It was my turn to write for the weekly column. Here’s what I came up with:
A Sense of Place
by Jennifer Schlick
I had a peak experience while on horseback in the summer heat and sun of Bryce Canyon. Brilliantly orange hoodoos rose above me against a sky so intensely blue as I listened to the musical song of Canyon Wrens and watched the seemingly playful, though actually purposeful flights Violet-green Swallows.
I’ve walked in the desert, and learned the names of cacti and shrubs that can survive in a landscape of sun and drastic temperatures. I’ve watched seals swimming in the waters off Cape Cod and poked around in the sand and pebbles looking for shells, marveling at the power of the moon to create the tides. I’ve hiked above the tree line in the Rocky Mountains where the air is thin and the view magnificent. I’ve camped in Arkansas just west of the Mississippi and watched dozens of species of birds fly overhead, and on the bank of the White River near the Badlands in South Dakota on a full moon night.
All of these places hold special memories for me, but none of them is home. None of them engenders that special “sense of place” that makes me feel whole. It takes good old western New York forests and rolling hills, and streams to do that.
That phrase – “sense of place” – became the buzz-phrase of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Psychology and sociology students wrote papers about it. I found one online prepared by Jennifer Cross from the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University, written in late 2001 and based on interviews she conducted in the late 1990s with people in one particular location. In the paper, Cross describes six categories of relationships to the landscape. I looked for myself in these descriptions and found two that resonated – biographical and spiritual.
The biographical relationship, Cross explains, is “characterized by a strong sense of identification with place and a relatively long residence. In these relationships, place is an integral part of personal history.” I was born and raised in the Jamestown area. I’ve been away from Western New York only for relatively short trips. My longest times away were eleven months in Japan when I was a Rotary Exchange Student, and two and a half years while in school in the Phoenix, Arizona region. Other trips were at most a month long.
So, yeah. I have a long residence here. And a good deal of my time since childhood has been spent out in it. I grew up in that wonderful era when children were kicked out of the house after breakfast and only popped in when hungry. We played in our yard, or the neighbors’ yards, or the schoolyard, (or the secret places we weren’t allowed to go to – shh, don’t tell my mom) from morning until bedtime. I was privileged to spend two weeks of every summer at Girl Scout Camp in nearby Randolph, New York. As Jennifer Cross explains, “spending time in a place creates memories and experiences, which become part of a person’s individual and community identity.” This place is me. I am this place.
Cross describes the spiritual relationship as being “based on something much less tangible than personal history. [The interviewees] describe relating to place in a profound way, of having a deep sense of belonging or resonance that is difficult to describe and is often unexpected.”
This happens to me most often when hiking. I am simply awestruck at the beauty that surrounds me, the diversity of plants and animals, and the interconnectedness of it all. I am humbled to realize I am a part of it, too. I breathe the forest air and have the sensation that the forest is breathing my air – that we breathe together as one whole being. The water rushing or meandering or trickling through gorges, streams and gullies is my life blood. We are one.
I now have two dear friends and a daughter who live out west and who tell me all the time how much I would love Colorado. Another friend extols the virtues of his Florida home and tempts me with photographs of wildlife and ocean landscapes and sunsets. My siblings-in-law have retired on a little island off the coast of Honduras and beg me to come visit.
Visits might be fine. But I don’t know how any place but western New York can be home.
Jennifer Schlick is program director at the Audubon Nature Center, 1600 Riverside Road in the town of Kiantone, one-quarter mile east of Route 62 between Jamestown, New York and Warren, Pennsylvania. For more information about the Nature Center, call (716) 569-2345 or visit http://jamestownaudubon.org.
Jennifer Cross’s paper can be found at http://western.edu/sites/default/files/documents/cross_headwatersXII.pdf.