Where we are — or think we are

Column by George Sibley

Sense of Place – November 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

SENSE OF PLACE has come to be one of those concepts whereby we post-modern, post-industrial, post-urban bucolics move up through the thirty-two degrees of right living. So it seems appropriate that “senses of place” should be the focus of the 12th regional “Headwaters Conference” early this November in Gunnison.

The concept has been more or less sanctified by Wendell Berry — who said you can’t know who you are if you don’t know where you are — and Wallace Stegner, who said in an essay titled “Sense of place,” that “no place is a place” until two things have happened: one, “things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments”; and two, “it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry.”

These perceptions establish the fundamentally anthropocentric nature of the concept, but both seem to imply that the place itself — the geography, the inherent nature — is the active ingredient. The geography becomes a “place” by impressing itself on those who come into the geography.

But looking at the history of the West in general, and the Headwaters Region in particular, you could entertain another possibility: that a lot of people come here with a fairly well developed sense of what the place should be, and they set about building their “Little Londons” and “Pittsburghs of the West” and “Shake-‘n-Bake Bavarias” without ever really stopping to look and listen to what the place has to say about itself. We do as much to shape the places we inhabit as the places do to shape us.

At last year’s Headwaters Conference, Jenny Cross, a sociologist from Colorado State University, talked about six kinds of “relationships to place.” These six types are up for deeper analysis at this year’s conference.

The type of relationship to place that Berry and Stegner would recognize, Cross calls a biographical relationship. It’s what develops when someone has lived in a place long enough to have the stories of his life all tangled up with the collective story of the place. It can be argued that this is the most authentic “sense of place,” but in a mobile society based on liberty and license for all and grounded in principles of immediate gratification, it would be un-American to suggest that someone has to be in a place for a long time to have a sense of it. So there are other kinds of relationships to place.

We might have an immediate spiritual relationship with a place, whereby something about the place captures our imagination and speaks to our heart.

WE MIGHT HAVE a commodified relationship to a place, in which we want to be there because it has good golf courses, or biking trails, or the right kind of scenery, the right kind of people, the right kind of cultural activities, and the right kind of shopping.

We might have a dependent relationship with a place, which means we are only there because it’s where our career opportunity happens to be, or because someone like a spouse or our parents took us there for their own reasons, or because it has the hospitals, the schools, or the special services that we need.

We might have a mythic relationship with a place because it’s a part of the stories and legends that we’ve grown up with, and our sense of that place thereby helps define our identity. This is an important one to acknowledge in the West, where a sense of appropriate relationships has been shaped by the stock characters and scenery of “westerns.” Smile when you say that, stranger.

With all these different “senses of place” Cross describes, it is small wonder that we can seldom seem to agree on anything in our beloved mountain valleys, despite the fact that we all have a passionate commitment to where we are — or think we are.

For what should be a consciousness-raising discussion of different “senses of place” in the mountain region today, join the Headwaters Bunch for some or all of the first weekend in November. If nothing else, you might go home with a clearer understanding of your own “sense of place.” For more information, see the ad elsewhere in this issue, or go to the web at http://www.western.edu/headwtrs.

George Sibley teaches and writes in Gunnison.