Sense of Place and Knowing Where We’re From

The land is the page upon which our lives are written

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 indelibly  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?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I have read your eloquent essay three times, Fred. Each time I finish reading, it feels as though I am in a sanctuary. I only want to savor and reflect upon your words in silence, letting your message from the soul resonate as, together we all explore the Slow Road Home.

    Best of everything…

  2. “So where in the world are we? Where are we from?”
    I’m in my peace and I’m from a place that was ruined by greed, anger, corruption and violence. I’ve found a sanctuary where I fit. I’ve found a place that feeds me and not only lets me give back, but thanks me when I do. I’ve found a place that has all the things that bring happiness to my spirit.

  3. Interesting. I recently wrote a piece for a local newspaper on generally the same topic trying to drum up some interest in heritage landscapes. I will put it on my blog later this week.

    Thanks, I really enjoyed your perspective.

  4. The kind of person one is leaves a legacy to the land…does that man or woman care for the trees or cut them down, till the soil or leave it barren, remove the litter or add more of the same, mine it, restore it, love it.

  5. nicely said. sense of place comes from any number of directions, but it inform our lives. unique places make for unique people and vice versa. whether mountains or plains, desert or lakes, natural or human-dominated landscapes, every place has the potential to be that unique spot that we become attached to, work hard to protect, and are better for it.

    sounds like floyd county is on the right track. i’ll be interested to learn from floyd’s example.