A Sense of Place

It’s been five months since my family moved from the edge of the country to the middle, and I’ve never felt so out of place. The change of season is to blame, of course: it happened quite quickly, here, on the day before Thanksgiving, when the low sky let fall flurries of snow and something else, too–a dampening of the light that makes everything look different, somehow. I’m not pleased. It’s not just the hassle of getting myself and my children into jackets and boots every time we go outdoors, or the unpleasant chill that follows us indoors. It’s an unsettling sense, watching my children play in the leaf-blanketed street or driving through my snowy neighborhood, that these are somebody else’s children, somebody else’s neighborhood. I feel misplaced.

Mormon naturalist Terry Tempest Williams writes of her deep sense of placedness in a landscape, a specific ecology linked to her family history and her most basic sense of self: “I have known five of my great-grandparents intimately. They tutored me in stories with a belief that lineage mattered. Genealogy is in our blood. As a people and as a family, we have a sense of history. And our history is tied to land. … Our attachment to the land was our attachment to each other. … It was in these moments of childhood that Great Salt Lake flooded my psyche.�

When I read Williams’ book Refuge in college, I envied her sense of place in nature’s large design. Growing up in Southern California, I never imagined that I had developed such a sense: while I was deeply attached to my home and family, and while I enjoyed camping and hiking on summer vacations, the everyday landscape of my life was, I thought, a fairly unremarkable suburban scene. I felt no special connection to the natural ecology of Southern California, even though we lived at the feet of the San Gabriels and visited the beach occasionally. We could have picked up our home and moved it to an affluent suburb of, say, Dallas or Phoenix or Atlanta, without much disruption—or so I thought.

But now I’m realizing that I may indeed have placedness imprinted on my soul, although the features of Southern California make themselves known more subtly than Williams’ Great Lake. Despite what outsiders might assume, the change of seasons in Southern California is unmistakable—but you’ll miss it if you’re looking for a change in the weather. Winter is a change in light, a feeling of slantedness: as the sun drops lower in the southern sky, shadows grow longer and sharper, canting the soul toward winter. Here in Missouri, the sun is hidden behind low clouds for most of the winter, and one senses the seasons in the unsubtle expressions of precipitation and temperature. I’ll adapt, I know, and my children will grow up in the landscape of this vast middle; I’ll probably even miss it when we leave. And for now I’ll try to draw comfort from my displacedness, knowing that, after all, I have a place.

Are you placed?

41 comments for “A Sense of Place

  1. At last, you’ll learn what winter is and you’ll come to value the seasons in a new way. It will heighten your senses, I believe.

    Either that, or you’ll kill yourself over seasonal affective disorder. Enjoy!

  2. I’m uneasy if I don’t have the ocean near — even though I almost never go to the beach. And there have to be hills (if not mountains) close by.

    Even though it’d only been 5 years since I had lived there when I went from the SF-Bay Area to the Provo MTC, I felt completely out of place. The ocean was just too far away.

  3. Rosalynde, I find your post interesting because I don’t think I have a sense of place like this. From the time I was born until I got a job at BYU after graduate school, I never lived in one place, not even one region of the U.S., for more than three years. Sometimes we lived in a place less than that. In the U.S. I lived in the Boston suburbs, San Antonio, Texas, Fort Smith Arkansas, and near Warrensburg, Missouri. Outside the U.S., I lived in Korea, Germany, and Japan. But I don’t see that lack of a sense of place as alienation. Indeed, it seems to me that the result has been that I feel at home every place I’ve ever been. Every place seems “right” to me. As an adult, I’ve lived in Provo since 1975. But during that time, I’ve also lived for months or more in Perugia (Italy), Vienna, Leuven (Belgium), and Paris, and I’ve visited a number of other places for a week or more. In each place, I feel like “I could live here comfortably.” Had it not been for the fact that our children and grandchildren live in the U.S., I would have loved to continue to live in Leuven or Paris. It was particularly difficult to adjust to living in the U.S. after a year in Paris. So going back to any of those places, or places where I lived as a child, or to Korea where I served my mission, feels to me like going home. And though I’ve not spent more than a few days in Missouri since I was in grade school, when I have gone back, I always have felt like that, too, is going home. Thus, though at first I resonate emotionally to Williams sense of place and the connection to earth that she makes, if I reflect on that resonance, I’m not sure it means much. Of course that also goes against my taste for Heidegger, for whom “the earth” and place are important. Perhaps I’m just confused.

