“You can’t know who you are
until you know where you are.”
~ Wendell Berry
In a culture of immediacy and movement, we grow up believing in the value of relocation, mobility, and change. Very few of us can say we remain in the town of our birth. Many of us can even attest to living in more cities and towns than we can count on our fingers.
Likewise, for those of us who call ourselves naturalists and adventurers, the idea of roaming the world is appealing. Exploring unknown regions and adding thumbtacks to the “places we’ve been” map becomes something of a passion, if not a genuine lifelong pursuit. I have traversed the United States and Canada, as well as parts of Mexico, in search of new experiences, the perfect vista, the unknown cave or the ideal hot spring. While exploration and curiosity contribute to a sincere interest in the environment, I question whether our jet-setting culture helps or hinders an appreciation for the natural world.
Some might argue that through intimacy a greater sense of responsibility is borne, both to the land and our neighbors. I wonder, too, if remaining faithful to place encourages depth of knowledge and understanding of the flora and fauna and other bioregional characteristics. Ask most individuals the names of local mountains, canyons or forests and you will frequently get a puzzled shrug. Our lives are spent funneled from home to office, suburb to inner city. Rarely do we question what lies beyond the town’s edge, over the next ridge or in the forests behind the neighborhood boundary.
As Amanda Hooyhaas suggested in her academic work, The Study of Placelessness: Toward a Conceptual Framework, “Perhaps all we need to become placed in this chaotic world is to pause and breathe, though the paces of our countries, societies, and cultures attempt to dictate otherwise. Society offers little time for such necessities as place and demands like climbing the corporate ladder continue to urge us forward in a march towards placelessness.”
Is it possible to shift from this placeness way of living to embracing a place as we might a loved one or a career?
Spanning the works of Yi-Fu Tuan and Gaston Bachelard to Wendell Berry and Jane Jacobs, we have come to appreciate the importance of place in urban planning and community development. Great strides have been made in retaining historic relevance, cultural influence, and green spaces in cities. But what of those spaces just beyond the areas we consider home – the landscapes that are being impacted by the pursuit of bedroom communities, OHV recreation, new freeways or solar tracks? Is it possible to re-frame our discernment of place-based intimacy and home to include areas not occupied or used by man, but paramount in their wildness and solitude?
Over the past few years, I have felt an ever-growing need to establish a bond to the land that is wild and undisturbed. Perhaps it is reminiscent of my childhood tendency to roam beyond the boundaries of our family farm in defiance of property lines and No Trespassing signs. Perhaps it resonates from the emails my siblings send, regaling details about their organic gardens and camp-outs in yards they’ve tended since graduating from high school or college. They have stayed faithful to what – for them – has become irrevocably home. Ask any one of them, or their dutifully rooted neighbors, about the local terrain or wildlife and they will often not only have an answer but also several anecdotal accounts. This connection to the land on which one dwells is easy to understand. However, it is my hope to feel such a sense of commitment to land that is public; to places I have no monetary or personal gain other than the joy of experiencing its beauty momentarily.
I have lived within an eclectic assortment of wonder-rich ecosystems – from the Canadian Shield’s granite, lake, and conifer terrains, to the hilly hardwood forests of Southern Indiana, to my current home in the watercolor landscape of the Sonoran desert. It was once my aspiration to live in as many ecosystems as possible – to be on the move, ever absorbing more information about the earth. There is still a wanderlust that prompts me to get out and walk across the bajadas and playas of the desert, but now I find myself hungry for detail about this land in particular. That old sense of curiosity that compelled more travel now commands more clarity. I want to understand this place as I might understand my closest friend.
On December 31st, I made my usual list of resolutions as well as a separate list of aspirations for the year ahead. This year my aspirations list was short: to choose three public lands within a 100 miles radius of Phoenix and really get to know them. The three natural areas I selected are Hells Canyon Wilderness, a Bureau of Land Management designated wilderness area northwest of Phoenix, the Sierra Ancha Wilderness where Edward Abbey once worked as a Forest Service ranger in a fire lookout, and the Pinal Mountains Recreation Area near Globe, Arizona, a birders’ paradise.
Over the coming months, I mean to develop deeper knowledge of the unique characteristics of these special places as well as an awareness of outside threats (invasive species, recreational impacts, etc..), legislative changes affecting their management, and opportunities for habitat rehabilitation and monitoring. Likewise, I will write extensively about the native plants, wildlife, geology, and cultural resources of these wild lands.
I believe no matter where we live, there is an opportunity to learn about the ground beneath our feet. There is a need for place-based intimacy and sharing information, stories, and impressions of our native lands. By doing this, we encourage a more meaningful connection to place – an understanding beyond ownership or financial value. It is my hope to create a true relationship with these nearby mountains, deserts, and canyons, to feel at home in the unnamed, uninhabited spaces. Home is the place you know intimately, after all, and what you know you grow to love.
Please welcome Aleah Sato to The Ecotone Exchange. Sato is a nonprofit professional and creative writer whose work has appeared in numerous literary and environmental journals. She is a wilderness volunteer for the Tonto National Forest and the Bureau of Land Management in her Southwestern home of Arizona. As a wildlands volunteer she assists with wilderness trail work, habitat rehabilitation, water quality sampling, and wildlife monitoring. She is a frequent contributor to Plant Healer, SageWoman and other earth- and plant-based journals and maintains her own blog, Jane Crow Journal (http://aleahsato.wordpress.com/).