04 December 2013

The Here and There of Life in a Mobile Nation

There is Room for Debate over at the New York Times. The current topic is Life in a Mobile Nation. The central question asks "If people relocate over and over, because they can afford to or because they can't afford not to, how does that change civic life?"

Author Alan Ehrenhalt suggests that "a successful community isn’t one that caters to a particular age group; it’s one that offers every age group a chance at satisfaction." People want sociability above all else, Ehrenhalt writes, defining sociability as "the opportunity to establish friendships and casual acquaintances that protect against isolation in ordinary life."

In another segment, Syracuse University law professor Kevin Noble Maillard argues that innovations in communication technology do not necessarily mean family and place bonds are evaporating like so many #hashtags in the Twittersphere.

"The modern change of pace and place does not mean that families are suffering," writes Maillard. Modern media, he argues, provide "opportunities for people to form new ties and create new, chosen bonds in addition to and alongside the ones in which they were born. It gives people options for living, rather than mandates for cohesion. Modern mobility doesn’t isolate people. It makes them more social."

Stability, Maillard argues, is a relative term and shouldn't be used as a synonym for well-being. Ehrenhalt suggests that serial relocation is "an insidious ideal" while Maillard suggests that mobility can suit certain families just fine and that "length at present address" should not be "the defining trait of domestic stability."

From Europe to China to the good old USA, definitions of stability, purpose, and well-being are on the move. Welcome to Life in a Mobile (Global) Nation.

13 November 2013

Questioning the "Red Dirt" curriculum.

Australian educators go Back to the Drawing Board, asking whether a "red dirt" curriculum offers rural students "a greater sense of self worth, purpose, meaning and sense of place."

11 October 2013

Commonomics: Building Strong Local Economies for Everyone

YES! Magazine's new series, Commonomics, focuses on the local. As a collaboration between YES! and GRITtv, the series invokes Wendell Berry's vision of economy: "I mean not economics but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth; the arts of adapting kindly the many, many human households to the earth's many ecosystems and human neighborhoods.

Commonomics looks to challenge the status quo approach to modern life, where capitalism and convenience rank above all else. Where the ends ($$$) justify the means.

Building strong local communities means building resilience in the face of an increasingly homogeneous culture of business nationwide. Resilience builds up economic, environmental and social sustainability from individuals to groups to communities.

In my old hometown, for example, I see that a Dollar General store is going up.  For the profit of very few, if any, in this small farming community people will be able to purchase cheap imported goods with more convenience than ever. It's a terrible idea. Why not encourage people to either buy their cheap foreign imports from existing local stores or, better yet, urge those same local stores to find better, more sustainable, American made products?

Some of the biggest "patriots" I know shop at Wal-Mart and other stores that reap huge profits by trading in cheap, disposable foreign imports. Commonomics, hosted by Laura Flanders (@GRITlaura on Twitter), challenges the notions of what's become normal by highlighting communities choosing to go a different route, choosing to actively create a new normal, a sustainable future starting now.

07 October 2013

Citizen Voices Matter Campaign Kickoff in Madison

Midwest Environmental Advocates is offering a sneak peek of Citizen Voices Matter, a social media campaign on frac sand and iron mining in Wisconsin.

When: Thursday, October 10
5:30 - 7:30 p.m. Film screening at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Marigold Kitchen
118 S. Pinckney St. Madison, WI 53703

#CitizenVoicesMatter or @MidwestAdvocate on Twitter

23 September 2013

"All over the world, smart citizens take action."

From the smart folks at the Waag Society - institutue of art, science & technology...

 Excerpt from A Manifesto for Smart Citizens...

Smart Citizens:

 •Will take responsibility for the place they live, work and love in;
 •Value access over ownership, contribution over power;
 •Will ask forgiveness, not permission;
 •Know where they can get the tools, knowledge and support they need;
 •Value empathy, dialogue and trust; •Appropriate technology, rather than accept it as is;
 •Will help the people that struggle with smart stuff;
 •Ask questions, then more questions, before they come up with answers;
 •Actively take part in design efforts to come up with better solutions;
 •Work agile, prototype early, test quickly and know when to start over;
 •Will not stop in the face of seemingly huge boundaries/barriers;
 •Unremittingly share their knowledge and their learning, because they know this is where true value comes from.

EPA's Village Green prototype

The EPA's "Village Green" project aims to "increase air pollution monitoring capabilities in communities" in order to provide "real-time air pollution measurements at lower cost and maintenance." 

Data arrives minute-by-minute from a prototype solar-powered air pollution monitor located near the Durham County Library South Regional Branch in Durham, North Carolina.

