Today’s post is a guest post by Gregory Zimmerman, a Biology professor at Lake Superior State University. 

According to us boomers, we invented everything. If we didn’t invent it, we popularized it. Following the natural progression of the generations, now the millennials think that they invented everything. Only, here’s the thing– some of what we (boomers and millennials alike) invented may not be real. There’s a long list of physical, mental and social maladies unverified by social or natural science. In the words of 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon, “is that really a thing?” Which brings me to today’s question: is sense of place “really a thing”?

Sense of place has been getting a lot of attention lately—from conservation types, artists, authors, architects, city planners, public health professionals and others. This has led me to wonder what elevated the construct of Place, and what societal influences are triggering the conversations about a “sense of place”.

Does a desire for a sense of place come from a resistance to the inexorable growth of suburban development and its homogenizing influence? Is sense of place in the news now because planners want to capitalize on it? Is sense of place on our minds now because we are able think of the land differently, as something to appreciate, not something to master?

It’s easier to appreciate woodlands if your livelihood doesn’t depend directly on the board feet of lumber they can produce. As we move farther away from land-based economies, the land is increasingly seen as resource for more than just extracting commodities. The history of organized place-based conservation movements shows us that the debates between appreciations of place versus economic exploitation are not new. Conservationists in the late 1800s and early 1900s were seen as outsiders who could afford their romantic notions but didn’t understand economic reality. The sagebrush rebellion echoed the same sentiments in the 1970s. In my region, a new mine and a wood technology plant are currently reinvigorating the age old debate of money now or greater, but less tangible, value later?

Perhaps a sense of place represents a desire to return to something we used to have, when more of us were tied closer to the land? After extensive conversations with my grandparents and grandparents-in-law, who were born in the late 1800s, from what I could tell, they had a sense of place but it was not today’s sense of place.

They were connected to the land and seasons. Much of that connection was grounded in making a living off the place in which they were born. Years ago I was traveling with one of the grandmothers in my family, through what to me was absolutely gorgeous country — a wide sweeping river valley in the northern Great Plains. When I commented on the sheer beauty of the landscape, grandma replied, ‘I wouldn’t give anything for it, the land doesn’t look like you could grow anything on it at all.’

My grandparents had a strong “sense of place”, but would not have used those words to describe it. I heard them speak thoughtfully of the land, its natural history and their history on that land. As far as I know, my grandparents didn’t read Wallace Stegner, but they knew their place in the world. They knew of its beauty, and of its challenges. They were attuned to natural cycles. Sense of place runs deep if you’re living in the place where your forbearers lived and were buried.

I don’t think what we mean today when we say “sense of place” is quite the same as the connection that my grandparents held to their place.  I don’t think those currently interested in discovering their sense of place are necessarily trying to recapture something we, as a culture, used to have and lost. But, yes, sense of place “really is a thing.” It seems to me, what we mean now by sense of place is an evolution of our natural desire to be connected, to each other and our environment–whether a natural or built environment.

Gregory Zimmerman is a Biology professor at Lake Superior State University in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan.    He serves on the Binational Public Advisory Council for the St. Marys River Area of Concern, and other local boards related to environmental protection. This essay was adapted from a post on his blog, www.know-your-place.blogspot.com

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