31 December 2011

Memorable Places of 2011

In thinking about some of my favorite places of the past year, it occurs to me that I did not travel very much. The Big Trip of the year was a late June jaunt up to Ontario, Canada, out in The Bush just west of Kakabeka Falls (yes, the Niagra of the North). It was a great trip, and a wonderful place to visit. I hope to return in 2012 to do a little more fishing and relaxing and a little less studying.

Not long after that trip, in the first week of August, I took a mental trip into the land of preliminary/qualifying exams. Social Influence & Social Norms; Knowledge and Trust in Risk Communication; the role of Place in Environmental Communication; Qualitative Methodology; and Social Networks & Network Theory. What a trip! I had a mental hangover for weeks, maybe still do.

My daughter and I took several trips out to a favorite county park about 18 miles into the edge of the Driftless Zone just west/northwest of Madison. Many picnics were packed. Berries were picked, birds sighted, and fun was had. This was my (our) most frequent trip out of town. In 2012 I hope to explore a few more of the small county parks around the area. Pheasant Branch Conservancy and Stewart Lake down by Mount Horeb are tops on the travel to-do list. These are oft-overlooked geographical gems well worth seeking out.

I only made a few trips back to SE Minnesota to visit family. These trips generally go via State Highway 14, a winding and scenic route traveling west/northwest along the northern edge of Driftless country. It passes through the Wisconsin River valley by Spring Green (the famous, and infamous, home to Frank Lloyd Wright), the beautiful yet much smaller Kickapoo River valley, up and over the ridges through the burgeoning hippie/sustainable/greentelligentsia hamlet of Viroqua and down again through Coon Valley before once more up and over into the great Mississippi River valley at LaCrosse. From there we cross over into Minnesota and either take Highway 16 up the Root River valley to Rushford or follow the Great River upstream to Rollingstone, just outside of Winona.

On the last trip, just a few weeks ago, we saw many big birds along the still-open waters of the Mississippi. At least a dozen bald eagle, some snow geese (I think), and a possible golden eagle. It is a recurring challenge to watch for birds (my eyes were wide for any snowy owls that might appear, as they have had an irruption into the Upper Midwest this fall/winter) and to drive. But I do a pretty good job and almost never go very far off the road.

Having recently watched the National Parks documentary series originally aired on PBS, I am anxious to visit many of the wonderful parks out West. There are many places to go and, for most of us, not nearly enough resources to make all those travels happen. The key, I think, is to enjoy where you are -- wherever you are -- and be happy with the company you keep. Either that or just keep on truckin'.

24 December 2011

Holiday Places

There is an old barn in central Wisconsin that smells of wood smoke and sprigs of spruce. Myriad native and exotic farm animals roam the grounds freely. Be careful where you step. Six inches of snow and a slight wind under a sunny December sky make for a perfect family get-together. Even an imperfect memory can create a lasting impression such as this. I've been fortunate enough to visit this place a number of times with family and friends. It has made an enduring holiday memory. 

What are your special holiday places? Are there place-based locations that your family and/or friends like to gather during times of celebration? Perhaps it is a lake cottage on July 4th or a ridgeline looking west on while the winter solstice sun sets. The mixture of special people over the course of time creates the memories and attachments to these special places. To preserve these places and times we collect photographs, videos, and just plain old memories which, when combined with the feelings of love and closeness, offer an enduring connection to the physical spaces surrounding such interactions.

On this holiday season of 2011 I hope you all can share time and space with the people that you love. You never know when you're creating a memory in the mind of a child or a friend. Be Well and Best Wishes for a joyful and prosperous 2012.

19 December 2011

The Topophilian Daily

I've been experimenting with a new way to aggregate my Twitter feed. What the hell am I talking about?  It's Paper.li and it affords "publication" of links, stories, and pictures of those I follow on Twitter.

For those who are not on Twitter, you can get a sense of my "information network" from that stream. See below for some of today's headlines. Paper.li updates daily and allows you to subscribe to various sources, including The Topophilian Daily!

I follow mostly media and science/environment feeds on Twitter along with a not-so-random sampling of humorists, journalists, musicians, and smarty-pants academics, philosphers, and public intellectuals. 

You can join the fun on Twitter (see @JTspartz, for example) or subscribe to The Topophilian Daily!  Thanks for checking it out. Please let me know what you think.

11 December 2011

Brothers in the Water: The Rushford Flood of 2007.

A sense of place, almost destroyed.
A new book is out that may be overlooked by the New York Times Book Review. It will, however, resonate more deeply for many people I know than any other release this year.

Brothers in the Water: The Rushford Volunteer Fire Department and the Flood of 2007, compiled and edited by local writer Bonnie Flaig Prinsen, describes a dark night of the soul for many residents in my small SE Minnesota hometown. The Winona Daily News, the local daily paper for many in the Root River valley, covered the story extensively at the time. The Tri-County Record weekly still hosts an extensive flood photo gallery.

Many homes, businesses, and livlihoods were destroyed when Rush Creek overflowed its banks in August, 2007. Seventeen inches of rain fell in a 24 hour period. Amazingly, no human lives were lost. The disaster tore a lot of things apart. Ironically, it also brought a lot of people together. Many volunteer groups from all over the country, several from religious organizations, helped rebuild homes and, in effect, lives in the year(s) following the flood.

I haven't lived in Rushford for over 20 years. It's still "back home" for me even though I'm an outsider to any long-term resident. I remember driving up the valley, just south of town near Ferndale Golf Course, a few days after the rains stopped. The smell was potent even a couple miles away. The city streets were still covered in a putrid muck. Limited fresh water and only one outlet for food was the new normal for many, many days.

The picture below shows a house directly across the street from my parents' home. I used to shovel this driveway in winter and mow the lawn during the summer. It belonged to my kindergarten teacher. Thankfully, she wasn't home when the gas line blew.

photo credit: Jill Halverson
I have yet to read the book. I have no doubt it will evoke a lot of emotion. It will also provide a sense of closure, even four years after, for many people still struggling to regain balance in the wake of those murky waters and the difficult weeks and months following. If you visit Rushford, and I encourage anyone to do so, there are still signs of destruction but, due to the hard work of a stalwart community and despite some difficult local political wrangling, much in the way of progress has been achieved.

This video, courtesy of WKBT out of nearby La Crosse, WI, shows some floodwater footage from the area. Interviews with a few of the crew, despite the poor audio, show how it's still a tough memory to reconstruct. The video editing isn't very good but the images remain strong.

I know a few of the men who've been volunteer fire fighters in Rushford since I was just a kid. My dad was on the crew for many years and was Fire Chief for five years but retired from that position a year or so before the flood. His close friends Mike Ebner and Brad Erickson, among others, had the incredible task of coordinating the massive emergency response effort. As suggested in the above interviews, this is a story of a town saving itself. Mike doesn't give himself enough credit though. I believe his own home sat full of floodwater while he worked selflessly for days to help everybody else.