National proliferation of such localized metrics would allow for communities to better understand their unique impacts and the benefits of clean air for all.

06 September 2013

Some Terms from Human Geography and Social Science

Just a few terms from the Dictionary of Human Geography and the Online Dictionary of Social Sciences. Words in all caps indicate terms that are found elsewhere in that particular dictionary. References are not provided here for work cited in the dictionary's entry (e.g., Giddens, Thrift, Cooley, Meade).

Abduction: A form of reasoning that takes accepted knowledge and infers the 'best available' explanations for what is observed. Whereas DEDUCTION formally infers the consequences of a cause-and-effect relationship (if a, then b), and INDUCTION infers a conclusion from a number of observations (of the same pattern, for example), abductive reasoning infers relationships from observations rather than asserting them. It thus presents a 'provisional' account for what has been observed (for why a is related to b), either inviting further empirical investigation that might sustain the 'explanation' or encouraging deductive work that might put the putative causal chain on a former footing. (from Dictionary of Human Geography, 5th ed.)

Locale: A setting or context for social interaction, typically involving co-present actors. In STRUCTURATION THEORY (Giddens, 1979, 1984), locales provide the resources on which actors draw. Different kinds of collectives are associated with characteristic locales (Giddens, 1981, p. 39): the locale of the school is the classroom; that of the army, the barracks; and so on. Despite his emphasis on co-presence, Giddens (1984, p. 118) also suggests that locales may range 'from a room in a house... to the territorially demarcated areas occupied by nation states': as Thrift (1983) emphasizes, 'a locale does not have to be local'. (from Dictionary of Human Geography, 5th ed.)

Looking Glass Self:  Developed by C.H. Cooley (1864-1929) to describe the social nature of the self and the link between society and individual. In this formulation social interaction is like a mirror, it allows us to see ourselves as others see us. This was an early formulation of symbolic interactionism but less influential than that of George Herbert Mead. (from Online Dictionary of Social Sciences)

Pluralism: Has three principal meanings in the social sciences. First, it is a model of politics where power is assumed to be widely dispersed to different individuals and interest groups within a society thus ensuring that political processes will be relatively open and democratic and will reflect a spectrum of social interests rather than the domination of particular groups. Second, it describes a society where individual and group differences are present and are celebrated as enriching the social fabric. Canada's policy of multiculturalism reflects pluralist values. Third, it is a view of the causation of social phenomena, especially of social change, that examines the interaction of a variety of factors rather than relying on a single explanatory cause. For example, Max Weber in stressing the importance of cultural as well as material forces in creating change within a society offers a more pluralistic framework for explanation than the more exclusively materialist approach of Marx. (from Online Dictionary of Social Sciences)

Symbolic Interactionism: A sociological perspective that stresses the way societies are created through the interactions of individuals. Unlike both the consensus (structural functionalist) and conflict perspectives, it does not stress the idea of a social system possessing structure and regularity, but focuses on the way that individuals, through their interpretations of social situations and behavioural negotiation with others, give meaning to social interaction. George H. Mead (1863-1931), a founder of symbolic interactionism, saw interaction as creating and recreating the patterns and structures that bring society to life, but more recently there has been a tendency to argue that society has no objective reality aside from individual interaction. This latter view has been criticized for ignoring the role of culture and social structure in giving shape, direction and meaning to social interaction. (from Online Dictionary of Social Sciences).

05 September 2013

Perspectives on place are subject to change

Sense of place varies from person to person and group to group. This should go without saying. But it's worth remembering that place meanings are dynamic, contested, and subject to change over time. What one group values highly another may not care about at all.

Epistemological pluralism is one way to describe it. But there's a lot of syllables in them there words. Another way to think of it is in terms of Mile's Law: Where you stand depends on where you sit.

The ways in which one person or group values something is deeply entwined with history and cultural perspective.

A story from Indian Country Today media network demonstrates this. It shines a light on an icon most Americans take for granted: Mount Rushmore. Before it was the powerfully symbolic Mount Rushmore it was the powerfully symbolic Six Grandfathers. What was once revered by the Sioux has since been desecrated and turned into something that is currently revered by most Americans.

And, someday, it will change again.

