Sense of Place and Knowing Where Weâ€™re From
Where are you from?
No, really. This is a serious and important question to ponder for a moment, because as Wendell Berry has suggested, if we don’t know where we are, we cannot know who we are.
Our answers to questions about the wheres of our lives and why they matter–and I’m thinking particularly about those of us who live in Floyd County and think of it as a unique location in all of Southwest Virginia and the world–can send us to one future or a very different one, depending on what we feel and believe about this place.
The ways in which communities are shaped by the places of their lives has for decades been under discussion in the greater world of literature, architecture and sociology by the term “sense of place” or “spirit of place.”
In reading that phrase for the first time not so long ago, I felt I’d discovered the existence of a vitamin I’d long needed, had by then found here in Floyd County, but could not name. It was this essence, this ineffable nutrient in the air and water, music and culture, people and mountains that I acknowledge with gratitude, but still find it difficult to explain fully. And I’ve found that others feel it, too.
What, then, makes Floyd County more than just an indifferent space on a map? And if it is indeed special and not just a matter of us loving the one we’re with, not just a fondness for the familiar and close at hand, then what exactly gives HERE its qualities that we should enhance and preserve lest we lose them? How do we make sense of place?
This geographic relationship is a complex human bond akin to love. You can’t weigh it, bottle it or buy it. And while it is present or absent to a greater or lesser degree in the uniqueness of a locality’s human community, it may more often take its origins from the literal and figurative soil of natural settings–mountains, deserts, forests or shores. It is not a property of those settings like latitude or elevation; it lays its claim on our heart and soul more than on mind or body.
So many square feet or miles of space becomes place when people enter it–by our language and by memories through time of births and deaths, of sounds, smells, laughter, and the seasons. A strong sense of place is imprinted indeliblyÂ upon a unique natural parchment of forests and fields, mountaintops and hollers of these ancient Blue Ridges. The spirit of place is invisible yet tangible, cultivated in our interactions with the landscape, nature and each other.
“No place is a place until it has found its poet” Wallace Stegner suggests–until it has found its potter or farmer, wood-worker or photographer, quilter or banjo-maker, I would add. We establish our place by the stories we tell about it and the creations we make from it, love stories of our hands and lips that arise more abundantly and richly from the land the better we see, know and understand it.
To bring this abstraction down to earth, I realize that It has been a rootedness in place that I have been attempting much of my adult life to know. In need of that soul-deep nutrient, building what I have come to call “a personal ecology” has asked that I go slowly, stop often, and hold fast to fragments from an ordinary life so that space might become place. These three things for me–photography; my biologist’s hope to know my fellow creatures by name; and more recently, the written narrative of place–have all been means through a lifetime toward the end of better knowing where I’m from. But why is that of any matter?
An identity with the place that we claim as our heart’s true home is as unique a part of our identity as our fingerprints. If we are placeless, we are in a sense anonymous. But thankfully, this landscape of Floyd County has put its mark on many, in ways we may never fully comprehend. And our shared identity–who it is we say we are together–carries with it a kind of native wisdom that should inform us and an energy that might help us shape our future here together, even in the face of growing pressures and forces from a bigger, faster, alien national economy and increasingly placeless culture.
Who we are is shaped by where we are. So where in the world are we? Where are we from?