ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
Let us settle ourselves, and work and wedge our feet downward through the mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance, that alluvium which covers the globe, through Paris and London, through New York and Boston and Concord, through Church and State, through poetry and philosophy and religion, till we come to hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality, and say, This is.
--Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Place studies has emerged as a promising, interdisciplinary field within the environmental humanities, where it connects scholarship within education, geography, architecture, philosophy, and literature by offering a shared forum for the interrelated study of natural, built, social, and cultural environments, individual and community identities, and human experience. Because such thinking spans so many disciplines, however, few transdisciplinary definitions and overviews exist, which has caused much contemporary scholarship in place studies to speak alongside each other, rather than in direct conversation, and for individual disciplines to overlook the contributions they are making to larger discussions of place. This is especially true when it comes to environmental creative nonfiction. Place has a rich thematic history in the environmental literature of the United States, a history that has deepened and grown increasingly complex during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In response to the environmental crises of their age, nonfiction writers have studied with new attention the ways in which industrialization, modernization, and globalization affect humanity’s experiences of environment and place. Although much contemporary environmental nonfiction about place advocates for place attachment as a means to create healthier, more sustainable relationships between humans and their environments—whether urban or rural— other critics problematize this desire for rootedness and argue for a more global “sense of planet.” In the context of nonfiction studies, this conversation—from its origins, to its trends, shifts, and tensions—deserves discussion for what it reveals about human thinking about place and global environmental change. Indeed, while we can question how much to celebrate place attachment in an era of globalization and climate change, and although we can complicate experiences of place through gender, race, class, and sexuality, we seem to keep coming back to it, indicating the ways in which place attachment remains integral not only to environmental nonfiction, but also the human experience.
Place Attachment: A Theoretical Background
Any discussion of place must begin with a definition—a task more difficult in this case than it at first seems. “No one knows what they are talking about when they are talking about place,” geographer Tim Cresswell writes in Place: An Introduction; “Place is not a specialized piece of academic terminology. It is a word we use daily in the English-speaking world” (1). Although the term’s familiarity offers a comfortable lens for analyzing environmental literature, the word’s usage also makes a theoretical discussion difficult because it is inherently interdisciplinary. Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan was perhaps one of the first—and certainly most prominent—contemporary scholars to approach the concept, and his influential monographs Topophilia and Space and Place, published in the 1970s, offer a framework that has since grounded discussions of place in other disciplines, including literature and creative writing. Exploring how more abstract “spaces” can be transformed into “places,” Tuan holds that “[w]hat begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Space and Place 6)—a definition Cresswell appropriates when he describes place, at its most basic level, as “a meaningful location” (7).
Environmental creative nonfiction, historically, has offered intense, philosophical inquiries into particular meaningful places. Such literature has tended to explore distinct locations in as much detail as possible. For instance, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854)—arguably the most canonical of American nature writing—offers a concentrated reflection on Thoreau’s two-year stay at a particular pond in Massachusetts. Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) treats a particular region in Wisconsin. Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire (1968), in a similar manner, explores a prolonged stay in Arches National Park. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974) opens at a cabin in Virginia, Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces (1985) is about ranching in Wyoming, and John McPhee’s Coming into the Country (1997) studies Alaska. Though the places themselves differ, each writer uses the book to investigate a distinct location, drawing out the ways in which that location is meaningful to the writer, the ways in which the writer has endowed that location with value and significance, and often the ways in which the place, likewise, has influenced the writer.