15 August 2013

Describing "Christ Riding a Donkey, ca. 1450"

     Standing at the center of Brittingham Gallery II in the Chazen Museum of Art is a wood sculpture, a palmesel, titled “Christ Riding a Donkey, ca. 1450.” The artist is unknown.
     Its unrefined hew and tattered polychrome finish display the vintage patina that every modern “Welcome To The Cabin” sign strives for. It is 58 inches long and 62 inches tall, about 3/4 life size. The donkey is dark grey and the Christus’ robe is blood-on-brick red with gold around the neck.
Palmesels were designed to ride atop a wheeled cart in a Palm Sunday processional. Once a year, they would depict Christ’s triumphant ride into Jerusalem. They were relatively common in Western Central Europe before the Protestant Reformation, the Late Gothic period, after which they were banned. Many were destroyed. This simple yet intriguing piece is a rare find as only a few dozen exist throughout the world.
Professor Frank Horlbeck of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) analyzed this figure along with fourteen others from around the world. It was brought to the UW museum in 1977 after having been purchased in London and examined in Rome. The subtitle on the label at the time said only “Austrian, fifteenth century.”
Horlbeck determined that the wooden sculpture had its provenance in Tyrol and was possibly from the workshop of Master Leonhard Brixon, which flourished from 1440 to 1476. The actual identity of the artist will never be known. A project such as this, probably for a medium sized church, would have been assigned to an apprentice woodworker. 
In the 1977-78 Elvehjem Bulletin Horlbeck wrote that although this piece has some of the markings that are consistent with Brixon’s work, it was most certainly not created by the Master himself. The Christ figure, Horlbeck notes, has an expression that is “at once pensive and kindly.” 
Looking directly at the face, the gaze stares blankly, slightly to its left. It is a look of recognition, without specific adoration, as if Judas was there and trouble was in the air. 
The donkey’s head, back, and rump create a perfect horizontal plane. Its ears stick straight up about eight inches, as if listening its way through the crowd. The eyes scan the nearby ground. This beast of holy burden looks like it has led a life of work. Hard work.  As if thinking “If this guy could really walk on water, he should be lighter.”
Thin striations of paint in various regions can be seen on the torso and parts of the donkey’s hindquarters. The robe drapes across and down the entire body. Full covering of the body is typical of Gothic period sculpture. Exposed are long, slender fingers and toes.
On top, the golden crown looks to be missing what could have been small spires or even jewels. But jewels would be too much for this simple piece. Christ’s hair and beard are composed of thickly carved strands. The hair feathers back, flowing from beneath the crown like thick brown cornrows. Sampson could only have be so lucky.
The rider’s left hand would have held leather reigns, now missing. Nails in the donkey’s head show where bridle straps had been affixed. The right hand is bent at the elbow and two fingers are raised in a peace sign. This configuration, a sign of blessing and a hand that guides, is consistent among most, if not all, palmesels.
Simple beauty, deep history, and what could be described as “folk art” style coalesce in this charming piece of pre-Renaissance iconography. Having wound its way from Western Central Europe to Midwestern America over the centuries is an impressive journey. It will no doubt continue to be appreciated by many, rejected by a few, and perhaps inspire many more artists for yet another 550 years.

07 August 2013

Inhabited Landscapes on display

For Madison locals interested in artistic representations of humanity's relationship with the Wisconsin landscape -- beautiful black bears dusted with snowfall amid a curtain of pine boughs and birch trees, etc. --

The Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters is hosting what looks to be a great show called Inhabited Landscapes at the Overture Center's Watrous Gallery, Sept. 10 - Oct. 27, 2013.

"The work in Inhabited Landscapes goes beyond the decorative or the descriptive, asking the viewer to enter the artists’ interpretations of our place in nature."

Paintings, drawings, and prints will be displayed by seven talented Wisco artists. An opening reception is scheduled for Sept. 15 from 2-5pm. Two different gallery talks are also scheduled: Charles Munch and John Miller (Oct. 4, 5:30 pm) and Tom Uttech (Oct. 9, 1:30pm).

See you there.

17 July 2013

John Dewey on Temporary Disorder and the Vogue of Immediacy.

I found a paperback 1958 printing of John Dewey's Art as Experience (1934) on the library sale shelf for fifty cents. This passage jumped out at me as I thumbed through it this afternoon:

"The live creature demands order in his living but he also demands novelty. Confusion is displeasing but so is ennui. The "touch of disorder" that lends charm to a regular scene is disorderly from some external standard. From the standpoint of actual experience it adds emphasis, distinction, as long as it does not prevent a cumulative carrying forward from one part to another. If it were experienced as disorder it would produce unresolved clash and be displeasing. A temporary disorder, on the other hand, may be the factor of resistance that summons up energy to proceed the more actively and triumphantly. Only persons who have been spoiled in early life like things always soft; persons of vigor who prefer to live and who are not contented with subsisting find the too easy repulsive. The difficult becomes objectionable only when instead of challenging energy it overwhelms and blocks it. Some esthetic [sic] products have an immediate vogue; they are the "best sellers" of their day. They are "easy" and thus make a quick appeal; their popularity calls out imitators, and they set the fashion in plays or novels or songs for a time. But their very ready assimilation into experience exhausts them quickly; no new stimulus is derived from them. They have their day -- and only a day."