Being a volunteer firefighter is a tough job with little in the way of reward. These and all volunteer fire fighters deserve an immense amount of credit for putting life and limb at risk for their community every time the siren sounds.

This book will, in many ways, both recognize and memorialize the trying times of that August night. It's been a long road of recovery for the town and its people. Books are being sold for $15. Proceeds will first go to repay an advance from the Rushford Community Foundation and then to the Rushford Fire Dept. Relief Association. Call Rushford City Hall at 507-864-2444 if you're interested in purchasing a little piece of history wrapped in the narratives and memories of this courageous crew.

UPDATE (12/12/11): Embedded below is a new video report about the book, courtesy of KTTC in Rochester. In it, the author reads from Brothers in the Water and talks a little about the four year journey of recovery in Rushford.

07 December 2011

Of Sigurd Olson & Les C. Kouba

I recently picked up a copy of Sigurd F. Olson's "Of Time and Place" at the library. What a great read. Olson is an exemplary Minnesotan, legendary outdoorsman, and a great writer, yet I don't recall ever being exposed to his work as a young person growing up in rural SE Minn. It's a shame. I think I would have gravitated toward his short yet deeply evocative essays about backcountry times spent in the Superior-Quetico area, among other North Country places. There's one aspect of this book, and the whole Olson series published by University of Minnesota Press, however, that has fairly deep connections for me in terms of place and family history: the art.

In paging through this relatively slim volume, the last book Olson finished before he died in Minneapolis in 1982, one can't help but notice the awesome artwork. Leslie "Les" Kouba illustrations, black & white sketches, add a sense of magical realism to the text. Owl, otter, moose, trout, cabins, waterfalls, wolf, all offer detailed visual appeal to the stories of watertrails and voyageurs, the memories and reflections of backcountry endurance. Both men share a deep appreciation for wildlife and wilderness, and it shows.
Kouba was born near Hutchinson, MN, in 1917. Featured in the National Museum of Wildlife Art and many other galleries, Kouba is a strong regional favorite. He was a colorful character with a twirled moustache and a down-home, Woolrich jacket sort of appeal. My grandpa had two of the three Shelter Series prints and several others featuring whitetail deer, Canada geese, various ducks, and the prairie favorite, ringneck pheasant. These now hang in my parents' house. Kouba was an instrumental precursor to modern sentamentalist Americana painters such as Terry Redlin and Michael Sieve.

Along with his distinctive signature, Kouba often incoporated 13 things, be it mallards, geese, or cans of Grain Belt, Schmidt or other rural detritus into his works. According to Kouba enthusiast Arlen Axdahl, Kouba also took his art to the people after picking up on public interest in watching a painter in progress. He visited Elks clubs, Kiwanis groups, and other places throughout Minnesota to paint for groups. This no doubt endeared him to many and helped develop his wide popular appeal as the "Norman Rockwell of Minnesota." Kouba died peacefully in 1998 after a successful and colorful life. His sense of time and place, as a corollary to Olson's literature, evoke a great diversity of wildlife and wilderness available to us, if we only take the time to look, listen, and feel our way through it.

30 November 2011

Glen Hansard's Dublin

World Cafe radio/multi-media program, hosted by David Dye, has a series called Sense of Place. I did not know this until recently. A roving video interview in "Glen Hansard's Dublin" is a great example of how one's early roots of place can filter into the art and music of later years.

Van the Man, James Joyce, U2, Oscar Wilde, the Revolution of 1916... Dublin has an awesome and deep topical history.  Music as a salve for the soul in troubled times, for people running into hardship or away from heartbreak, it speaks to place, from place, and across all social strata. The Clancy Brothers, The Dubliners, and all the nameless buskers along all the timeless streets contribute to and amplify what the scenes, memories, and dreams have to offer. It's all different, everywhere, and all so much the same.

28 November 2011

Enough Already with "The Media"

In reading a recent academic article about media framing of the U.S. biofuels movement, I repeatedly came across assertions about "the media." This is like saying "the public." It doesn't really exist as some sort of unified "thing." There is no omnipotent "media" or a single general "public." This is akin to saying "all white people are..." or "all Russians are..." It is a gross over-generalization. It needs to change. 

The article Green dreams or pipe dreams?: Media framing of the U.S. biofuels movement, by W. Wright and T. Reid and published in Biomass & Bioenergy, examines the "contested terrain of biofuels discourse" across about 2.5 years of pertinent New York Times (NYT) articles. Again, one newspaper, even one as nationally influential as NYT, is not "the media."

Let's inject a little nuance into our conversation!  The NYT is not The Country Today. It is not similar to any of the dozens of regionally influential smaller market newspapers. It is not USA Today. To lump them together as "the media" fashions a sort of rhetorical black-hole where insinuations and assertions lose meaning or get completely inverted. Let's don't even start on what passes for "news" and "the media" on television and radio. The countless talking heads and wagging tongues of alphabet soup infotainment (MSNBC, NPR, Fox, ESPN, WB, etc.), trying to pass off rounds and rounds of "insight and analysis" has become a mind-numbing chorus of he-said/she-said polemics. These entities deserve a more subtle level of scrutiny.

Why am I ranting about "the media" on this blog about "place." First, because it's my party and I can cry if I want to. The two or three people who read it (hi, mom) don't seem to care. Second, because the authors of the Green Dreams article state their intent of examining the "contested territory" of biofuels. This sort of conceptual territoriality is relevant and fascinating. Places are constructed through social interaction. That is to say meanings are negotiated over time. Ideas are territorial in the nexus of mind/brain plasticity and can be mapped onto the social landscape, the marketplace of ideas, just as the meaning of "places" (as in physical spaces w/ attached meaning) can be negotiated over time and across various frameworks of meaning development.

An example is a recent New York Times Magazine story on Elizabeth Warren. The title of the profile was Heaven is a Place Called Elizabeth Warren. It is the conceptual territory that Warren embodies that is the titular "place" in which "the jilted left has found a new object of its affection." She is not a "place." Her philosophy, her intellectual approach, is the place.

Aside from the metaphysics of all this, my main point here is to encourage a more nuanced line of social negotiation when it comes to ideas put forth and contested regarding the realm of mass media. Just as the general public is not of one mind about anything and, for depth and accuracy of meaning-construction, should be segmented into various (and nearly limitless) categories, so too should the fields of media practice and media effects.

In the context of the particular study mentioned above, it is the realm of framing and frame analysis. Certain frames may develop through NYT discourse, and even be quite relevant in promoting discourse in regional newspapers and at rural coffee klatches nationwide, but these frames should not be generalized as simply those that "the media" present. The authors do acknowledge the limitations of generalization in their study but yet continue to talk of "the media" as if it were equivalent to The New York Times. This is not the case. The New York Times is not "the media." Never has been. Never will be.

