a stack at home.) I returned a library card (belonging to Benjamin someone) that tumbled onto my lap when I opened one of the library books at home. I hope you find your human, Benjamin’s library card.

This is not the same library to whom¹ I addressed a love letter.

This is a library in another state, in a small town. It is becoming my library. I was so pleased in April when my out-of-state driver’s license and a pay stub with a local mailing address was sufficient to acquire a local library card.

“You *are* somebody,” my friend joked. “You have a library card!”

I smiled, because it was true. My latest self. My newest library card. I have a stack of other cards, issued by other libraries to other selves sharing the same name and birthdate. Souvenirs from other people. Self, but not the same.

This library is charming older building, with potted plants, and rows of computer terminals and magazines “sponsored” by the local funeral home. It is a place, but it’s also not-a-place. Libraries have their quirks and personalities that make them individually identifiable, but also exist as part of the infrastructure of metaphysical transport are somehow contiguous with all libraries everywhere.

In this way, libraries are a little like airports. The experience of being in different airports blurs together. One airport looks much like another, with generic terminals and shops and restrooms. It is as if all airports everywhere existed on a continuous, infinite loop in some other dimension. Walk far enough in the Detroit Airport terminal and you might find yourself in Atlanta or Hong Kong or Tel Aviv airports.

Wander long enough in the library (any library, all libraries) and you emerge … somewhere else, as someone else. Recognizable, but not the same. I have been wandering in libraries for nearly 35 years (I count my mother’s stories of her trips with my infant self, though do not personally remember it.)

In those journeys, my various selves have read (and have been read) a lot of books. I wander through the stacks. I gaze over the shelved spines in a vaguely predatory, discriminating way other people might approach a shoe sale or blueberry thicket heavy with fruit. I may not have been here before, but the residents are familiar to me.

A glimpsed book cover (title, font) might jog a few details about plot or character (…and all of the alligators were named ‘Seth.’)² But the memory is more likely to be a sensory flashback, a physical memory of embodied emotion of specific time and place. Being curled on the sofa in a specific house, in the middle of the night or on a rainy afternoon or hiding in air conditioning in the midst of unrelenting summer heat. Being 11 or 15 or 23 or 32. Being another self, another person. Recognizable, and not entirely quite unlike me.³

¹ It’s only polite to address a library as a “Whom,” rather than “that.”
² Swamplandia, by Karen Russell, Knopf: 2011.
³ “After a fairly shaky start to the day, Arthur’s mind was beginning to reassemble itself from the shell-shocked fragments the previous day had left him with. He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”  The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Free Range Legs

I will not shave my legs for you/ Would you turn a peach into a nectarine?
-Biosphere Suite (2001), Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest submission

fuzzy tarantula legs
“Fuzzy Legs” by TJ (2006), CC-BY-2.0, via Flickr

Every spring, as the temperature warms, it’s the same dilemma. Do I stand firm on furry appendages or do I bow to American society’s pressure to shear my leg hair follicles into submission?

Under winter’s cover of tights and leggings, jeans and corduroys, yoga pants and sweatpants, my legs have returned to their natural state of luxuriant fuzziness. Bless my hirsute ancestral mammals, or my healthy circulation. It took me a long time to get them to this soft and fluffy state.

In the company of hippies, in the woods or on the farm, furry female bodies are celebrated. Also, the de rigeur protective layers of pants tucked into socks (“forest pants”) to prevent tick bites and sunburn makes the state of one’s bare limbs (denuded or not?) irrelevant.

Yet, surrounded by suburban mores, my resolve to remain unshorn wavers. Drawn into cultural conformity, I want to wear skirts and capri pants without feeling self conscious of my fuzzy calves. How much stronger of a woman would I need to be to not care what other people think? Why must I deliberate whether removing leg hair or not is some kind of monumental public philosophical statement?

One of my favorite hippie chicks put it to me this way. “Sometimes I feel like shaving. And sometimes I don’t. Either way is okay with me.”

Sarah’s Scribbles “Not that Natural”


Flying heron holding a branch
By PhotoBobil (Heron 21 Uploaded by Snowmanradio) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArdea_herodias_-Illinois%2C_USA_-flying-8.jpg

Each morning and evening, I look up into the sky above the parking lot outside the apartment. If I’m lucky, I catch a glimpse of the commuters. Their distinctive silhouette against the sky, like giant pterodactyls with long sticklike legs, makes them immediately recognizable. I see them on my way to work, and then again in the evening from my balcony when I return home.