From Chapter VIII, "The Organization of Energies," page 167.

15 July 2013

Gifted or Not, The Poetry of Place

From Wallace Stegner's The Sense of Place:

"No place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we will call poetry. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place-loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own."

See there? It says gifted or not. Anyone can do it. All of us, by invoking the places that we love, can produce the poetry borne of that love. Let it seep. Let it heave. Give it graciously to everyone. Emplace yourself in the language of that love, in the geography of that emotion. Give yourself over to the poetry of your favorite places. Big, small, or otherwise. If it's special, let us know.

10 July 2013

Discovering a Sense of Place

Invoking Wendell Berry, (“if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are"), and including readings by many others (e.g., Wallace Stegner, Mary Pipher, Aldo Leopold, Daniel Coleman, Scott Russell Sanders, Susan Cerulean, etc.), the Northwest Earth Institute offers a "Discovering Sense of Place" online course.

It looks like over 11,600 people have taken the course. Other topics include voluntary simplicity, addressing climate change, sustainable systems at work, etc.

Any Topophilian readers ever taken a NEI course?

09 July 2013

Of Horses and Men (and Women)

"The outside of a horse brings out the best of the inside of a man."

These wise words were spoken by my dad's cousin's wife's father, a man I've never met. But they get straight to the value of working with animals of all kinds -- to "bring out the best" in our own humanity. Animals can bring us to a place of inner peace difficult to find among people.

Place is something "out there" no less than it is something on "the inside of a [hu]man." We bring to spaces our own set of feelings and thoughts. Places become special because we feel differently having been there. Perhaps like being in a horse barn. Or a good (healthy) dog kennel. Sharing these places of grooming and training, love and respect, deepens even further the sense of being part of something special. Horse people know what I'm talking about (yet I don't even come close to being one).

The quote above, from 90 year old Vince Crawley, came from an AgriNews article highlighting the Murray County Classic draft horse show I'm planning to attend this weekend, part of the North American Six Horse Hitch Classic Series.

I'll be trekking from south central Wisconsin to far southwestern Minnesota. The drive across southern MN is one I made with my family hundreds of times as a kid. My parents grew up in the county seat of Murray County, Slayton, MN. Talk about a sense of place. There's something very distinct about visiting the place where your parents (and in my case, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins...) are from.

This weekend I'll take my daughter there and we'll watch a dozen different teams compete. I'll take a crack at describing it when I get back.

28 June 2013

Sense of Place is the Sixth Sense

"Sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together." - Rebecca Solnit

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

11 June 2013

Placemaking and Placemakers

Placemaking. It's the intentional and collaborative efforts capitalizing on local assets and facilitating a spirit of community health, happiness, and well-being. In many ways it happens every day. Often in small ways. People helping people. In larger, more visible ways, it is the boom in farmer's markets, bike lanes, city green spaces, and community art projects.

I follow a few "placemakers" on Twitter - people, groups, and media that focus on placemaking, new urbanism, and community sustainability. Here are just a few:

  • Sustainable Cities (@SustainCities) out of New York is a "community of bloggers promoting civic sustainability and urban environmentalism."
  • Engaging Cities (@EngagingCities) is an online magazine sharing "creative strategies and new technologies to foster public engagement for livable communities."
  • The Project for Public Spaces (@PPS_Placemaking), also based in New York City, helps develop "planning, design and training in 3000 communities and 43 countries." 
  • Orion Magazine (@Orion_Magazine) has been called America's best environmental magazine by the Boston Globe. Focused on Nature, Culture, and Place it is full of poetry, elegent prose, and incredible photography. 
  • The Atlantic magazine has a great side project called The Atlantic Cities (@AtlanticCities) that shares "innovative ideas and pressing issues facing today's cities and neighborhoods."
  • Futerra (@futerra), co-created in London, New York City, and Stockholm, is a "sustainability communications agency" with a mission to make sustainable development "so desirable it becomes normal."

Finally, a "Placemaker's Contest" will be taking place locally (for me), in Madison, Wisc., on Thursday, June 27 from 6-8pm at the Villager Mall on South Park Street. Sponsored by Sustain Dane, this "Eat, Play, Bike" event is free and open to the public.

What placemaking events - big or small - are happening in your community?

30 May 2013

Placemaking and the Soul of the Community

Check out the Placemaking blog, part of the Project for Public Spaces, for some great insight and information on sustainable communities and "placemaking" leadership resources.