25 November 2011

Snapshot of a Great Horned Owl.

I took a few snapshots of a Great Horned Owl at my place of employment today. I generally keep an eye out for birds and always get jazzed when seeing anything out of the ordinary. 

It's not just birds, either. Flora and fauna alike contribute greatly to that 'thing' we call sense of place, even in the city. Perhaps especially in a city.

This particular bird roosts in a pine tree maybe 100 yards from the edge of University Bay, on Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisc. There are some wooded sections along the nearby shoreline, including the well-known "Picnic Point" which has its own storied and prehistoric past.

On the ground below I saw evidence that this fella had been feasting on something like a mouse or other such small furry creature not too long ago. At one point it turned its head all the way around to look behind itself without moving its body. That was cool. My co-workers and I had heard that an owl nested in the courtyard, but had never seen one there. Today, on a whim, I walked over to take a look. I'm glad I did!

19 November 2011

Wine Me Up

For wine lovers who like to know from whence their wine has come, there is a push for place recognition both on the bottle and in the blend. It's a matter of appellation, writes Bill Zacharkiw, the Montreal Gazette's wine critic. This is how winemakers and marketing people apply 'sense of place' to their essentially ground-up trade.

"What they are trying to communicate to you," says Zacharkiw, is that the "wine is unique because the grapes are grown in a place where the mix of topography, geology, soil and climate makes them different from that of their neighbour."

This is something I would have thought of as terroir before. It seems that the difference (and correct me if I'm wrong, wine people, because I am no aficionado) is that appellation is the nominal distinction among geographic locations for grape production. In other words, distinguishing the various zones where the grapes are grown. Alternately, terroir denotes the sensory experience of a wine -- nose, palette, mouthfeel, all that --  in a way vitally connected to the soil and regional characteristics of any specific wine's production.

Official names for various appellation zones vary by country, writes Zacharkiw... "In France, it’s Appellation d’origine controlée (AOC), in Spain, Denominación de Origen, and in the United States, it’s American Viticultural Area (AVA)."  The only appellation systems in Canada are currently in Ontario and British Columbia. These wines carry the VQA symbol, for Vintners Quality Alliance.

A more strict appellation system, suggests Zacharkiw, would help wine consumers wade through the overwhelming options now found in any given wine section. Instead of gimmicks like weird bottles or cartoonish labels, winemakers can set themselves apart by claiming a stronger sense of grape-in-place, so to speak, as each appellation has within it sub-appellations. Communicating this would help novice wine enthusiasts learn more about regional differences.

Of course, this probably matters much more to people who really care about wine. I'm not one of those people. Distinguishing one winemaker's hint of limestone from another's overtone of basalt is not a gift I have. It's important, to be sure, but the professionals and the wine snobs can have it. Just pair it well, serve it up, and simple folks like me are satisfied.

14 November 2011

Productive Dissertating

What better way than eating leftover chile rellenos, chicken burrito, and refried beans to procrastinate disseration work? Oh, there's also laundry that needs to be done and yesterday's New York Times to page through. Thelonious Monk is on the turntable. I'm home alone. There are long days ahead for the rest of the week. Might as well write a blog post! Brilliant. This dissertation is going to be gooood.

Why not write? If you don't really want to be a writer, or at least make your living around words (or art or music) one way or another, then it's fairly likely you're not a friend of mine.

I was talking to someone recently who had given up an apparent 'dream job' of running the creative writing department at a small college in Vermont. She quit because she wanted to be a "writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes." Administrators also made it 'easy' for her to quit, she said, by providing no health insurance, no tenure track possibilities, and pretty much nothing else in terms of benefits. So she spent a year laying the groundwork for other opportunities and finally took the leap. It's a leap so many dream of taking yet fear life outside of the security of familiarity and steady income. We opt for security and relative certainty rather than whatever it is 'out there' that seems so scary. I've taken a leap once or twice, but it is intimidating. That said, it's also well worth while.

Writing essays seems like fun. In it, there is reporting and writing, sort of like journalism. But closer, perhaps, to creative nonfiction. In reading a Q&A with essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan today in The Economist's Prospero blog, I was struck by a few things. Those things aside, the part that makes it relevant to The Topophilian is in his answer to the last question, in which he discusses being uprooted at the age of 13 and moved from 'the south' to Ohio:

Displacement rips something you take for granted—your connection to a place—out of the natural sphere and places it into the abstract, self-conscious sphere, where it becomes something that has to be thought about.

There are days when I feel like the Southern identity is all just a bunch of self-serving bullshit that hasn't meant anything in 150 years, but there are also days when I think there's something to it. People speculate that it has to do with historical consciousness, which is probably right. It has to do with the sheer power that comes with marginalisation. A sense of otherness throws your life into a certain relief. People in the south are sensitised to these questions.

This sense of identity and otherness that Sullivan talks about, the sense of self set against other influential beings around us, highlights many juxtapositions for most people trying to figure out unfamiliar surroundings. Sullivan goes on to talk a bit about his nearly "pathological sensitivity" to geographical landscapes and then uses two well-known examples of what one could consider place-based literature to tie together notions of identity, place, writing, and the landscape:

Look at Hemingway's Michigan stories and Faulkner's Mississippi stuff. Nobody could say that Hemingway's writing about Michigan isn't dripping with a sense of place—that it isn't observant; that the attention paid to place there isn't deep. The difference is that Hemingway's real interest lies with the characters. They happen to move against the backdrop of a natural world that's very finely observed, but it’s not a part of their character. In Faulkner, the landscape is the main character. You get the feeling that he's writing about a wounded landscape. 

Oops. Monk needs to be flipped over. The laundry is not quite finished. There are dishes to be washed.... Dissertation work is so productive!

05 November 2011

Let Me Throw An Apple At Ya

Arcadia Books & Cafe, Spring Green, WI
I just played a few folk songs out in beautiful Spring Green, WI, in support of my author friend Alex Bledsoe. Alex was giving a reading for his new book The Hum and The Shiver, which refers to a bunch of great old folk songs in its storyline. The mixture of music and story brought out the idea, yet again, of how intimately these are connected. Music is story. Story, like music, has a certain arrangement that affords its greatest impact.

"We all carry a landscape within us," said Bruce Springsteen last year (11.15.10) in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. I very much agree. "I felt like my own identity was rooted in that sense of place," The Boss continued. Music has been such a rich way to convey place and historical time, as much of Springsteen's music shows. Many great artists are rooted in a landscape of place. Think of Gauguin in Tahiti, or Remington's Old West. Of course, Lou Reed's New York City, and the many laureates of Texas, of which Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and Willie Nelson are only but a few.

Spring Green, WI, is a great little artistic community on the banks of the mighty Wisconsin River along Highway 14 in southwestern Wisco. The reading took place at Arcadia Books which is one of the BEST INDEPENDENT BOOKSTOREs in the area. They're new. Very nice people serve up literature and what looked to be very delicious food, much of it locally sourced. They have good wines, local beers, and great ambiance.