  4. R.: I think that I have some inkling of what you are talking about. I am always interested in seeing how a landscape tells its history. Live in Cambridge and you can walk by William James’ house on your way to school, note the spot where Washington’s entrenchments stood in the American revolution, and trace the disintigration of New England Puritanism in the arc of the churches that ring the Common. When I lived in Arkansas, I enjoyed driving by the memorial to Confederate soldiers and their mothers on the way to work, and my office was just a few blocks north of Central High School, where Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne Division to integrate the school over the objections of Governor Fabus. The Washington DC area is wonderful in this way. In the district, all of the parks are named after Union generals and admirals. Cross the river into Virginia and the names shift, you have Lee Highway, Jefferson Davis Parkway, etc. Then, of course, there are the numberless stories associated with this or that place. Here is Williards Hotel, that for a generation was the real political heart of Washington. Around the corner from my office is the restuarant where J. Edgar Hoover used to spend his mornings, running the FBI, and earnestly blackmailing the Washington elite from his reserved table. And so on and so on.

    My wife and I have moved seven times in our five years of marriage, and I have enjoyed orienting myself to the stories of each new home’s geography. Strangely, I tend to judge my sense of belonging in terms of whether I see myself as a continuation of the story of a place. New England I felt connected to, but not Arkansas (although I liked it). Washington DC feels ambigious to me. The Civil War is both my story and not my story, as is the endless soap opera of American political intrigue.

    This, I think, is why I will always feel most at home in Salt Lake City, although I have not really lived there for over ten years. It is a place where the history is deeply imprinted on the geography (although most people miss it), and it is a story that I undeniably feel a part of.

    Of course, it also may simply be that Salt Lake is where I grew up ;->.

  5. Jim, I’ve always thought of myself as very adaptable, as you are. I had little trouble adapting to Utah winters while I was at BYU (although I did wear sandals for much of the winter), and I loved the seasons in Portugal. That’s why it’s been so surprising for me this fall to feel my growing unease as the season has changed. I’m not sure if it’s because I have children now (I’ve become much more emotional since having children, although I’m still far more analytical than feeling), or because I know that our time here will be long.

    I do feel that Williams’ sense of placedness is something quite distinct from a love for the earth and the outdoors, even specific spots on the earth, which I have always felt. For Williams, it’s as much a psychological as an affective phenomenon, I think.

  6. I just had a professor ask me if I’d read _Refuge_. He uses it in his Religion and Ecology class here at Brown. This is a text that is actually widely used in university courses, which I find interesting. I think that Rosalynde hits on one of the reasons—many people understand what it means to be placed as do I.

    Of course, I think the places we feel bound to are connected to family and history, but I also think they are personal. I am most at home in New England under a thick canopy of deciduous trees—I feel safe, enclosed, protected. It is almost intimate and private in a way that the deserts of the west are not and can never be. On the other hand I have friends who feel suffocated, almost claustrophobic in New England because there is no distant view to see—no “wide open spaces”. This is always fascinating to me. I do miss the mountains of Utah in the Winter here, but I think that is because the mountains of Salt Lake have a way of providing enclosure that remind me of the trees of the East.

  7. I wrote my master’s thesis on this exact topic. I think landscapes possess a kind of schema–deep patterns that our mind absorbs so that a place becomes familiar. It just takes a while to absorb the new patterns. When that happens the place becomes home. The nice thing about moving is that it gives you the ability to contrast the new patterns with the old so you can appreciate both better. I don’t think anyone can have a sense of place without the contrast.

    On a different note: I thought Refuge was pretty good too. For as big as Terry Tempest Williams is, I’m surprised how little she is known within the church.