In one post, Dr. Katherin Loflin writes about "Learning from Knight's 'Soul of the Community,' Leaning toward the Future of Placemaking." Here, Loflin discusses, among other things like GDP growth, etc., the "softer side" of what facilitates place attachment, including aesthetics, social happenings, friendliness, optimism.

Other results can be found at the Knight Foundation's Soul of the Community study.

I found out about this where I find out about most things these days: Twitter. To be specific, a post by Tim Soerens tipped me off to these great resources.You can find me, too, tweeting at @JTspartz.

Come on, join the fun!

14 May 2013

Topophilian Art - From a Michigander in Brooklyn.

From one Topophilian to another...
"Ben's Horn" by John Tebeau - acrylic & mixed media
on canvas (2011) 16" x 20" - available for sale.
Image used without permission.

I ran across some colorful and fun place-based art by Michigan-born, Brooklyn-based artist John Tebeau.

His "John Tebeau Presents TOPOPHILIA" collection focuses on tavern and restaurant signs. It appears to be ongoing and growing.

Other work mixes pop culture, bright colors, and iconic images, like "Ben's Horn" here.

This work reminds me of old hotel/motel signs I've seen out West. I always want to snap photographs of these signs, even in their typical state of decay.

I found Tebeau the same place I find most anything these days, on Twitter of course.

You can find me there, too: @JTspartz.

08 May 2013

The Capital T truth of Freedom?

What is the Capital T truth of Freedom?

Perspective in Life is a Choice.

Believe it.


2005 Commencement Speech to graduating class of Kenyon College
by David Foster Wallace, re-imagined by The Glossary.

03 May 2013

From "Wild" to "Kon Tiki" - Discovering A New Normal on the Trail.

Having read two "travel" books lately, I noticed that both shared a similar passage, marking not only a literary passage but also physical and emotional passage of the authors.

These books, published decades apart, are "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed and "Kon-Tiki" by Thor Heyerdahl.

Both document a long journey through unfamiliar territory, one on land and one by sea. Both relate a subtle but pivotal point in the journey where the process of travel, the territory and tenor of the journey, changes. A new normal emerges.

In "Wild," Strayed comes to a point toward the end of her solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail where the long stretches of solitude, the process of setting up and breaking down camp every night and day had become routine. Not in a "I'm bored with this" sort of way, but in a reassuring way, providing indicators of growth, self-reliance, and fortitude while hinting at trepidation in the "what next?" of post-journey life.

Strayed suggests this transition on page 271, "It seemed impossible that I wouldn't be on the trail, but it was true." and comes more fully into it later on, near the Sandy River in northwest Oregon, having hiked past "two of the Three Sisters and Mount Jefferson and Broken Finger" where it "felt good to be alone. It felt spectacular."

Looking forward to the end of her journey, about fifty more miles to the Columbia River gorge and the iconic Bridge of the Gods, Strayed is excited to be nearly done but also scared. On page 306, she writes: "I didn't know how living outdoors and sleeping on the ground in a tent each night and walking alone through the wilderness all day almost every day had come to feel like my normal life, but it had. It was the idea of not doing it that scared me."

Strayed had become, one lost toenail at a time, more self-assured and comfortable with the trail and herself. As a solo hiker taking on the step-by-step, day-by-day backcountry sojourn she began rather naively many weeks prior, this passage represents a turning point. Her troubled past was all but gone, the future was like a vista from Mount Hood. Wide open. Hop, skip, spin, done.

Is there a name for this turning-point? It is a common literary device (and common life experience). Surely there is some German word, something akin to Bildungsroman. Achtung, Deutschophiles!

During the Kon-Tiki expedition, led by Thor Heyerdahl with a stalwart crew of five, there was a similar passage. Mentioned almost in passing, just a sentence or two, it struck me as similar to the subtle transition expressed by Strayed.

From page 128 of Kon-Tiki: "We almost felt as if we had done nothing else since Tiki's days but sail about the seas under sun and stars searching for land."

And 129: "We no longer had the same respect for waves and sea. We knew them and their relationship to us on the raft. Even the shark had become a part of the everyday picture; we knew it and its usual reactions. We no longer thought of the hand harpoon, and we did not even move away from the side of the raft, if a shark came up beside."

For both Heyerdahl and Strayed, what was once unfamiliar and fear-inducing - a threat of bear or shark and vast 'wild' space - had become all but routine and merely necessary. We come upon the "new normal" from time to time. We embark on a new endeavor and we eventually adjust to change. Sometimes by choice, sometimes by fate. On and on. Again and again. Change is the constant. The flow is all we know.