My interests in 'sense of place,' both personally and professionally, align with other recent popular movements emphasizing "local" foods, beers, and many other non-big-box forms of economic support. It's part DIY zeitgeist, part awakening from the consumer culture malaise that has gripped the U.S. for the past 50 years. Here in Wisconsin, there has even been a little boom in local booze. Several new distilleries make spirits using regionally sourced ingredients. Yes, please! This theme, in my mind, connected me to Alex's work and his reading because The Hum and The Shiver is very rooted in the Smokey Mountain hollers of East Tennessee. That's Appalachian territory (say it with me: Appa-latch-ann, NOT App-a-lay-chin).

The music, the story, fantasy and history all combine, as they do in this melting pot of Americana, to bring out the best (and sometimes the worst) in people. Pride, jealousy, rumors, deceit - all that small minded stuff gets mixed up with altruism and heartfelt loving-kindness to offer up our modern conundrum of capitalist status quo balanced out by egalitarian social infrastructures. I just hope this modern love of local continues to flourish and turn this "get big or get out" mindset into more of a "get real, get sustainable" way of doing business. As we approach the upcoming holiday season, we can all do our part to catalyze this paradigm shift: Buy Local!

23 October 2011

A Little Riff on Hermeneutics

The Hermeneutic Circle
Hermeneutics is a process of interpretation. It is a translational, back-and-forth process between knower and known; between the self and the phenomena one is trying to understand. The more one knows of the external object (often a text of some sort), the more one can know of the self. The more one is able to fit the situated perspective of self – as the “I” who is interpreting the world in the here-and-now – into a contextualized historical perspective, the more one can envision the situated context of the writer of a text from the past. This iterative process is known as the hermeneutic circle, named for Hermes, the mythological messenger/interpreter of the gods.

The tradition of hermeneutic analysis extends far back into ancient philosophy. It is rooted in biblical philology. My focus here, however, is on modern hermeneutics through a non-theological lens. Thinkers one should consider in modern hermeneutics are, among others, Wilhelm Dilthey, the ontological turn of M. Heidegger, and the subsequent contributions of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas, and Paul Ricoeur. To focus on these thinkers should not deny the influence of others in this tradition such as Spinoza, Weber, Marx, Husserl, Wittgenstein, Schleiermacher, Apel or others. To be sure, this blog post is a very limited sample. For more on these thinkers, one good source is the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hans-Georg Gadamer
Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002) challenged some of his predecessors’ basic concepts in the field. A basic challenge he made is to the thinking of Schleiermacher. Until Gadamer, to a large degree, Enlightenment-informed ideals held that an autonomous subject (read: scientist) could successfully remove him or her self from the entanglements of history or the subjective context of the present moment. This is the myth of objectivity, rooted in Cartesian (that is to say, from Descartes) philosophy. Humans can't be so objective, Gadamer maintained. To separate the individual from the context of the world is to deny the full scope of whom or what that individual is about.

In Philosophical Hermeneutics, Gadamer addressed the scope of hermeneutical reflection and the development of phenomenology, existential philosophy, and philosophical hermeneutics. He pushed away from the rationalist and positivist stance of the natural sciences to develop a humanist approach to science. This takes the observer into consideration as part of the whole, not as a separate entity removed from influence. Gadamer expands on the work of Heidegger along with other historical relationships between semantics, aesthetics, and the nature our use of language to establish the interplay of meaning and understanding in the hermeneutic circle.

Language, Gadamer suggests, is the fundamental mode of operation for our being-in-the-world. Though modern post-humanists would take issue with Gadamer’s elevation of language as the singular mode of operation/understanding among humans, it does play a fundamental role for most humans in the development of meaning and social relations. A person trying to understand a text is, Gadamer suggests:

prepared for it to tell him something. That is why a hermeneutically trained mind must be, from the start, sensitive to the text’s newness. But this kind of sensitivity involves neither ‘neutrality’ in the matter of the object nor the extinction of one’s self, but the conscious assimilation of one’s own fore-meaning and prejudices. The important thing is to be aware of one’s own bias, so that the text may present itself in all its newness and thus be able to assert its own truth against one’s own fore-meanings (1975, p. 238).

This passage aptly describes much of what qualitative textual analysis is about. To not simply bracket one’s own biases absolutely, which is ultimately impossible, but to aim for an interpretation with a high degree of critical reflexivity.
Jurgen Habermas

A critical approach to the field of hermeneutic interpretation, initiated by JurgenHabermas (1929 - ), took issue with claims made by both Dilthey and Gadamer (among others). One major critique Habermas had was that Gadamer too easily accepted authority and its traditions
. This is untenable, Habermas suggests, as language is itself dependent on social processes which are more than can be summarized by linguistic acuity alone. Invoking a critical stance, Habermas suggested that “language is also a medium of domination and social force. It serves to legitimate relations of organized power….language is also ideological” (Thompson, 1981, p. 82). 
As a dialectical social science, the critical hermeneutics of Habermas have attempted to balance the objectivity of historical processes with the motives of those forces acting within that process (Bleicher, 1980). In later works, Habermas would develop a version of the hermeneutic circle with his theory of communicative action.

If you've read this post to this point, congratulations! You're likely one of the few. It should go without saying that the above is but a very, very small slice of what hermeneutics or the philosophies of Gadamer or Habermas are about. A tasty morsel, perhaps, tempting your intellectual taste-buds, and leave you hungry for more. 


Bleicher, Josef. (1980). Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as method, philosophy and critique. Routledge & Kegen Paul, New York, NY.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1975). Hermeneutics and Social Science. Cultural Hermeneutics, 2(4).

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. (1976). Philosophical Hermeneutics. University of California Press, Ltd., London, England. 

Habermas, Jurgen. (1970). Zur Logik der Sozialwissenschaften (The Logic of the Social Sciences; originally, 1967) Suhrkamp, Frankfurt, Germany. 

Thompson, J.B. (1981). Critical Hermeneutics: A study in the thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY.

20 October 2011

Driftless Diggings

Foggy confluence of the Wisconsin & Mississippi Rivers
One region that has always been special to me surrounds the Upper Mississippi River through bits of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. It's the Driftless Zone. Up, down and across its many coulees and ridge lines are many small towns, scenic views, and self-reliant folks. There are big city ex-pats, blue collar intellectuals, plenty of avid outdoor-enthusiasts, and plenty of rednecks to go around. It's a healthy dose of heartland America with little in the way of racial diversity but enough socially constructed differences to keep the Minnesotans and the Wisconsinites busy complaining about each other for decades. And let's not forget the FIBS Let's just not talk about the FIBS.

A blog I ran across through work today, Digging in the Driftless, highlights one family's efforts to carve out a little Driftlessness of their own. They work in the forest products sector and seem to have a nice creative vision. I look forward to checking in on their continued progress over time. Their love of 'place' is obvious and one I share.

