Sense of Place

There are a number of ways to renew. I mentioned, first, there may be something we need to get back. Second, there may be something we need to turn away from. Third, we find renewal through service – for others, for justice.

Which leads us to fourth, we find renewal through place: through being rooted in our location, grounded in our literal ground.

We are made to be a part of our environs, our identity intertwined with our geography. Yet we can become unmoored, either through moving every few years – and in the US about 12 percent of the population relocates in any given year – or through spending most of our days in geographically neutral experiences. For many of us, our workplace has the same layout and look it would have in Utah, or Louisiana. The architecture and d├ęcor of our homes could just as well be in California or Kentucky. In between home and work, we go past, and maybe stop in at strip malls that look the same in Oregon as they do in Maine. We watch the same TV and movies that people in Minnesota and Florida watch.

A strong sense of place is something we might not recognize that we’re missing, yet it affects our sense of the meaning of our lives. J. B. Jackson writes:
"It is place, permanent position in both the social and topographical sense, that gives us our identity."
Or as Wendell Berry put it,
“if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
Sense of place emerges from long and intimate experience of a particular landscape, and from knowledge of its unique history, its folklore, its local knowledge and crafts. Kent Rydon writes:
“A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines."
Few of us have the deep grounding in place that was common a few generations ago – what Wallace Stegner described as
“the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it.”
Most of us don’t have that. Robert Frost’s poem, "The Gift Outright," notes that
“The land was ours before we were the land’s . . .
[The land] was ours in Massachusetts, in Virginia, but we were England’s, still colonials . . .
She was our land more than a hundred years before we were her people.”
That deep rooted sense of place takes more than one lifetime to emerge on its own. Still, if we intend to do so, we can consciously cultivate that sense of belonging to our place. I am a transplant to Westchester County, New York; I've only lived here a little more than two years. Walking along the Hudson River or the Long Island sound, traipsing about in our wooded areas, among the old stone walls that the European settlers of this area had such a mania for building two to three hundred years ago -- reading and learning local histories and local stories, getting out in it through every season of the year, winter and summer, fall and spring, has begun to cultivate a sense of place here for me. Doing these things over many years will deepen that sense of place.

If life is stale, flat, in need of renewal, it may be that we are unrooted. For those of us who are now living in an area different from the one we were raised in, strengthening our rootedness is a two-fold practice. First, there's developing your connection to the local area where you are now. Second, you might return to a place where you used to live, and that still lives in your heart.

I was born and raised in the southeast: born in Virginia and grew up there and North Carolina and Alabama until, when I was nine, we settled in Carrollton, Georgia. I was back in Carrollton for a week this summer: visiting my Mom; remembering the streets of my youth, the topography, the soil that is red from so much iron, the many Baptist churches dotting the rural country side; remembering the part of me that is a product of that landscape and that land.

We are our place, and when we’re in touch with it, it renews us. When we are grounded in some actual ground, renewal grows up from that ground like the small and tender plant pictured.

If you can’t go there in person, perhaps you have a scrapbook or old photos you can pull out to take you back imaginatively to the ground in which your roots are. Either way, it might help to bring someone along on the journey. Sometimes a friend sees things we can't.

Renewal is a rhythm, but maybe sometimes the rhythm is missing some of its beats. Maybe you weren’t even noticing the missed beats.

Is there something to get back?

Is there something to turn away from?

Is there a way you could serve more?

Is there a way to strengthen your sense of place?

May we find the paths of renewal that we need.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Renewal"
See also
Part 1: Rhythms of Renewal
Part 2: Paths of Renewal: Turning Away & Serving

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