However, to limit “place” to a discussion of unique locations is a gross generalization. Not only do the writers mentioned above perceive landscape in diverse and varied ways, but so do the scholars that write about them. Place-based thinking has become increasingly complex, influenced by an array of theoretical perspectives. In Place: An Introduction, his overview of the field, Tim Cresswell simplifies academic thought on place into three key strands: regional geography, humanistic geography, and social-constructivism. Regional geography, Cresswell says, tends to describe places in as much detail as possible, starting with the bedrock, ending with culture, and emphasizing boundaries and features that differentiate one region from another (16). Humanistic geography, on the other hand, approaches place “as a universal and transhistorical part of the human condition” (20). Rather than exploring individual places, humanist geographers focus on places as an “essence”—a “way of being-in-the-world” (20). Taking from phenomenology, they see place as a way of experiencing the world, largely through routines and daily practices. Social constructivism, in contrast, questions such humanistic approaches, often calling them “essentialist and exclusionary, based on notions of rooted authenticity” (26). Rather than explore the ways “place is primary to the construction of meaning and society,” social constructivists use critical theory and identity politics to investigate the processes by which place is constructed and understood (32). A more thorough definition of “place,” then, must account for all three theoretical strands, as Lawrence Buell does when defining place as “space that is bounded and marked as humanly meaningful through personal attachment, social relations, and physiographic distinctiveness” (Future 145). In other words, place is comprised of an “environmental materiality” grounded in the physical environment, a “social perception” that is constructed through cultural institutions, and one’s individual “affect or bond” to that cultural landscape (62).
Place is also affected by modernization, globalization, and mobility—processes that further complicate discussions of environmental creative nonfiction and in fact have influenced the field more profoundly than theoretical debates between phenomenology and social constructivism. When describing humanity’s changing means of place attachment, Buell explains that, prior to modernization, most human communities were relatively sedentary, their sense of place limited to a smaller geographical area than it is now. Traditional versions of place attachment, then, can be compared to concentric rings, where one’s individual attachment to a distinct place/landscape diminishes with distance from a central site. Modernization, on the other hand, has caused place attachment to “spread out to look more like an archipelago than concentric circles,” largely because individuals work farther from their places of birth, sometimes in different countries and hemispheres (72). “As scale and mobility expand,” Buell recognizes, “placeness tends to thin out”—a situation with profound effects on place-conscious writing (91). Indeed, increased mobility, industrialization, and the resulting space-time compression have influenced humanistic and social-constructivism theories alike, challenging them to redefine their theories in a world where place is less stable a term. For many environmental writers, the reaction has been to “put down roots” and advocate a lifestyle that reaffirms place through an increased awareness of localities, a reiteration of social practices that emphasize dependence on the environment, and a distinctly spiritual attachment to place. Such thinking has both sprung from and led to a wide body of literature advocating place attachment and dedication to local spaces as a means to fight environmental degradation.
Application: Living in Place & Valuing the Local
Scott Russell Sanders’s Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World, first published in 1993, is a compilation of essays that describe Sanders’s attachment to the landscapes of his youth and his commitment to Bloomington, Indiana, where he has settled as an adult. The book challenges readers to recognize where they are on the earth and to form deep, sustaining relationships with their locales. “Only by understanding where I live can I learn how to live,” Sanders writes in the preface, and the book becomes exactly that: an exploration of where Sanders lives and how to best inhabit the earth (xiv). In his lyrical descriptions of the landscapes that speak to him and the way his family has built a home, Sanders celebrates the bonds that can form between individuals and their local environments and makes a philosophical argument for committing to one’s home. Such placeness, Sanders contends, offers an antidote for western culture’s inability to address—whether as a result of immigration, forced relocation, slavery, or environmental change—“the lifelong, bone-deep attachment to place […] the pain in yearning for one’s native ground, the deep anguish in not being able, ever, to return” (14). In fact, the book as a whole is a direct response to globalization and displacement. As Sanders also acknowledges:
There’s no need to go looking for home, of course, unless you’re lost. I have been lost, in ways no map could remedy. I cannot return to my native ground and take up residence there. The farm in Tennessee where I spent my earliest years is buried under asphalt; the military reservation where I lived next is locked away behind fences and soldiers; and the farm in Ohio where I spent the rest of my childhood has been erased entirely, the house and barn bulldozed by the army, the woods and fields flooded by a boondoggle dam. If I am to have a home, it can only be a place I have come to as an adult, a place I have chosen. (xiii-xiv)
But while Sanders does not deny Lawrence Buell’s assertion that we have become more mobile, or that place attachment has thinned—and does not obfuscate the realities of the modern world, including the difficult of committing oneself to a place—he nonetheless asks readers to recognize the importance of place in their lives and the benefits of forming and nurturing strong, complex, place attachments.