Another blog that highlights the same area but from a culinary angle is Driftless Appetite. For anyone interested in the varied flavors wafting their way up and down the Great River Road (and points east and west), I recommend it.

As I come across other bloggers focused on this area I will highlight them as well. Feel free to make suggestions!

11 October 2011

A Call for "Sense of Place" Photography.

An artist out in California, Ilah Rose Cookston, recently put out a call for any photographs taken of ‘A Sense of Place.' This generic call exemplifies the conceptual looseness of this phrase, which I find alternately interesting and disconcerting. But I thought I would amplify the call by re-posting it here even though this is a new blog and, as far as I can tell, only about four people might read it.

The artist, who I do not know in any way (thanks Google Alerts!), is not interested in any particular quality of photograph. "Even blurry photographs are welcome," she writes.  The photographs might be used on her site.
If you send an image, include your name and a date for the photo.
Email to Ilah Rose Cookston:  ilahsart @ aol .com

08 October 2011

Where You're At Is Where You've Been

Place-identity was a brought up in the previous post and I'd like to expand on it here. As with identity in any context, it is a 'heterogeneous assemblage' of layers and flows. That is to say, the external 'one' that others see has multiple internal and subconscious influences and interactions going on. From cradle to grave, it is a process of change. In terms of the social-psychology of 'place,' it is often thought of, along with place-dependence, as a building block of place-attachment. The concept of place-identity represents the importance of physical surroundings in the ongoing construction of one's conscious (and unconscious) sense of self.

Research on place-identity suggests that our relationships with the environment are more complex than simply living in it. Proshansky, way back in 1978, suggested that place-identity adds an element of meaning and purpose to life by characterizing places as sources of personal identification and affiliation. 

It has also been suggested that all aspects of one's identity, more or less, have place-related associations
. One can think of 'place' as both social placement and in spatial geographic terms. As such, one’s social or personal identity grows through exposure to particular facets of a geographic area as well as the personal and social interactions occurring there.

The landscape of the external world, at least in part, is also reflected in the ever-changing neural landscape of the brain. French neuroscientist Catherine Malabou, in her 2008 book What Should We Do with Our Brain?, suggests that identity is dialectical in nature. This is to say, it has an element of 'plasticity' and is constantly 'becoming' through experience in the world and communication with others. 

I'm certainly no neuroscientist, but it makes sense to think of the formation and (re)formation of neural networks as informing the mind’s development through conceptions of self and sociocultural relations with the external world
. As a philosopher at the cutting edge of critical social theory, Malabou suggests the brain and, by extension, the mind, with its inherent and multiplicitous senses of self, are caught in tensions between constancy and creation. This affective sturm-und-drang at the edges of semantic availability are social construction in process. We are our synapses, Malabou suggests, and consciousness is nothing less than how the owner of “the movie-in-the-brain” emerges within the epic self-produced biopic of Life.

To look at it in another way; in our increasingly networked and 'virtual' society it may seem that we shrink into individualistic tele-cocoons with an influx of information increasingly sculpted to fit our preconceived beliefs and values. These cocoons might not be the solipsistic trappings of a leading role in the movie-in-the-brain, the droll romantic comedy of self, but the confluence of external yet highly personalized media networks.
Castells, in his 2009 book Communication Power, suggests just this. People, according to Castells, do not necessarily “withdraw into the isolation of virtual reality.” Instead, by using the modern wealth of communication networks, people selectively expand their sociability. Further, suggests Castells - a communications professor at UCLA, constructing a world in terms of projects and dispositions, people also modify that world according to the ongoing social, yet often highly mediated and sometimes virtual, construction of personal interests and values. In this way, identity development through such symbolic interaction occurs across many planes, in places both very real and hyper-mediated, from the immediate and embodied to the distanced and virtual by virtue of the Network Society.

Identity formation occurs between people as much as within the self and it is the result of contact with different people and places over time. Language then becomes the “force that binds people to places,” as Yi-Fu Tuan has written. Similar to Cantrill & Senecah’s development of the 'sense of self-in-place' construct;
Dixon & Durrheim suggest that it is through language that “everyday experiences of self-in-place form and mutate” and it is through language that “places themselves are imaginatively constituted” in ways that have repercussions for ‘who we are’ and/or ‘who we claim to be.’ Relocating place-identity from the “vault of the mind” and plunging it back into “the flux of human dialogue;” researchers Dixon & Durrheim suggest a discursive approach to studying place-identity. In this way, identity is something people create together through communication. In this sense it is a social construction rooted in connection with places and other beings associated with those places. Such identification can also become motivational when attempting to prod individuals toward environmentally protective behaviors in as much as when one identifies with a place, he or she is more likely to act in protective ways to help preserve that place.

05 October 2011

Home and the Art of Self Invention

Home has many connotations. Traditionally, of course, it is where the heart is. For some of us, it is also where the art is.  Increasingly, it is someplace between the real and the virtual, as tech writer Aleks Krotoski of The Guardian recently noted in her column Home: how the internet has changed our concept of what home is.

Her insights were brought about through a graduate course in Environmental Psychology. It is a broad field, as Krotoski suggests, and covers much in the way of how humans relate to nature. The research investigates ways in which our surroundings influence who we (think we) are and the places that we love. This is the conceptual territory of place-identity and place-attachment, respectively. These are affective things, that is to say, fluid and ever changing, these identities and attachments. They exist as moving targets, flows, and, in the main, exist in the psyche. As such they exemplify a degree of plasticity in our brains that is constantly folding over on itself and reestablishing a sense of self in place, as the communications scholar James Cantrill (at Northern Michigan U) might suggest.

For Krotoski, these notions became evident in a course that "sought to understand how spaces become places because of how they are laid out."  In this way, as a sub-field of what is also sometimes called ecopsychology, social science researchers spend a lot of time investigating, as Krotoski says, "how houses become homes because of the amount of ourselves we put into them."

We often define ourselves by what we see around us. We live in a certain neighborhood, a particular type of house, we decorate in a specific style (well, not all of us). But the labels that are used to define these surroundings often then are used to define the people who adopt them.  We use such labels to simplify the multiplicitous world: I'm a west-sider. He lives in an Arts & Craft bungalow. She uses a Victorian theme with a dash of Americana. This becomes how we label ourselves and our sense of self often dictates how we arrange the spaces and places around us. It is a pinwheel of sensation and evaluation, action and reaction.

As it is with our physical surroundings, so it has become for our online environments.

The web has inspired a postmodern understanding of what "home" is, suggests Krotoski. Though she writes of the UK, I believe this can be generalized to the US as well, among a growing demographic from Boomers through Millenials. This postmodern sensibility is "a de-physicalised, conceptual and psychological phenomenon that externalises its invisible meanings," Krotoski writes.  Well put.  We design homepages. We create online identities. These often reflect our corporeal selves but don't necessarily always match up. The virtual is a sculpted version of our true self, and maybe closer to the self we want to be. Maybe an indication of future intent.