It may seem only symbolic but it is important to recognize these markers. Symbols carry a lot of power. Markers and metaphors are ways we make sense of the world. We owe them their due. Acknowledge the transitions, let the trail be the guide. A new normal is always just beginning.

26 April 2013

Possibly the Worst Sentence I've Ever Written.

I took some intense academic exams nearly two years ago. These were my "prelims" or preliminary examinations to mark the end of coursework and beginning of dissertation work. 

For eight hours a day, five days out of ten, I constructed responses to various questions set forth by my doctoral committee. I did not know the questions in advance but had a good idea of the content area. There was internet access. Google Scholar was a blessing. I prepared for several months, including one week in rural northwest Ontario, Canada, without electricity while my buddies caught their limit of walleye, bass, and northern pike. It was good time, eh!

I answered one "question" per day during the examination period. Each "question" included several questions or topics under a specific domain: knowledge and trust related to risk communication; social norms; social networks; trust and rigor in qualitative data analysis; and the role of place in environmental communications. I wrote thousands of words a day, extemporaneously, and turned in my responses at the end of each eight hours. It was a Friday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Monday. Or something like that. 

Not every sentence was a winner, to be sure. Upon re-reading, some don't even make sense. Perhaps the most heinous reads as such: 

Theoretical advances such as these are part of the push among social scientists and philosophers to move into broader notions of post-industrial risk societies where nonpoint-source pollution and faceless multinational corporations enjoy both the financial privileges of individuals in the political process and the diffusion of responsibility afforded by their complex multi-networked structures and non-expert individuals are seen as valuable contributors to the ongoing development and dialogue concerning the dynamic relationships of culturally sensitive understanding, knowledge generation, and the tenuous relationships of trust being carefully constructed through both honest debate and deliberation as well as pure propaganda. 

The point being: write for your audience but don't over-write. One of my ongoing academic goals is to let the tone of those prelim responses be the height of pretentious, academic writing. So far, so good. 

23 April 2013

Why Place Matters in Online Communication

A recent article in the journal Environmental Communication (Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 113-130) explores the role of place in online environmental messages. The authors, Paul C. Adams of the University of Texas and Astrid Gynnild of the University of Bergen (Norway) argue that place is "so central to being human" that trying to change environmental attitudes and behavior will rarely succeed unless the "power of place" is taken into account.

Adams and Gynnild are approaching place, in this paper, as a leverage point for online pro-environmental social marketing efforts. That is to say, communication efforts online that attempt to change attitudes and behaviors to be increasingly sustainable. This kind of post-consumerist work is becoming more common as people and groups all over the globe begin to realize that consumerism on such a massive scale is not only unsustainable, it is actively creating an environmental nightmare for future generations.

Place matters to online communication, suggest Adams and Gynnild (p. 116), for four general reasons:

P1) "Place is a dimension of the audience: media users vary from place to place in their level of familiarity with, and their responses to, environmental issues, to the geographical location of the audience is essential to understanding the process of interpretation."

P2) "Place is a dimension of the text: a video of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, a newspaper article describing lingering contamination at an industrial site, or a still photograph of a burning oil rig can all be considered place images in the media. Generic places (e.g., the developing world) or specific places (e.g., Madagascar) may serve as sites through which texts render environmental lessons more tangible and concrete."

P3) "Place is interactively drawn into communications: a computer user may choose his or her location on a map at the beginning of an interactive web application. Since such interactivity is highly variable and one's sense of place depends on many aspects of the technology and the user's relation to the technology, the place that emerges from communication interaction is a hybrid experience distinct from P1."

P4) "Place is a figurative dimension in social networks: a particular idea or message is felt to be "near," "close," or "right there" when it is on one's Facebook page, on a friend's Blog, or embedded as a link on a webpage one frequents. Chance of exposure in this case equates with proximity. (The figurative sense of place based on network adjacency is occasionally evoked as "virtual place" in the popular lexicon, but this term is complicated as it may also mean P2 or P3)."

As place is not just something "out there" but also a way of knowing, an epistemology. It is seen as both a process and a perspective, Adams and Gynnild point out.

As more and more of daily life is negotiated through technology's "cloud" the study of place as it relates to technology, modernity, and sustainability will become increasingly integral to understanding the ontologies (ways of being) and the epistemologies of modern people.

This link to the article leads to a paywalled page from the publisher, Taylor & Francis.

17 April 2013

2013 Journalism Pulitzer Prize Winners

The New York Times list of 2013 Journalism Pulitzer Prize winners demonstrates the inherent value of quality journalism. Congratulations to all the winners and finalists.