  8. That may have to do with her status in relation to the church.

    And it all depends on what you mean by the church — she is well known and often quoted and referred to by members who are interested in Mormon Studies — as much or even more so than any other Mormon writer that has been published nationally.

  9. Yummy post, Rosalynde. It’s wild how the cues can be so different. For the longest time I felt most at home in Utah Valley because of the mountains, always on the east. Something about the color schemes, though, and the construction styles when I arrived in Japan as a new missionary made me feel like I was back in Saudi Arabia, where I grew up, and it was the most wonderful feeling at a time when I felt very dislocated.

    I never had a sense of the seasonal movement of the stars until the last couple of years, while living with my parents in Spanish Fork. Over time this had come to bother me. I could tell from reading old books, from visiting ancient sites like Stonehenge and Teotihuacan, and from learning about stellar navigation that my ancestors had a much more intimate relationship with the night sky than I did. I felt like I was missing out on a major part of the world for everyone prior to this century, because of all the electric lights. In the 24-hour supermarket, the difference between seasons is just that yams are on sale for a week or so before Thanksgiving!

    I’ve been really enjoying a new sense of location since learning a number of stars and constellations, a few at a time, getting home after dark on the outskirts of Spanish Fork. I would take a few minutes on clear nights to find them again, before going inside, pulling out the planetarium on my Palm sometimes to check my memory or identify a new star as the seasons progressed. So when Vega was straight overhead in the evening again this year, with the Swan close by, I felt almost as at home in Indiana as I had in Utah Valley, looking at Timpanogos.

  10. I was just thinking about this today because it has been less than a month since it became what I consider Park Season (i.e., weather that makes it tolerable to take the kids to the park). Park Season continues through March, and then it is Pool Season.

    I feel, vaguely, as if I am depriving my children of a normal life because we don’t have Fall foliage or snow. (But they love to swim, and love swimming seven months per year, so I suppose this is just maternal neurosis.)

  11. In different places I’ve lived there comes a day after three years or so that I’m driving back and I feel at last that I’m coming home. When I’m able to visit southern Nevada deserts, though, it is as if some part of me is reattached and then removed when I leave. On my last trip to Las Vegas in September, I drove towards Ely, then a couple miles off the highway, and lay there until dawn.

    Geology gives a place meaning, and in the West the geology is so obvious without vegetation to obscure it. I was asked once what Los Alamos, New Mexico is like, and my answer began “Well, a little over a million years ago …” After a couple minutes, my wife interrupted to clarify that the questioner would probably be more interested in the period since human habitation. This summer, in an attempt to make Maryland more significant to me, I read a short high school text on its geology. The attempt was successful.

  12. I think you would all enjoy ” A Sense of Place” by Wallace Stegner (a tape). His ‘picked’ home town was SLC. A ‘non-Mormon, he wrote two fine books on Mormon History, and some Sunday School manuels.

  13. Great comments, all!

    Nate, I am perilously close to coveting your encyclopedic knowledge of history. I’ve been intending to read a good Lewis and Clark account ever since we moved here to St. Louis, but haven’t got around to it. You’re exactly right, that the human history marks a place (and its inhabitants) nearly as deeply as geologic history.

    Melissa, once again you’re my parallel line that never crosses. I’ve spent virtually no time in New England, although it’s been my lifelong dream to live in Cambridge, and I’ve read the New Yorker for years. On at least three occasions, I had a very strong incentive to move to Boston, but in each case things worked out differently. Is it possible to feel remotely placed in a region you’ve never entered?

    Sheldon, very interesting comment. In what discipline was your thesis produced?

    Ben, you make a great point about stars giving us our bearings. After all, on the oceans that cover the majority of the earth’s face, stars are virtually the only feature to create a sense of situatedness.

    Julie, not to worry. Snow and fall leaves are nice, but I’d take the smell of chlorine in my hair any day.

    John, I’m off to a high school library to find a text on Missouri geology. Great points.