We can be more or less of who we've been or who we want to be by just changing an image or telling a tall-tale online. It is a flux, a flow, of identity creation.  We are both hyper connected and more free than ever to self-evolve and perpetually recreate.The impacts of this are speculative and will be fascinating to watch evolve through the lens of social science research.

28 September 2011

The Future of Maps

Mapping it out, old-school.
I like maps. Though I'm no cartographer, there's something about pouring over the details of a well-drawn map that I find irresistible. I've gotten lost in maps for hours. Having grabbed a back-issue of Backpacker magazine from the local library recently, I ran across this May, 2010, article on The Future of Maps and realized it was a perfect fit for mention on the Topophilian. Maps are going high-tech and interactive, but is citizen-sourced cartography reliable? Some top map-makers discuss this and more in the article.

Much of the discussion revolves around modern technology with acronyms like USGS, UTM, and of course GPS. Though technology adds new depth and dimension to old 2D versions, paper maps are not dead. Modern backpackers taking their high-tech gadgets into the wild often rely on paper maps in combo with GPS devices. As I read through the short group interview, I was struck by how technology has shaped, and is re-shaping, our collective sense of place regarding back-country adventure. It is mind-blowing.

Much of the early academic work on "place" stems from humanistic geography, looking at the conditions of rootedness and human relationships with land. One of the most conceptually and philosophically challenging courses I've taken was in the UW-Madison Department of Geography, where questions about the interface between people and places are still being unfolded on many fascinating levels.

But maps, back to maps. Still love 'em. In fact at Backpacker readers can create a custom topo for free as a trip planning tool or just for fun. If you're looking for me, that's where I'll be for a few hours.

25 September 2011

The power of narrative setting.

Australian writer and blogger Cally Jackson writes about the importance of setting in bringing out a story's deeper elements. Jackson, who lives in Brisbane, suggests that she strives to have her fictional locations feel so real that her readers "forget where they are and begin to see, hear and smell everything" her characters do.

I agree. This is profoundly important in creating well-rounded work. All the senses should be accounted for. Too often, perhaps, we get stuck in simply describing what things look like or what sounds surround. Taste is important. Touch and feeling such as temperature and textures should not be overlooked.

Good characters are embedded in social, geographic, and psychological territories that consist of overlapping boundaries. Bringing this out includes what ethnographer/anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call "thick description." 

As much as one's own identity is often bound up in the significant places one has been and those places one holds dear, so too must realistic fictional characters. Taking the time to lay out the setting, allowing it to become a character itself is worthwhile. Geertz displays this in his now-classic work "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight" [pdf] about a series of experiences he and his wife had in a Balinese village in early 1958.

Jackson, in commenting on some of her favorite Australian writers, suggests that they are successful, at least in part, because the "mood" of narrative locations "filters into every scene." Because of this, Jackson writes, "you feel as if you’re right there in the location with the characters. I find this to be true of good fiction, nonfiction, songwriting, and cinema as well. It is, at best, transcendent.

Just like Jackson, I to am curious about which writers bring you into a deeper sense of place. When does setting become its own character? How does identity shift over time by the places we love as they, too, change?

23 September 2011

Why are "places" special to you?

The last three posts here were very long and a little conceptually dense. This one will be short. There's not a lot of traffic on this blog but, if you stop by, please comment if you have the time.

What does "sense of place" means to you? 
What are some of your favorite places? 
Why does "place" matters in your life. 

To me, sense of place is a very broad term. Perhaps it is even too broad to garner any meaningful definition. Significant places for me are the Driftless Area of the Upper Mississippi River valley, the desert southwest, and other special places I've visited and thoroughly enjoyed such as Paris, western Germany, the Yucatan Peninsula, and northwestern Ontario.

The role of "place" in environmental communications - a fictitious formal talk, Part III

Part III of a fictitious talk I composed recently. The intended imaginary audience for this academic hoop-jumping exercise was environmental communications professionals (journalists, public affairs officers, etc.).  A version of this "talk" with embedded references/citations is available if you're interested in that level of detail.

There are three underlying aspects of place-based research
that can help to guide reporting in this framework. As much as all three of these assumptions can be present in the construction of a place-based narrative, it seems to me, the resonant power would be multiplied exponentially.

The first of these primary assumptions is place as “material form.” In other words, ground your story in the spatial-temporal context or setting within which people conduct the happenings of their daily lives. We must meet people “where they are” in terms of localized information and time-sensitive progress on environmental issues.  Second is a matter of scale. This can be addressed both socially and geographically. The story you tell is happening in the home, the town, the corn field, the watershed, the wind channel... wherever. It should be bounded in an abstraction of space somewhere between local and global. The place-based approach would, as one might guess, heavily emphasize the local connections people have to the places they care about most. Also, on a sociocultural scale, are you discussing individual perceptions, small group perceptions or macro-level assumptions about what a place is or could be or should or should not be? These levels of abstraction should be explicitly stated or otherwise made clear in the construction of any meaningful narrative. Lastly, there is the relational aspect of place. Who is connected to whom? This is the cognitive landscape of meaning-making that constitutes a fundamental way, as the influential geographer Sack once stated, “through which we make sense of the world and through which we act
." As a story is grounded in personal lived experience at an appropriately cast geographic scale, it must also take into account the social, historical, and cultural context surrounding the people and their environmental issues.

Aside from these three elements, I would also like to suggest tying stories to one or more of five general themes that have been teased out of the social science literature. These themes are related to the attachments people develop for places and may potentially constitute “ideal types” of sense of place categories
.  By suggesting that these are connected to place attachments and, as such, could be used as motivational devices for people to attend to place-based communications, I am saying that these themes have affective or emotional components that have been found common across many interview-based studies on place. To say they are motivational is to suggest that they are of human value and have been found to move people toward place-protective action on some level. What a person values is most often his or her self-interests, including those bound to where one lives and the more relevant a story can be to the self-interests of a target audience, the better.

Professor Patricia Stokowski of the University of Vermont has suggested these particular motivational categories. Stokowski’s approach to place–based research aligns with my own perspectives and interests and I encourage you to follow-up by seeking out her work at your convenience.

Places have been found to be meaningful, Stokowski suggests, because of past family heritage and history; current family connections to a piece of land; the connection to past memorable events; a sense of individual, personal, well-being in relation to proximity or time spent in a place; and the beauty of the place itself. Wrapping these subtexts either explicitly or implicitly into a narrative has the potential to create or elicit affective bonds to particular places, though not necessarily places in general. When developing a story rooted in particular places and the experiences of particular people, readers can more likely relate their own sensations of attachment and associations of meaning for a deeper connection and, one hopes, greater investment in the issue.

I would like to offer one other set of finding regarding strategic science communication. These were developed under the rubric of climate change communication strategies but I believe they are useful for stimulating thought on a broader range of topics as well. One other caveat; some of you may be independent journalists. Others of you work as representatives of news outlets or larger institutions. Whereas these next six suggests have been framed as useful for institutional representation I believe they are worth considering for any environmental communicator working today. Many citations support these assertions but they were compiled by staff working in the human dimensions of natural resources department at Colorado State University
. Please take a moment to consider the ways one could wrap these strategies in a place-oriented context and I believe you will walk away with some powerful tactics for engagement.

First, we need to move away from the “balanced coverage” approach which has led to a disproportionally large sense of scientific uncertainty regarding topics such as climate change. We need to represent more accurately, state more clearly, the levels of scientific agreement on controversial issues. Second, beware of fear-inducing messages. The boogie-man, and I’m not talking about John Lee Hooker here, can be good at raising awareness but can also discourage people from taking action if they develop a sense of hopelessness. Next, suggestions for behavior change must be rooted in a target audience’s values, beliefs, and attitudes regarding the behavior. Fourth, and I’ve alluded to this above, messages should appeal to both intellectual and emotional dimensions of thought. Fifth, and this is my favorite, messages have greater potential to be effective if they are connected to specific regions, communities, and locations. Lastly, there is no one-size-fits-all message. The ‘general audience’ does not exist. Know your particular audience. Effective outreach will require multiple communication strategies if you intend to impact diverse audience segments.

In conclusion, aside from considering some of the narrative elements and strategies I have suggested here today, I would like to urge you to continue thinking about your work as environmental communicators as a means to push beyond the status quo assumptions of what environmental communication “is.”

As we face what has been called a crisis of representation
in society today, it is part of our responsibility as thought leaders and potential agenda setters to question just how and why environmental communication can and should challenge some of the dominant societal paradigms surrounding environmental issues. I suspect that these conversations have been ongoing but I urge you to take a place-oriented framework in challenging some of the social and cultural norms that disenfranchise too many by avoiding talk about places that are not as immediately beautiful, and the biases and assumptions of the dominant culture that tends to ignore the experiences and needs of minority groups. Disenfranchised people are just as firmly embedded, sometimes all but trapped, by their circumstances of place. In order to weave a web of meaning that approaches the complexity of lived experience, we must approach place from the perspective of multiplicity, even questioning our own assumptions and biases, perhaps especially questioning our own assumptions. Through this, we can create communication which, in turn, facilitates understanding and motivates action across diverse communities and ever expanding social hierarchies.

In these times of great post-postmodern and post-structural flux, as sociologist Thomas Gieryn has suggested, “the jet, the ‘net, and the fast food outlet”
have added to a sense of placelessness for many people. Connections back to the corporeal physical and social landscapes that root meaning in individual experience can help combat the malaise of late modernity and help you, fellow writers, connect with your audience in what I hope are intellectually meaningful and emotionally satisfying ways.

Thank you for listening. Good night and good luck.

21 September 2011

The role of "place" in environmental communications - a fictitious formal talk, Part II

 Following from my last post, this is a continuation (Part II) of a fictitious formal talk I was asked to write one day.

Of the various aspects of place research, the realm of place meaning seems to have the most resonance with communications scholarship. Place meanings represent a distinctive yet highly fluid and ever-changing whole that includes the person, the environment, and the experience within a locale. Conversations and information exchange with others are the processes through which place meanings are shaped. One could consider meanings as akin to stories or narratives about places rather than simple descriptions of physical properties of a place. These are narratives as embodied descriptions, stories illuminating experience.

Simply put, meanings answer the question of “what kind of place is this?”
rather than a question of “how much” do I like (or dislike) this place. The question of “how much,” incidentally, gets us back into the psychometric territory of place-attachment. But today let us stick within the realm of meaning.

Many of you probably realize how personal connections to land come through in the stories that are told about meaningful places. These anecdotes convey something more than basic evaluative attitudes. Stories emphasize the relationship between a group or person and a place
and are often constructed through the use of metaphors. Manuel Castells, in his hefty tome Communication Power, refers to metaphor as the most important protocol of communication. Metaphors help define social roles within their respective social contexts. Again, I am sure this is something that many of you have understood intuitively. The significance of how and why people respond to both environmental beauty and environmental threat come through in the symbolic stories they tell about the places they love or the places they fear to lose. By extension, the stories you tell, which re-configure and re-contextualize those first-hand personal narratives into a broader narrative arc to convey meaning for your audience, are based upon the metaphor and symbolism inherent in the language used by your interview subjects.

As it happens, this process enacts two of my favorite philosophical lines of inquiry: hermeneutic phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. But we don’t need to go there. I digress.

Given the important translational role a journalist or public affairs person plays, one of telling a story as true to life as possible while wrapping it in the context of larger global happenings; environmental communicators can use place to root meaning in tangible, meaningful circumstances while creating emotional resonance through metaphorical imagery and, ultimately, stimulate dialogue about place protection and other acts of environmental courage.

As suggested above, one strong signal people provide regarding relationships with meaningful places is through stories. It is through personal narratives that memories develop and deeper relationships are often given voice
. Though the study of narratives has not been common in the analysis of recreation and natural resource place-making, they do offer a structure and coherence that I am sure you are all familiar with as a way to communicate complex or controversial ideas to a general audience. They can also be helpful for communicating to a scientific audience, for what it’s worth. But I would like to relay a few “master narratives” that have been suggested as potentially fruitful for revealing place meanings in recreational areas. These narratives can also be employed outside of the recreation management domain. Such themes include stories of personal change or revelation, discussions of spirituality, action stories, stories centered on heroic acts, travelogues, and tales about overcoming adversity within the wilderness milieu. These stories have the potential to elicit a range of meanings about land and resources use, ownership and rights, resource protection or preservation, personal identity and/or group identity, reverence or a sense of awe, and heroism, among others.

Places, remember, are not simply the physical surroundings of space. Places are created through communication and can be seen as internalized and creative social productions that develop meaning in the telling
. As such, a personal sense of place is built upon a foundational and situated self-concept that itself is a product of discourse and experience. It is informed by concepts of the self and self-in-place as influenced by social norms and the ongoing social influence of those we turn to for information and advice. In relaying basic themes reflecting people’s placed-based identifications related to where they live, what they value, and how they situate themselves in the larger environment, strategic environmental communication supplies the cognitive cornerstone for people to engage in environmental advocacy on many levels. 

When sense of place is strong, it has been found useful in explaining people’s outlooks, perceptions, behavioral beliefs, capacity building, and political activity. Meanings held for particular places, as I’ve suggested, come forward through this context. These meanings are located geographically; simultaneously related to their social, economic, and cultural surroundings and give individuals what’s been called a ‘subjective territorial identity,' an ‘environmental self,’ or what influential researcher James Cantrill has termed, a ‘sense of self-in-place.'

