Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Post #19 What's in a place?


Today's post will be the last in a thread about connecting with our surroundings.  Through the previous three posts I suggested that effective and long lasting land stewardship should be built on a foundation of intimacy with our environment.  Simply stated, how can we protect what we don't know?

The story of today's post starts way back when I was in college.  I was a student of biology sitting in an english class in northern California.  (I was enrolled at my home school in New Jersey, where I entered an exchange program which allowed me to travel to other state schools).  About this time, I considered myself rather 'eco-savvy'.  For example, I knew that the South American rain forests were being cut down, I knew that a diet of plants used less land and water resources than a diet of meats and I knew that wildlife all over the world was imperiled.  As it turns out, I knew nothing.

One day in English class we discussed 'place'.  I had used the word a million times before, but when my english professor said it, it seemed novel.  He said it in such a way that I knew it meant something bigger and different than I previously thought.  That day, he administered a simple test.  This was not a traditional test; the grade was private–only to be seen by the test taker– and was a personal assessment of their connection to their place.  While I don't have the exact test, I have reproduced a similar version below.  It is well worth your time to slow down, pour another cup of coffee and take this test.  Look at it this way, you can't possibly score worse than I did.

1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2. How many days until the moon is full (plus or minus a couple of days)?

3. Describe the soil around your home.

4. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture(s) that lived in your area before you?

5. Name five edible plants in your bioregion and their season(s) of availability.

6. From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

7. Where does your garbage go?

8. How long is the growing season where you live?

9. On what day of the year are the shadows shortest wear you live?

10. Name five trees in your area. Any of them Native? If you can't name them, describe them.

11. Name five resident and any migratory birds in your area.

12. What is the land use history by humans in your bioregion in the past century?

13. What primary geological event/process influenced the land forms where you live?

14. What species have become extinct in your area?

15. What are the major plant associations in your region?

16. From where you are reading this, point north.

17. What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

18. What kind of rocks and minerals are found in your bioregion?

19. Were the stars out last night?

20. Name some beings (nonhuman) which share your place.

21. Do you celebrate the turning of the summer and winter solstice? If so, how do you celebrate?

22. How many people live next door to you? What are there names?

23. How much gasoline do you use a week, on the average?

24. What energy costs you the most money? What kind of energy is it?

25. What developed and potential energy resources are in your area?

26. What plans are there for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

27. What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

One lunar cycle.  There was a time when I gave this very little thought.  After taking my first 'place' test, I began to take more notice of my surroundings, including the moon. 
I scored poorly on the test, but fell in love with the concept of 'place'.  I was surprised by how much I didn't know.  On what planet had I been living?  Had I not been paying any attention at all?  Suddenly, my immediate surroundings were unveiled.  I saw rays of sun, insects, the direction clouds came from.  I started tracking the phases of the moon and learning my plants.  I started noticing everything.  To me, 'place' was the trees planted on my college campus and the food service contracted to feed us college students.  'Place' was the human demographics of the area and the selections of beer at the town bar.  'Place' was everything!

After the test, I reoriented myself; my local environment became the most important.  The importance and allure of far-off places began to wane as I focused on the ecology and culture of my place.  Honestly, how could I care about the South American rain forest when I didn't even know the trees on my college campus?

An unveiling.  After taking the test, the complex nature of my place was unveiled.   
There is one simple reason why the concept of place was (and is) so appealing to me: it assumes that everything in a location is important, human or otherwise.  In other words, it acknowledges that an environment is shaped by all of its interrelated parts; culture and nature combine to make a place what it is.  For example, by understanding the place of northern Westchester County, we can begin to understand the current density of its white tailed deer herds.  The deer density is not simply a function of food, space and deer reproduction.  It is influenced by our ecological history, town politics, personal values, forest ecology, trends in landscaping, culture, etc.  By being tuned into our place–and all of the thousands of factors that interrelated to construct it–we can begin to understand our environmental problems for what they really are.      

Now back to this month's thread: knowing your surroundings.  To be effective land stewards, we must be aware of all the interconnected elements of our natural environment and how they interact.  What makes up your place?  How does the human environment affect the non-human environment, and vice versa?  What's going on around you?  ...where does your garbage go...?

No comments: