by Grace Fiandaca
I need to know my place better. In fact, we all need to pay more attention to where we belong. No, I’m not wistful over the strict social stratification of Downton Abbey or longing for a return to the rigid roles of the antebellum South. I’m talking about cultivating a sense of place, an identity with a region–its culture, history, and natural environment.
Maybe that sounds as old-fashioned as black and white TVs with rabbit ears, but the truth is as we move into the future we face the need to create and sustain healthier local communities, economies and natural environments. A sense of place is an essential part of ensuring this happens. We also need it for ourselves as individuals.
My home is in Central Florida, where the land is flat and the ocean is less than an hour away. Walking along the Atlantic coast soothes my psyche in a way that nothing else can. I’ve been playing by, swimming in, walking along, and bringing my big questions to that same stretch of ocean and sand since I was a little girl. The only vacations we ever took when I was growing up were to New Smyrna Beach. I can’t imagine not living within ready access to that spot.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that we shun our love of travel and exploration. Two weeks ago I hiked in the mountains of North Carolina. Taking in the magnificent rush of waterfalls in all their glorious beauty, and the wondrous bright red, orange, and gold of autumn leaves dancing in the sunlight, was an experience I will always cherish. Such activities broaden our scope and renew our spirits.
But we need to anchor ourselves to some particular spot on this earth. Oak trees put down deep roots which nourish them. Their powerful roots give them the undergirding strength and stability to weather almost anything. We need our deep roots too.
Mead Gardens, a few acres of natural habitat in my hometown, might not impress tourists who have seen more sprawling and breathtaking natural preserves. But it is a sanctuary, connecting me to my personal history. It whispers in the crackle of leaves beneath my feet as I walk over the footbridge I crossed nearly fifty years ago. I hear it in the burble of the creek that runs beside the outdoor amphitheater where my husband and I were married sixteen years ago. I experience the surge of connectedness as I see the new plantings around the Winter Park Garden Club building where I attended meetings, one of three generations of my family who were members.
Professor of American Studies Kent Ryden tells us, “A sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines.”
It takes time. Our fast-paced, quick results-oriented culture is out of sync with this less expedient way of learning. Yet this is exactly how human babies acquire their native language—through experience and immersion. Turns out, it’s the most natural, effective way humans learn.
Novelist Wallace Stegner writes: “Some are born in their place, some find it, some realize after long searching that the place they left is the one they have been searching for. But whatever their relation to it, it is made a place only by slow accrual, like a coral reef.”
While I can brag that I l live within four miles of my hometown, it wasn’t a conscious choice. Still, I’m grateful to be where I am. At this juncture of my life, I want to learn more about the history and geography of where I live; participate more in my community; experience more of my natural surroundings; contribute to the collective story.
I invite you to get to know the place you call home and spend more time in nature, or find that place where you feel a deep, timeless connection and learn about it; experience it firsthand. Place matters.