Staying Home: Cultivating place-based intimacy and awareness

Sierra Ancha Mountains

Sierra Ancha Mountains

“You can’t know who you are
until you know where you are.”
~ Wendell Berry

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Hells Canyon Wilderness

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?

Pinal Mountains

Pinal Mountains

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?

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Sierra Ancha Wilderness

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.

Hells Canyon Wilderness

Hells Canyon Wilderness

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.

Pinal Mountains - Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

Pinal Mountains – Dripping Springs Mountains in distance

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.

***

Aleah Sato

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/).

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Quiet Giants and the Legacy of Public Lands: Part 2 of 2

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by Shauna Potocky

The dirt road leads to a fork, and from here you must decide, which path to take. The forest here, now in fall, is a mix of Black oaks, Pacific dogwoods, pines and firs. The light is filled with colorful foliage, illuminated gold, flaming red, greens in every hue. The air is crisp and the ground just damp after the first rains of the season. The road, in either direction, winds through the forest and leads you to a grove of Giant Sequoias (Sequoia giganteum).

The Nelder Grove is located in the Sierra National Forest of California, south of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias that reside within Yosemite National Park. This grove, named for John A. Nelder, a retired miner who once called the grove his home, stands stoic and beautiful in the mixed conifer forest—revealing for all to see, it’s past.

Not all giant sequoia groves benefited from early government protection, as the Mariposa Grove did during the mid to late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and thus, some Sequoia groves were logged—massive trees felled for timber. The irony of which proved to be that the wood was not ideal for building since, when the tree fell it often broke apart—shattered or splintered. Thus, many of these logged trees were made into shingles, stakes and other smaller scale items.

The Nelder Grove had such a fate. In the late 1800’s, the grove was logged by timber operations. Today, among the approximately 100 standing mature and majestic sequoias are gigantic silent stumps that tell of the groves’ past. Just as the standing glorious trees, these stumps too, make one stop in awe—they take your breath away.

The realization that some of these trees have been cut down, in fact deepens the importance for all the trees which remain.ImageImage

There is truly an extraordinary gift in this grove. Here, among the tales of history, are some extraordinarily old and massive sequoias and among them, young sequoias reaching upwards. Together, they stand in a grove that is lightly visited and teeming with biodiversity—a forest thriving with the song of birds, the echoing pound of woodpeckers, the flow of running rivers and creeks.

This provides countless teaching opportunities—sharing with students and visitors the ecology, fire history, and species that call this area home, including one of the Sierra’s most elusive sensitive species, the Pacific fisher. Along side biology and ecology is the deep and rich history of this place; once used, the lessons learned, the values gained and protections established so these trees and their story can be told for generations to come.  And it doesn’t end there—there is a remarkable human story too, from the historic figures to the people who care for the grove now.

The grove came under management by the United States Forest Service in 1928. A campground was established and the grove benefited by the presence of campground hosts. John and Marge Hawksworth served in this role and together they assisted and educated visitors; going on to care for the grove for more than 20 years. While doing so they also passed a great love of the grove down to their children, grandchildren, and great grand children.

One of those grandchildren was Brenda Negley; Brenda fell so deeply in love with the Nelder Grove, that today, Benda and her family serve as the grove’s campground hosts—continuing a legacy of sharing the grove with visitors, educating people about the history and being stewards to this remarkable place.

In total, Brenda’s family has cared for the grove, in various capacities for over twenty-six years. Together, they tirelessly help to maintain the exhibits that are displayed throughout the summer and assist visitors with campground access and information regarding trails. Without a doubt, if you see a smiling, approaching face in the grove, it is almost assuredly, Brenda.

For this service, her family has received some notable honors, which now includes the 2012 United States Forest Service national award for Volunteer Campground Host of the Year.

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Along with this recognition, there have also been recent achievements for the grove including the establishment of a non-profit organization, Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc., which seeks to share and preserve the grove and its history, while making it accessible for the public to enjoy.

Then there are the unexpected surprises, the ones that confirm how truly important the stewardship and access to public lands, like the Nelder Grove, are to people all over the world.

During the recent government shutdown, visitors were unable to travel into Yosemite National Park to visit the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Yet, these same visitors, who came from all over the world to see giant sequoias, driven by the desire to see even just one tree, if just for a moment, made the trek down the dirt road to that same fork framed by oaks, dogwoods and pines. Their journey and moments of inspiration in the Nelder Grove, affirm that the preservation of these quiet giants in all their glory—instead of being used as a resource by a select few—are worth more when preserved for the benefit of everyone.

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Cool Fact: John Muir and John Nelder met in the fall of 1875, when Muir was exploring the region in search of giant sequoias. Named the Fresno Grove at the time of their meeting, the grove and Mr. Nelder are captured in Muir’s writings: Our National Parks, Chapter IX: The Sequoia and General Grant National Parks.

Cool Fact: Brenda’s husband proposed to her under the sequoia tree named for her grandparents, the Hawksworth tree.

Photo credits:

Award photo: Courtesy of Brenda Negley and Friends of Nelder Grove, Inc.

Sequoia photo credits: Shauna Potocky