    Bob, Stegner is perfect in this context. In fact, I couldn’t decide whether to excerpt Williams, Stegner, or Annie Dillard in my post. All three (and many more) work with this idea.

  14. Mmm. Annie Dillard. I love Dillard. How come she never gets listed as anyone’s favorite? She is one of mine.

    Rosalynde, I’m certain you would love New England. Cambridge is wonderful, but I almost prefer the quaint little towns complete with white clapboard churches and town squares which remarkably still exist. If you never get to live here at least come for a long visit. The second or third week of October is usually the height of color —when the scent of ripe apples fills the air and the light has gotten soft and warm.

    So sad that it lasts only slightly longer than the cherry blossoms in the Spring, which you can miss entirely if you blink too long.

  15. I’m obviously something of a cretan, but it sounds to me like you’ve got too much time on your hands.

    The main thing that I find over-indulgent about this kind of talk are the two contexts in which it usually occurs. First is the tendency to adopt the passive mood when discussing senses of belonging. Why don’t we talk of placing ourselves instead of being placed? Second is the tendency to talk about place or belonging as though it were something in the ether that surrounds us that we could sense if only we smelled the roses hard enough. But spending too much time smelling the roses will lead to financial ruin.

    George Will writes, “A shadow of loneliness, an irreducible apartness from others, is inseparable from the fact of individual existence. This entails a sense of incompleteness—we are social creatures….” I don’t have a place in my environment or ecology or climate. I place myself among my family and my friends, and that is where I belong.

  16. “I don’t have a place in my environment or ecology or climate. I place myself among my family and my friends, and that is where I belong.”

    David, I think you’re taking Rosalynde’s inquiry in completely the wrong way. I don’t think any of this thread necessarily denies the priority of human and familial sociality. But human beings have material and temporal dimensions too; the environment, ecology, and climate of a place will shape and be adapted to by (and thus be reflected in the history of) the groups of persons who inhabit a given place. Your family and friends are marked by their places, as my father–his work habits, forms of recreation, economic expectations and political beliefs–is marked by his life-long residence in Spokane, WA, as my father-in-law has been forever marked by the formative years he spent in Hawai’i, and so on. You’re right to note that the passivity implied in “placement” isn’t exactly correct, but neither is it right to say we have complete freedom in “placing” ourselves. Language gets in the way, culture, religion, and, yes, even all those other aesthetically apprehended environmental factors. I couldn’t easily place myself in Brazil, for example, because I can’t speak Portguese, but perhaps more importantly because I’m not natively familiar with the sort of rhythms and social dynamics appropriate to that socio-economic environment, climate, resources base, and so forth. I could learn to be at home in Brazil, but it would be hard, and possibly never truly successful. Fundamentally, much of our constitution is a given. What we historically make of our givenness cannot be reduced to the mere fact that the ocean is near, or that we live on the banks of the Mississippi, etc., but neither can those ecological and environmental factors–the raw materials of our self-articulation–be ignored as we sense out ourselves.

    I should add that I’d be the first to admit that I find a purely environmental affection faintly disturbing, because it is, by definition, inhuman. That’s part of the reason why I never really enjoyed the desert landscape of southern Utah–or the people who celebrate it, like Terry Tempest Williams, for that matter: I think there is a streak of profound discontent with, even condescension towards, the social (meaning the actual lived lives of working people) in the thinking of those who place their center in such a stark, isolating environment. But honestly, I’ve known very few people who go the full Williams or Edward Abbey route: most of the time, the environment which triggers our affective sense is a lived one. Look at Melissa’s description of New England; she talks about loving the enclosures provided by a “thick canopy of deciduous trees”–but did those trees grow without any contact with human life? Not for at least for the last few centuries they haven’t. On the contrary, those stands of trees have been maintained and surrounded by “quaint little towns complete with white clapboard churches and town squares.” In other words, it’s all a package, the “natural” and the human alike.

