As America becomes ever more developed with the ubiquitous strip malls, fast food joints, chain restaurants, and McMansions that look remarkably similar whatever the location, it becomes harder to cultivate a sense of place. One could be put down in almost any metropolitan area and have no idea where one had landed especially along a major thoroughfare with the various big box stores surrounded by enormous parking lots and the ever present drive through meal in a sack places on every corner. Regional variation is lost as we move towards uniformity and I for one find that to be incredibly sad because it is that variety that gives places their uniqueness and makes them truly special to the people who live there. In my lifetime so far I have lived in 12 different U.S. states and have experienced the wonderful variety that makes a large nation with so many different landscapes like this one has so interesting. I’ve also seen all that uniformity writ large upon the landscape in places as varied as Mililani, HI to Branford, CT with the only difference being the palm trees in the Home Depot parking lot.
Currently I live in Lancaster, PA a place widely known as unique due to the various Anabaptist groups that came here in the 18th century. This is Amish country and with that comes an idyllic landscape of farms, buggy repair shops, and a tremendous community ethos that is truly remarkable in modern America. The Pennsylvania Dutch settled here because of the rich, fertile soil which is still an important feature of this bioregion. Then there is the mighty and ancient Susquehanna River that forms a natural border with neighboring York County, whose headwaters are in Cooperstown, NY and it’s end is the Chesapeake Bay, not far from Lancaster. There is regional variation in the cuisine as well due to the Germanic influence and also in more recent times, Puerto Rican influence (Lancaster has a large Puerto Rican community). All of these things make Lancaster and interesting and exciting place to live and a place worth maintaining as unique.
When we develop a sense of place by finding out what is special about our life places and then doing all that we can to enhance and protect it, then we more fully inhabit the places where we live. To truly inhabit a place is to recognize the stake that we each have in ensuring that it is well taken care of for ourselves and future generations who will rely on it for sustenance, livelihood, and community. Getting to know the natural world where we live is of vital importance for many reasons. There are often a wealth of useful plants, animals, and natural cycles that when made use of mindfully can enhance our quality of life and in times of duress keep us fed. It’s also important to learn about the uniqueness of the culture where we live. What is the local history, geography, and climate. What makes your life-place special? Taking the back roads is a great way to experience the true character of a place. Finding the hiking trails and the waterways is another. Local historical associations and museums can further increase our knowledge and help to cultivate that all important sense of place that tells us where we are in the world and roots us in community.
My camera slows me down which is a good thing. It helps me to connect more deeply with the neighborhood and the bioregion around me. As always, I hope these shots inspire you to fully inhabit your life-place.