“No matter how much one may love the world as a whole,
one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.”
-Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America
“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else.
Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground
and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
-Wendell Berry, A Place on Earth: A Novel
I have been thinking lately about a trend in my life over the past ten or so years. For a long time I was very interested in international issues and causes; my focus was broad and far-reaching. I felt myself drawn to what I saw to be the issues of “real” or “major” importance in the world and tended to dismiss concerns closer to home.
Yet, as the years have gone by, and especially in the years since my sons were born, and more recently, since settling our family on our small homestead, I notice myself and my perspective turning inward, refocusing on this place. My place. The land and rhythms that I am surrounded by and living within. The idea of a “sense of place” has been hovering in my thoughts, its voice growing louder, sounding calm, steadfast, nourishing, drawing me closer.
Looking back, one of the main influences that brought about this change in perspective has been my interest in local and sustainable agriculture, and this interest led me, in turn, to Wendell Berry’s writing. I deeply believe that, as Berry says, “one can live fully in [the world] only by living responsibly in some small part of it,” and that “only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond.” First we must draw into ourselves and our surroundings, be present in and with them, learn about them and sink into them before reemerging, more grounded, centered and present, able to more fully connect with and create community with others and the wider world.
It used to be that having a “sense of place” was a given; it was unusual not to have a strong connection to a particular place. Today, however, in our very mobile and frantic society, there is a growing need to consciously create and nurture the knowledge and understanding of where we are – physically as well as in our inner selves. A need to create and nurture a sense of who we are, being grounded in our surroundings; to lay a footing for setting our own roots and establishing our own rich history whether we or our family have lived in a home for generations or months.
We need these roots, and this sense of being grounded, of belonging in the place we call home. If we allow and encourage ourselves to be open to observing our surroundings and our inner selves, this knowledge will give us the foundation for a greater awareness and connection to the nature of our place, to the particular rhythms enfolding us. There are practical benefits to this: knowing and being able to teach our children the names of plants and animals we see each day and learning how to care for them, finding edible plants to add to our meals, or maybe gaining a better understanding of why certain plants do better or worse in our gardens. At the same time there are also personal benefits: understanding the connection between natural rhythms and our inner selves (emotions as well as physical being), greater mindfulness and a lighter spirit from being out in nature more, from taking the time to pause and focus, seeing the beauty in small things we might have overlooked before. We can gain a greater respect and reverence for the nature and rhythms in which we live, and simply having a greater understanding of where we are helps point the way forward with more sure, steady feet.
This time of the year, with winter beginning to loose its grasp and spring starting to make inroads, is a wonderful time of year to begin to take steps toward finding our sense of place. It is a time of natural as well as spiritual renewal and regrowth. The year is still young and it is easy to find our spirits lifted and inspired by the newness and hope of regrowth around us. The natural world is in many ways a blank slate. Starting from the decay and dormancy of winter, it is easy to see the changes taking place, easy to begin to notice the shapes of the land, the flowers blooming and trees leafing, and to begin to identify these, to notice the changing weather and rhythms as they unfold. It is the start of a new year’s cycle of growth.
It can be an overwhelming prospect, thinking about where and how to begin learning about our surroundings, outside and in. I want to offer a number of suggestions, because we all connect to different things, we all learn differently and find some ways of interacting with our selves and surroundings more meaningful than other ways. So please keep this in mind when reading these ideas. Most of these ideas can easily expand to include children of all ages; it is never too early to start helping our children to develop their own sense of place, as well! So, pick an idea that grabs you and start there. Put any others that sound interesting in reserve, to call on when you are ready, but choose one to start. And start. Imperfectly, tentatively or boldly, take a step.
Getting To Know Your Physical Place
Keep A Record of What You See
Keep a journal or notebook handy and take five minutes each day (or as often as you are able) to make note of what is happening outside. You could choose to pick a place outside to visit each day, or a window to look out of and note any changes happening. Another option would be to simply write down some general observations from the day. This doesn’t have to be exceptional or extensive. Focus on what is of special interest to you (the phase or location of the moon, the types of flowers blooming, the birds or other animals you see…) and feel free to go beyond “just” words, to include pictures, leaves or flowers to press, information you learn about animals or plants you see – anything you would like to add. This can be as simple or encompassing as you desire.
Capture Your Place in Photographs
Take a walk around your home – inside or out – and notice the places that speak to you of home, of being centered. Take photographs of these spots and display them somewhere you will see them often.
Take Regular Nature Walks
Get outside several times a week and take a walk. This can be as short as walking around your home or up and down your driveway, or it can be longer if you like. Walking the same route often will help you get to know one portion of your place more intimately. You will have the chance to notice things you haven’t before, to see the beauty that has mostly gone overlooked. Sometimes when you go, take a field guide or two and begin to identify the names of trees, plants and flowers that you pass by. Listen for the bird songs or insect noises; look for animal tracks on the ground and see if you can identify them.
Map Your Place
Put pen (or crayons) to paper and draw a map of your place. This can include your home and yard, if you have one, nearby houses or businesses, parks, land features like streams or ponds, mountains or ravines. Include the places that are important to you, and that help to make your place yours. The goal is not to create a perfectly-to-scale map, but to create a picture of your home, your place.
Getting To Know Your Inner Place
Make a Reflective List
Set aside a block of time when you can be uninterrupted. Sit quietly and reflect on where you are, in this period of your life. As words, images or phrases surface, write them down. Once you have what feels like a complete list, read through your words, images and phrases and reflect on what they say about where you are, what your inner place looks like at this point in time.
Create A Picture of Your Place
Look through magazines or other sources for images that speak to you. Try not to censor yourself, but instead clip any and all images that you are drawn to, without first asking why. Once you have a stack of images, create a collage, or an image book from them. Spend some time reflecting on your finished piece: do you see any recurring themes, moods, images, colors? What might these say about what your inner space looks like now?
Map Your Inner Place
What makes up you at this point in time? What roles do you play? What inspires you? What obligations do you have? What feeds you? What drains you? Using your answers to these questions, take pens, crayons, paints – whatever medium you prefer – and draw a map of you. You might start with your name in the center, and expand from there, it might be a very detailed and orderly map, or perhaps more free-form and concept-oriented. Maybe it will be a word map, or maybe you visualize your inner place as a house with different, connecting rooms, or a garden with various beds. However you decide to create it, the goal of your map is to create an image that you can hold in your hands of who you are and what your place is like at this time.
Once you have gotten to know your place and the natural rhythms surrounding you a bit better, take some time to reflect on whether there is a portion of your physical place that could use a little extra care. Are there many birds but not much for the birds to eat? Is there an area around your home that could benefit from some flowers to encourage the honeybees you saw, or some herbs to add to your dinner? Is there an area with a lot of litter that could be cleaned up? A neglected fruit tree that could possibly be brought back to health? And, as with your physical place, reflect on areas of your inner place that might need extra care, and take steps to give back to your spirit as well, for while we first must take the time to learn about and begin to understand our place, the next, natural, step is then to find ways to care for the nature around and spirit within us; to give back to what is supporting us.
Annie Demko lives in Northeast Ohio with her husband and twin boys on a small, historic homestead where she spends her days caring for and playing with her sons, cleaning, cooking, creating, and attempting to coordinate and accept the chaos. She has recently begun blogging about her days and desire to find and celebrate the beauty and value in the ordinary at Moon in the Window.