  17. I should add that, personally, I have a strong affective attachment to the farms, small cities, hills, twisty roads, and rivers of the Mid-Atlantic and Upper South–Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee. I first encountered it as a boy when my family took a huge trip across the country in a motorhome; after escaping the alternately arid and evergreen West, and then the prarieland, coming into the green rolling springtime (it was April when we made the trip) was a thrill. I was immensely surprised (and gratified) to feel the exact same thrill fifteen years later when I moved from Utah to Washington D.C. for an internship; there is a particular spot along I-70, coming south out of Pennsylvania and into Maryland, where you come over a rise and you see a patchwork of dairy farms below; it’s a marvellous sight. But then, I’ve always liked cows.

  18. Russell, you’ve made some very good points. I’ve only got a minute before I’ve headed to bead, so I’ll quickly take note of three of them.

    Russell Arben Fox: I couldn’t easily place myself in Brazil, for example, because I can’t speak Portuguese, but perhaps more importantly because I’m not natively familiar with the sort of rhythms and social dynamics appropriate to that socioeconomic environment, climate, resources base, and so forth. I could learn to be at home in Brazil, but it would be hard, and possibly never truly successful. Fundamentally, much of our constitution is a given.

    I think that this outlook is a luxury afforded us by the fact that few of us have ever made a single discrete decision that is necessitated by survival. If (Heaven Forbid) North America got nuked and Brazil were the only habitable place in the Western Hemisphere, we’d go there or die, we’d never look back, and only the really whiny people would complain. The Jews did this for centuries, the Puritans and Mormons did it for decades.

    Man’s history has been far too dominated by emigration and travel for me to be convinced that “placedness” is a key factor in his joy.

    Russell Arben Fox: Look at Melissa’s description of New England; she talks about loving the enclosures provided by a “thick canopy of deciduous trees”–but did those trees grow without any contact with human life?

    You make an interesting point. It’s grain that is the symbol of agriculture and therefore civilization, while forests are the traditional home of monsters and goblins. It’s only in our age where we take civilization for granted that we have the luxury to view forests as more than a resource at best and a constant encroacher upon open space at worst. Such is the case, I believe with “placedness.”

    Russell Arben Fox: I’ve always liked cows.

    That explains everything.

  19. I’ve always been interested in Arthur King’s comments (in the video “Speak that I may See Thee”) about the landscape around us, our need to be connected to it, how it serves as part of our incarnation. He mentions how the landscape serves as a kind of judgement/measure of our persons–it’s beauty and truth are things we measure ourselves by. In a conversation I had with him he spoke about having to learn to adjust himself into a new landscape when he moved to Provo. Fortunately, he said, he had a good friend you new the area well and took him all around the valley, hikes, drives, etc.

    In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord tells the Saints who are settling in Ohio that, though this will be a temporary place, they are to settle in–establish roots if you will. “And I consecrate unto them this land for a little season, until I, the Lord, shall provide for them otherwise, and command them to go hence; And the hour and the day is not given unto them, wherefore let them act upon this land as for years, and this shall turn unto them for their good. (D&C 51:16 – 17)

  20. The contrary views of David King Landrith and Russell Arben Fox are enriching. Displacement is a condition associated with Brigham Young, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and even Adam and Eve, not bad company to keep. So maybe the rootlessness of my adult life hasn’t been such a bad thing after all.

    A problem I have with Terry Tempest Williams’ work is that those who have the most feeling for wilderness are those who have a purpose there, those for whom it is their place. The rest of us are just tourists indulging ourselves sporadically. Her family’s gas pipeline business seems to be the foundation of her role as a naturalist. Yet I’ve never read anything from her in favor of industry and many things against it. In her essays, whenever someone is laboring, he is about to destroy an owl nest or a special tree.