Sometimes, I see them flying singly or in pairs. Once, I saw a pair of Herons pass a third flying in the opposite direction. Do Great Blue Herons commute to one marsh to fish and hunt each morning, then fly back to their nests in the evening? Maybe they fight sky traffic the way the more earthbound of us do, inching along on I-94 during rush hour.

More about Great Blue Herons in Michigan:

Know your Michigan Birds: Great Blue Heron
Michigan DNR: Great Blue Heron
University of Michigan BioKIDS: Great Blue Heron

Shift work

4 o’clock shift at the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Detroit, Michigan (1910s). By Detroit Publishing Company [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I got a job, in the grand tradition of Detroit area shift workers. Every morning before 8am, workers pull into the parking lot in front of my office. Or walk. Or ride their bikes. Or arrive by bus. We wait patiently with our newspapers, crossword puzzles and lunchboxes in hand, until 8am. Then the doors to the facility open and we can shuffle in to our work sites.

Once inside our rooms, we sit down at metal folding chairs arranged at rows of plastic folding tables. Each seat has a terminal and monitor, where we can electronically “transfer in” for the shift.

For the next 8 hours (minus legally mandated lunch times and breaks), we work at our computer terminals, grading the free response portions of standardized tests. At 4pm, we turn in our secured work materials, our tally of packet counts and “clock out” to go home. A line of workers leaves the facility, like a cavalcade of ants. We exit the door in clumps, then scatter as we reach the crumbled asphalt of the parking lot and disappear into individual vehicles and private lives.

I can’t (to my great chagrin) actually talk about what I do at work, since the material is all proprietary. A bizarre and wonderful culture of inside jokes develops among the workers grading a particular prompt. I kept myself awake by writing down the hilarious things students write on tiny sticky notes and read them aloud to my coworkers at breaks. (However, I dutifully turned my stack of post-its with their collection of controlled information back into our team leader at the end of the project). It’s sometimes easy to forget that behind every handwritten (or typed) essay we analyze and rate, there is a real-life student.

My coworkers are an interesting bunch of retired teachers, retired autoworkers, underemployed and part-time workers from myriad industries. “I found it on Craigslist,” I told them. An eclectic group, temporarily electronically hiveminded to grade according to the rubric.

I kinda like it.

Back from Winter

skunk cabbage
Westside South: Skunk Cabbage by Ryan Johnson (2007) CC BY-SA 2.0 via flickr https://flic.kr/p/Ers3v

So it’s been an interesting winter for me here in Michigan. The volume and intensity of my adventures over the past few months since my last post (October 2015!) outpaced my ability to report them. I jumped headfirst into an emotionally and physically challenging fellowship program, encountered many adverse situations, and emerged mostly intact.

I intend to stick around Michigan for awhile and see what happens. Currently, I am in a fluid (nomadic!) housing situation, but have found temporary work projects. I have met a number of amazing and interesting folks, who have provided much-needed support and respite during my journeys.

I found the photo of the Skunk Cabbage sprout emerging from the snow as an appropriate metaphor for how I’m feeling these days. Skunk cabbages are one of the first plants to emerge in the springtime, using their own generated heat to melt the snow around their Audrey-II-like flowers. In my own pod-like way, I feel like I’m just starting to come out of a long dormancy (for this blog, certainly!) and look forward to peeking out into brighter days ahead.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0
Carbon capture by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY-SA 2.0

It was a gorgeous fall afternoon today. I decided to rake up leaves in my front yard. Not because I care about leaves scattered on the lawn. Especially, as wind gusts kept chasing my newly raked piles leaves back into their original spread out state. If neatness and order of the lawn was what I was after, it seemed a particularly Sisyphean task.

No, as I explained to my neighbor, I wasn’t really raking the yard. I was in the process of gathering carbon for my compost pile. (I’m not really sure why I felt compelled to tell him that. I just felt kind of weird for raking the lawn of a rented house. Isn’t that a homeOWNER-ish thing to do?)

Yup, carbon capture for the compost. And there’s a lot more of that leaf-carbon still on the trees. Me and my trusty rake will be there. Maybe I can even use my gathered leaves to mulch the garden bed in back!