The way people perceive their surroundings colors how, or if, they pay attention to communication about that environment. These are mental frameworks, or schema, we all use to help configure our own understanding of the world. An entire line of social science inquiry has been built around the effectiveness of framing arguments in relation to commonly held mental models or schematic interpretations of the socio-political world. Again, “framing” may be something many of you do already without calling it such. Framing is not a topic I will delve into here but suffice it to say that it is a fruitful and promising rhetorical device. It is also a powerful path to engagement given the multiplicitous media environment of today, when every story attempts to gain necessary traction through resonance with its target audience amid the din of the 24/7 newstainment industry.

Arguments that directly address personal environmental identities or self-interests, those that are place-based or “backyard” issues, are likely to be most persuasive whether it is in a policy debate or a light-hearted conversation at the local diner. Communication is likely to be more effective if it is grounded in some understanding of the extent to which people’s place-based identities are generally associated with, for example, particular critical habitats or protected or at-risk species
. For topics as diffuse and seemingly distant from many American’s daily concerns as climate change, clear simple metaphors and imagery that resonates with established schema, and framed in a way to entice more elaborate processing, will be helpful for generating understanding among audiences unfamiliar with a given topic.

19 September 2011

The role of "place" in environmental communications - a fictitious formal talk, Part I.

As an academic hoop-jumping exercise, I was recently I was asked to develop a (fictitious) formal talk about the importance of “sense of place” in communication strategies for an audience of professional (but non-academic) environmental communicators. 

This is much, much longer than I would normally put on a blog post so I have broken it into three parts. I use a bit of humor and, perhaps, a bit too much 'stuffy' academic language but I tried to walk that tightrope as best I could. The whole thing was written within one eight-hour time span while locked in a room with no food or water.  I've left it more-or-less as-is, minus a lot of citations/references. **Disclaimer** I actually did have food and water, and the door wasn't really locked.

Here is Part I of my fictitious formal talk on the role of "place" in environmental communications. 

Hello and thank you for inviting me to speak here today. It is an honor and a joy to be afforded such an opportunity to talk about a topic that I enjoy so much. Please, please, hold your applause. No, really, have a seat. Please, that’s enough. Thank you.

What I will talk about today is the potential role for “place” in environmental communication. Broadly speaking, this is an area of social science research that is often referred to as “sense of place” research. It has seen a tremendous amount of research activity in the past several decades. I think you will find that unwittingly, or perhaps consciously, you have been using place-based strategies in your writing already. It makes perfect sense. Place is inherent in most if not all environmental communication. It is the social and physical environment, the natural biological and human-influenced world, that we write about in our columns and articles, our blog posts and podcasts. But you are here because you’re curious. There is a large, often contradictory, field of research regarding place and its various conceptual permutations.
The underlying assumption in a lot of environmental communication research is that people’s relationships to particular places are made meaningful through the discursive practices invoking those places. We talk about our lives to develop understanding, to know where we stand regarding the places that we love or, in some cases, the places we fear. If you’ll allow me just one aphorism, one that seems particularly apt when discussing the notions of place and its influence on our perceptions of the wide world, it is Miles’ Law: Where you stand depends on where you sit

How we see the world, how we relate our ever-changing internal élan vital to the equally ever-changing external complexities of modern life, depends on where we root ourselves, where we are emplaced. It depends on where we set bare feet on meaningful ground, the fertile soil, of identity and fulfillment. And it is not only this way for us in an air-conditioned conference room overlooking these beautiful red rock cliffs here in north central New Mexico. It is this way for everybody. Your audience also lives in these terms. It is unlikely, however, that they think in these terms. That is your job, our job. To connect. To empower through place. We help people realize their connections to the wider world. We change people’s thinking. We educate. If we’re really good, we change behaviors. We help save the planet, one backyard story at a time.
As I said, this is the focus of my talk here today: the importance of place in communication about environmental issues.  What is environmental communication if it is not place-based narrative? I will discuss first some of the background and admittedly murky conceptual territory in the ever-expanding field of place-based social science research. After we get a bearing on the basics I will provide some evidence of how place is thought to influence perceptions of the environmental itself. Finally I will offer some advice on how to incorporate place into narratives about the environment although, as I think you will find, many of you probably do this intuitively already. It is my hope then that this advice then will help guide your reporting and writing toward a more conscious application of place-based strategies.

To be sure, there are social science researchers who could spend an entire conference discussing the complex relationships between people and their environments. In fact, it happens with some regularity. This is not the task at hand, however. What I would like to provide is a brief overview of some primary concepts related to sense of place research. If you would like a more in-depth look, but one that is still accessible for people outside of academia, I suggest Trentelman’s recent (2009) article comparing the similar concepts of place attachment to community attachment from the vantage point of a community sociologist. If you are interested in the more philosophical roots of the topic, I suggest Williams’ chapter (2008) on the pluralities of place as it covers basic current theories, concepts, and philosophies in this arena. It is written primarily for natural resource managers but I believe you may still find it useful. References to these and other primary texts are found among the literature at the back of the room. Please help yourself.

Philosophers, visual artists, writers, songwriters, poets, and politicians have long recognized the emotional, affective, sociocultural, and spiritual aspects of place. These wide-ranging endeavors often get subsumed under the umbrella term “sense of place.” Research on sense of place has blossomed into a tremendous social scientific bloom ever since Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977) first planted the seed among phenomenological researchers and humanistic geographers. Place research now involves multiple research traditions such as environmental psychology, sociology, humanistic geography, and phenomenology of landscapes. The use of place as a communications device has more recently been developed in the work of Cantrill and colleagues and will be part of what I discuss here today.

emphasized the importance of living in a place, engaging in the “multifaceted phenomenon of experience,” in order to facilitate a sense of attachment. Space is said to become ‘place’ as community attachments deepen through local social networks and as personal meanings emerge in the context of a particular locale. Senses of place are based on symbolic meanings attributed to a setting and, as Stedman writes, “…it is possible for a single space to encompass multiple 'places,' reflecting the uniqueness of human culture and variations in experiences people have had with the landscape.” This perspective proves true if one were to conceive of a real-estate speculator, a rancher, an off-road vehicle enthusiast, and an earth-worm loving environmentalist standing in the middle of the same virgin meadow. All four would likely come to see the land as having quite different meanings and potential future uses.

Two of the most common notions within “sense of place” research are place attachment and place meaning. Though many researchers have used these terms interchangeably, place meanings generally represent the symbolic and evaluative beliefs which provide cognitive order for the physical world of the individual observer
. Place attachment is generally described as an emotional bond, usually positive, that develops between people and the significant places in their lives. There are other theoretical and methodological elements of place research, including concepts such as place-dependence and questions of whether research should be pursued from a constructionist or positivist framework, but these are largely beyond the rather pragmatic scope of our confab today.