  21. Russell,

    Last Summer on a trip to the Arches we decided to take one of the guided tours with a ranger. I was fascinated by his account of how the black brush and oak are able to grow in such a climate. Of course, he had a lot to say about the formation of the arches too. I made it a point to walk with him during the tour so that I could ask him questions when he wasn’t talking to the group. At one point I asked him why he had chosen to come to this sort of landscape (since it had been his choice). I don’t remember his answer, but I do remember what followed. He told me that he knew he was an anomaly because he’d read some book by some anthropologist that said it had been proven that the best setting for humans was green rolling hills of dairy farms. His description even mandated the presence of cows! I had to work hard to stifle my laughter at his earnestness in the face of such “science” but maybe he was right afterall, huh? ;)

  22. Rosalynde,
    My thesis was for English. Fortunately I was able to do a creative non-fiction/nature writing thesis instead of writing the 15 millionth piece of literary criticism. It was about growing up in West Yellowstone, a place I’m still very attached to, even if the humans I love aren’t there anymore.

    Anyway, the whole point about Adam and Eve, Moses, Brigham Young, etc… is that the move was hard (well I guess it isn’t the whole point, but it is a point). Didn’t the Israelites want to head back to Egypt at one point? What about those melancholy passages in the BoM about being wanderers in a strange land? I think that is more that mere whining. Our search for place is a kind of search for Eden–our yearning for that perfect home.

    Having said that, one reason I love Dillard more than, say, Abbey, is that she seems less hostile to the human element in nature. To her, it seems, our place in the world is extremely significant, not an intrusion or disruption.

    While we’re talking writers, I highly recommend any of Rick Bass’s nonfiction.

  23. Russell:

    “the environment which triggers our affective sense is a lived one.”

    I forgot to mention that I absolutely agree with you here. I love Missouri in June for this very reason. I love Missouri in June because of the different shades of green that are so intense it almost hurts your eyes, because of the fireflies and because you can actually smell things growing. But, I love all of that because these sensuous experiences of place are deeply tied to and inseparable from our family vacations to Missouri in June.

    I only know that Missouri green can hurt your eyes because that’s what it feels like when you first emerge from a cave after a whole day of spelunking with the family. I think fireflies are enchanting because I spent so many memorable evenings watching them with my cousins as we talked about our big plans for the future. I know that you can smell things growing in late June in Missouri because I used to wait low in the grasses when we played kick the can on our Missouri farm and so forth.

  24. Melissa,

    Those are beautiful recollections–especially regarding the fireflies. It’s difficult for me to convey how wonderful I think they are. Growing up in Spokane, WA, and then living in Provo (with a detour to Korea) didn’t prepare me for fireflies; a few were around, here and there, but generally such creatures aren’t found in the arid places west of America’s prairieland. When I made the move to Washington, D.C. I mentioned above, it was for a summer, and along the way I dropped off Melissa, then my fiance, at her home in Ann Arbor (actually Saline), MI. I stayed their for a week before moving on, and it was the first time I’d spent more than a day east of the Mississippi River since I was a child. We sat outside an ice cream parlor on a bench one evening, and I saw fireflies dancing in the park across the street. I was enraptured. Since then, I’ve sought them ought, and taken the girls on firefly-hunting trips (getting them to land on your hands, which you cup and then watch warmly glow as they light up inside; or trapping a couple in jars, and letting them buzz for a while before letting them go) in Virginia, Mississippi, and now Arkansas. They are inextricably tied in my memory with discovering (or rediscovering) how at home I was in the greener, denser, older land of the East and South, and how happy I was to know that that land was going to be part of my life from then on.

    My parents have built a log cabin home on top of a high bluff just outside the Spokane city limits; they’re probably remain there until they die. The grandkids love the place, are developing fond memories of it, and I admit it’s a beautiful place to be. It overlooks a lake and pine forests; they have elk, and even moose who wander by on occasion, and once a mountain lion. But no fireflies. Their loss, I think.

  25. I grew up migrating, from Utah to Oklahoma to Pennsylvania to Alaska. Back to Utah for college, then Minnesota, back to Utah and now California.

    What I have is not so much a sense of place as a willingness to throw myself into whatever landscape I live in. I can think of the smell of dust, sprinklers and strawberries and the panorama of the Wasatch from Sunday evenings at my grandmother’s house in Draper, Utah; the ripe persimmons, the orange light, and the smell of damp leaves on country autumn drives in Oklahoma; the snugly enclosed feeling of the hills of western Pennsylvania; the stark black-and-white landscape under a day-long pink and lavender sunset in winter in Alaska.