The benefits of place attachment, for Sanders, are twofold. First, one’s ties to a local space is spiritual. Sanders argues that, “in belonging to a landscape, one feels a rightness, at homeness, a knitting of self and world. This condition of clarity and focus, this being fully present, is akin to what the Buddhists call mindfulness, what Christians contemplatives refer to as recollection, what Quakers call centering down” (121). He believes that living consciously in a particular place is a spiritual necessity and that place consciousness enriches human life on a profound level. Second, he links this intense knowledge of local settings with a greater appreciation of global landscapes and global environmental crises. As a result, reestablishing an attachment to place becomes a healing experience and a step toward a healthier planet:
To become intimate with your home region, to know the territory as well as you can, to understand your life as woven into the local life does not prevent you from recognizing and honoring the diversity of other places, cultures, ways. On the contrary, how can you value other places if you do not have one of your own? If you are not yourself placed, then you wander the world like a sightseer, a collector of sensations, with no gauge for measuring what you see. Local knowledge is the grounding for global knowledge. Those who care about nothing beyond the confines of their parish are in truth parochial, and are at least mildly dangerous to their parish; on the other hand, those who have no parish, those who navigate ceaselessly among postal zones and area codes, those for whom the world is only a smear of highways and bank accounts and stores, are a danger not just to their parish but to the planet. (114)
In other words, by understanding the nuances of the place in which they live, and by living as thoughtfully as possible within that place, Sanders believes humans can better contribute to a more environmentally sustainable world.
Sanders’s vision that humans create strong bonds with their landscapes, and that these local bonds not only have personal, spiritual value but also are necessary to maintaining a healthy planet captures the grounding principles of much place-based writing, and his work resonates alongside other oft-celebrated conservationist texts. Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, decades before Sanders’s Staying Put, calls humanity to recognize that it is “only a member of a biotic team” (204) and to act in ways that “preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community” (225). He asks readers to recognize the inherent worth of other lifeforms and to reestablish an attachment to land. “We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in,” Leopold writes, establishing a series of values and assumptions that continue to influence place-based environmental writing (214). Wendell Berry, Sanders’s contemporary, similarly connects displacement from land and agriculture with a variety of modern qualms, from overspecialization in academia; to the undervaluing of field-, farm-, and housework; to fragmentation on an even larger level. “The only real, practical, hope-giving way to remedy the fragmentation that is the disease of the modern spirit,” Berry writes in The Unsettling of America (1996), “is in a small and humble way—a way that a government or agency or organization or institution will never think of, though a person may think of it: one must begin in one’s own life the private solutions that can only in turn become public solutions” (23). Reconnecting “place” with “culture” through a healthy agriculture that forces humans to see themselves, plants, animals, and land as “part of one another” is, for Berry, not only a necessity, but “our most pleasing responsibility” and “our only legitimate hope” (22-23; 14). This insistence on local regions has roots in an interdisciplinary field called bioregionalism. “People who stay in place may come to know that place more deeply. People who know a place may come to care about it more deeply. People who care about a place sre more likely to take better care of it,” Robert Thayer, Jr. writes in LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice (2003). By learning the distinct characteristics of a bioregion, and being receptive to life practices that work best in that region, Thayer argues we replicate a lifestyle closer to the evolutionary norm, where small bands of humans survive in a distinct region, cooperating socially in place (55). The result: humans who can better “guide those regions’ futures” and a “deepened sense of personal meaning, belonging, and fulfillment in life” (55; 71)—familiar tenets that have, in many ways, become the underpinning philosophy of much environmental creative nonfiction, against which contemporary writers have worked to respond. And question it they have.
Questioning Place Attachment:
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Jennifer Case’s essays have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE, North American Review, and Zone 3, among others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Central Arkansas and the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org. Her memoir Sawbill: A Search for Place will be published by the University of New Mexico Press in 2018. You can find her online at jenniferlcase.com