Journalism Pulitzer categories, as listed by the Times, include Investigative Reporting, Feature Writing, Breaking News Reporting, Explanatory Reporting, National Reporting, and International Reporting. Two other categories, Local Reporting and Public Service, were written up in the Times as such: 

Brad Schrade, Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howat, The Star Tribune, Minneapolis
The Star Tribune’s series “The Day-Care Threat” documented how the number of infant deaths at Minnesota child care facilities had risen sharply in the five previous years and identified several possible reasons. The reporters also looked at reforms that had happened elsewhere that might have helped in Minnesota.
The Pulitzer board noted that the series resulted in “legislative action to strengthen rules.”
Finalists: Ames Alexander and Karen Garloch of The Charlotte Observer and Joseph Neff and David Raynor of The News and Observer of Raleigh, both in North Carolina, for a joint project; David Breen, Stephen Hudak, Jeff Kunerth and Denise-Marie Ordway of The Orlando Sentinel.


THE SUN SENTINEL, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The Sun Sentinel won its first Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series by Sally Kestin, 48, an investigative reporter, and John Maines, 57, a database editor, that examined the driving speeds of off-duty police officers in South Florida. Using data from highway tolls and GPS technology, the reporters found 800 police officers from a dozen different agencies driving at average speeds of 90 to more than 120 miles per hour.

As a result of the series, there was an 84 percent drop in the number of officers driving more than 90 miles per hour and many of the officers faced disciplinary action.

"I think we really ended up saving lives," Ms. Kestin said.

Finalists: California Watch and The Washington Post

13 April 2013

Place-Based Conservation: Social Science takes a View from Somewhere

Thankfulness for Google Alerts! Every day I get a new list of "sense of place" links from both Google and Google Scholar. Most of the time I don't have time to sift through them all but, recently, one book caught my eye and held my attention: Place-Based Conservation: Perspectives from the Social Sciences.

Of the many themes in this collection, more than one approaches the philosophical. An overarching theme in Daniel Williams' (an editor and author in this volume) and others' work is the notion that an Enlightenment approach to science - one of dispassionate observation and objectivity - is essentially impossible in the social sciences and creates quite a narrow view of the world. The so-called "view from nowhere" needs to be countered by an emplaced, embodied "view from somewhere."

As Williams et al. write in the introductory chapter (p. 11), "Entrikin (1991) suggested recognizing intermediary forms of knowledge between somewhere and nowhere...." This position is one that Entrikin described as "betweenness," one informed by "scientific discourse while also being historically and spatially specific."

The whole of this book focuses on the value of place-based conservation - a scientific approach to natural resources management taking into account local knowledge, emergent and multi-scaled goverance, the many dynamic levels of social-ecological interaction, and the growing importance of place-specific meanings.

Place-based conservation then "involves a fundamental repositioning between the scientific/technical view from nowhere and a more appreciated and enriched view from somewhere." Here, place is recognized as a fundamental organizing framework where knowledge is given context and nuance relative to the flows of a changing world and our evolving role within it.

# # # #

See also:

Entrikin, J.N. (1991). The betweenness of place: Towards a geography of modernity. Baltimore: The
 Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sack, R.D. (1992). Place, modernity, and the consumer's world: A relational framework for geographical analysis. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

09 April 2013

Five Fundamental Elements of Ethnography

Five fundamental elements of ethnography -

1. learning to introduce theoretical concepts gracefully and without jargon
2. evoking a sense of place
3. representing people as whole and embodied selves
4. rendering voices in the text with rich vividness
5. figuring out how best to bring the ethnographer into the telling of the ethnography

From Ruth Behar's review of Kirin Narayan's book Alive in the Writing: Crafting Ethnography in the Company of Checkov (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Behar's review was published in the journal Cultural Anthropology (Vol. 54, Issue 2).

26 March 2013

Terms from Giddens' "Modernity and Self-Identity"

Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age
Anthony Giddens, Stanford University Press, 1991

A handful of terms and concepts: 

Disembedding: the lifting out of social relationships from local contexts and their recombination across indefinite time/space distances.

Existential contradiction: the contradictory relation of human beings to nature, as finite creatures who are part of the organic world, yet set off against it.

Institutional reflexivity: the reflexivity of modernity, involving the routine incorporation of new knowledge or information into environments of action that are thereby reconstituted or reorganized.

Narrative of the self: the story or stories by means of which self-identity is reflexively understood, both by the individual concerned and by others

Ontological security: a sense of continuity and order in events, including those not directly within the perceptual environment of the individual

Reflexive project of the self: the process whereby self-identity is constituted by the reflexive ordering of self-narratives

Risk culture: a fundamental cultural aspect of modernity, in which awareness of risk forms a medium of colonizing the future

Sequestration of experience: the separation of day-to-day life from contact with experiences which raise potentially disturbing existential questions – particularly experiences to do with sickness, madness, criminality, sexuality and death.