    Now I live in central California. I adore it and adored it from the start. I think it might be because it’s orchard country. I love driving by an orchard and seeing the rows open up before me. What looked like a tangled mass of branches reveals itself row by row as a carefully planned and maintained grid. At this season, a tender, fine-bladed grass grows between rows of trees. Peaches, almonds, avocados and figs grow here, along with more crops to make what I’ve heard reported as 5% of the nation’s fresh produce. (Sometimes I wonder if my orchard obsession is ancestral in some way. My mother’s family comes from Bountiful. They grew plums for generations there.)

    There are places I doubt I could love so quickly. Las Vegas, Phoenix–big cities that have grown in deserts by sheer force of human will. But it’s not impossible that I could land there and learn to love them. I’m trying to stay open.

  26. I almost forgot–a writer to recommend on orchard country for others who enjoy personal non-fiction: David “Mas” Masumoto. A good entry point is his _Epitaph for a Peach._

  27. I feel the same as William Morris. I grew up in Seattle and have lived in Hawaii, and currently live in Huntington Beach, CA. I’ve visited Utah and driven from Seattle to New York. Utah made me uneasy–I didn’t like feeling up so high. I need sea level with ocean and mountains nearby. I don’t think I could handle living in the midwest. We almost moved to Vermont, which I think would’ve been ok. There’s a big lake there, right?

  28. Russell writes:

    “I should add that I’d be the first to admit that I find a purely environmental affection faintly disturbing, because it is, by definition, inhuman. That’s part of the reason why I never really enjoyed the desert landscape of southern Utah–or the people who celebrate it, like Terry Tempest Williams, for that matter: I think there is a streak of profound discontent with, even condescension towards, the social (meaning the actual lived lives of working people) in the thinking of those who place their center in such a stark, isolating environment.”

    Of course, those of us who actually grew up in the desert landscape of Southern Utah [or along the Arizona Strip on the Colorado Plateau to be more specific in my case] have a completely different view of things. For me, Southern Utah is profoundly social — just in a different, more stark, more contrarian way than what one may find in some of the other environments mentioned in this thread. The landscape is not inhuman for us — ‘us’ being a pronoun that I can’t authentically use because many of the people I knew growing up didn’t have the highest opinion of Californians, those rich, reckless, ostentatious folk who come out to hunt deer, get drunk and end up shooting somebody. No, it’s filled with traces of life. It’s vast and somewhat threatening but still something to both embrace and struggle against — to tame, but not too much. I’ve written a short story that sort of captures what I’m talking about. I’d be happy to e-mail it to the first 8 Times & Seasons commenters/posters who e-mail me.

    Of course, Russell’s problem seems to not really be with Southern Utah the place, but Southern Utah the place described by Williams, Abbey and the whole gang of those who have experience it only as landscape — even if like Williams they have lived/currently live there.

    For all my love of Northern California, the area from Zion’s to Bryce down to the Grand Canyon over to Lake Powell as well as across and over to St. George still feels like home.

  29. William, I’ll admit to not being particularly enchanted–or even impressed–with Southern Utah as a place: different strokes for different folks. However, you’re right that the real target of my negative observation were those who desire the desert (or the Arctic tundra, or wherever) perhaps exactly because it’s so difficult for anything “social” to hold on out there. It’s not so much a desire for solitude–everyone wants to be alone sometimes, and some people feel that way more often than others–as it is, I think, a kind of contempt for anyone who wants to be “settled,” who wants to transform and be transformed by a place. My gut tells me that many of these folk think “places” are pristine, awesome, unknowable, impossibly remote and inhospitable and deep environments that only can only be glimpsed or visited by individuals on some sort of permanent vision-quest; no one can be at “home” there. To haul out good old reliable Heidegger, this particular sense of placing is nonsense: the Black Forest has no affective power unless there are nice little paths which will take us through it. It’s the shoes that leave tracks on the ground, and to which the mud of the ground heavily clings to, that work on us, or should work on us; to say that the untrod and unseen path itself is where power lies is, I think, to embrace a weirdly static and unlivable world. (I could mention something at this point regarding certain environmentalists who have never visited and have no intention of ever visiting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but who resist the–rather popular with the local Inuit population–idea of doing any drilling for oil there, but I won’t.)

  30. Ruseell:

    What is your experience with Southern Utah?

    One of the things I loved about growing up in Kanab was the diversity in landscape features and flora and fauna available within a half-day’s drive. I can’t imagine anyone not being impressed with it as a place.

    RE places and settled: Agreed. Of course, the Southern Utah I know is *settled*. But it’s a settling that is (dare I use this word?) rugged, very patchy. That doesn’t dominate the landscape. And that’s very cool.

  31. William, have you seen St. George lately? It has settled itself in a way that seems to me very uncool and very dominating of the landscape. I very much have enjoyed visiting southern Utah and northern Arizona with people who are from that area. I’ve learned from them to see a great deal more than I might have otherwise. But I find St. George just about as depressing as I find the Strip in Las Vegas.

  32. Jim, wouldn’t you agree though that one need not drive far to be out of St. George and into the wilderness? It seems that Utah doesn’t have sprawl in quite the same way that Denver or most of Southern California does or even the Phoenix metro area does.

  33. “I don’t have a place in my environment or ecology or climate. I place myself among my family and my friends, and that is where I belong.”

    Yes, David, there are many of us like that, and we’re the poorer for it.

    The Israelites had Eretz Israel, a sacred land; as did the Nephites (the promised land) and as do the Navajo (the land within the Four Sacred Mountains) & other Native Americans. Early Mormonism also had sacred (promised) lands.

    If we’ve lost that sense, we are definitely the poorer for it.

  34. George Will writes, “A shadow of loneliness, an irreducible apartness from others, is inseparable from the fact of individual existence. This entails a sense of incompleteness—we are social creatures….�

    As for George Will (whom I admire in many ways), isn’t this just the western sense of extreme individualism talking, our western ethos which has lost connection with both community and land? Casting a view at other historic cultures, it hasn’t always been that way — nor need it be that way now.

  35. I think that most of the ideal western individualists, the cowboys, always had a deep connection to land and also to community. If the west is losing connection to land and community, it is because of something added of late. I think it is the individualism brought into a city in a fashion alien to its natural environment.

  36. I made the above two posts before reading the rest of the thread. Having read it, I wonder: what was it in some observations about connectedness to landscape that brought out the big Red Herring guns and, oh yeah, the leap to the either-or fallacy? Why, when someone mentions a favorite landscape, are they now Julia Butterfly tree-hugging pantheists? And why need we exclude the middle ground (no pun intended)?

    There’s a huge middle ground here. It allows us to savor our favorite landscape and other of God’s beauties without fear of falling into pantheism.

    Gad, let’s make sure we squelch the slightest peep of “environmental heresy” in the Bloggernacle.

  37. Rob Briggs: There’s a huge middle ground here. It allows us to savor our favorite landscape and other of God’s beauties without fear of falling into pantheism.

    Fair enough. For my part, I’m simply not that interested in being outside.

    I spent all day today in Boy Scout training for winter camping. Aside from the very obvious objections that arise in connection with my serving as a role model, I felt a bit out of place. When I’m in a tent of by a campfire, unless I’m reading a book or involved in some other activity (which may just as well be done indoors), minutes become hours. Moreover, when I’m outside I’m typically either trying to cool off or keep warm. What’s the point?

  38. Just to clarify: In my preceding post, I don’t mean to demean the Boy Scout training classes, which were really outstanding (as has been all of the Boy Scout training I’ve been too)–aside from the Groucho Marx point that I was involved

  39. David, now I got it. The problem isn’t that you’re outside with nature. The problem is that you’re outside with the Boy Scouts.

    All of femaledom & all of maledom more than 14 years old know that the 12 year-old male is the lowest form of subhuman life.

    That’s the problem.

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