Trust: the vesting of confidence in persons or in abstract systems, made on the basis of a ‘leap into faith’ which brackets ignorance or lack of information

Umwelt (Goffman): a phenomenal world with which the individual is routinely ‘in touch’ in respect of potential dangers and alarms.

21 March 2013

Wendell Berry on Individualism

Earlier this week I posted a bit on Individualism versus Individuation.  It struck me as interesting last night when I picked up a collection of Wendell Berry's essays and flipped it open to read a random passage. This is what I found.

An excerpt from the essay "Think Little," found in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (2002, Counterpoint Press).

What we are up against in this country, in any attempt to invoke private responsibility, is that we have nearly destroyed private life. Our people have given up their independence in return for the cheap seductions and the shoddy merchandise of so-called "affluence." We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other, or be charitable or neighborly or loving, or even respect ourselves, without recourse to a merchant or a corporation or a public-service organization or an agency of the government or a style-setter or an expert. Most of us cannot think of dissenting from the opinions of the actions of one organization without first forming a new organization. Individualism is going around these days in uniform, handing out the party line on individualism. Dissenters want to publish their personal opinions over a thousand signatures.

The contrast between individualism in this excerpt and that of Jung's thinking speaks to the plurality of perspectives on individuality. Berry is discussing the downfall of self-sufficiency and increased dependency on the corporate state to facilitate our national preoccupation with leisure and convenience. Here, I would say "Go, Individualists!"

Jung, in the short bit I wrote about, takes a more internal psychological view (as usual) lauding not self-centered individuality but the individual as a process of authentic self-realization, individuation. Both discuss individualism but from two different perspectives, equally valid, and all but totally separate.

19 March 2013

Individualism vs. Individuation

I borrowed this image from somewhere else.
Reading through a bit of Carl Jung over the weekend I was struck by his distinction between the concepts of individualism and individuation. These notions compliment related ideas I've had on my mind lately as well. Specifically to recognize that, through the process of our personal Becoming, independence includes a healthy appreciation for interdependence.

In Jung's book Two Essays on Analytical Psychology (trans. by R.F.C. Hull, 1953), he discusses the function of the unconscious and the concept of individuation. This, he writes, means:

...becoming an "in-dividual," and, in so far as "individuality" embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one's own self.

Individuation, Jung suggests, could also be thought of as a "coming to selfhood" or "self-realization." These terms, especially the latter, are so common today that we often take for granted how (and when) they were introduced. It wasn't long ago that concepts such as self-realization did not exist, except perhaps in the collective unconscious, waiting to be borne out by immense thinkers such as Jung.

Self-realization "seems to stand in opposition to self-alienation," Jung writes. Self-alienation would involve the mistaken belief that we get through this world alone and that our individual efforts are worthy of self-centered rewards.

We often grow up to become not our true selves but the self of a persona, of social acceptability, of otherness that gives into external pressures, roles, or imagined meanings. We wear the mask. We do what is expected rather than authentic and thus fail to truly live our own life.

Individuation, Jung suggests, is the ultimate goal in life. When I hear people ask "What is the meaning of life?" it is this concept that answers such a question. The goal in life is to find the courage to Be Who You Are. Individuation is this process. It is an ongoing "psychological development that fulfills the individual qualities given..., a process by which a [person] becomes the definite, unique being" that they indeed are.

Individualistic emphasis, on the other hand, shows a selfishness, a self-centeredness, that stresses how one is different than everybody else rather than how one is related to other beings. The aim of individuation is to "divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona" on the one hand, says Jung, and of the "suggestive power" of the collective unconscious on the other hand.

18 March 2013


Number crunching is not normally my thing but here are a few interesting digits from my own Twitter activity (as of today): 1,988 tweets; following 493; followers 170. 

I don't know exactly when I started dabbling in Twitter but probably sometime in 2010 or so. And I didn't "get it" at first. Now I do. It is an amazing way to engage in a flow of information based on one's own interests. People and organizations from all over the world are accessible in the wink of a hashtag. 

I can share my thoughts and can gain from the insights of political leaders, cultural creatives, business people, top-notch journalists, spiritual leaders, and musicians at all levels. It is unrelenting, to be sure, but dipping a ladle in the flow for a cold sip of intellectual pluralism every day is refreshing and humbling. To manage the nonstop flow into more reasonable categories, I use HootSuite with streams set up for the various groups such as science communicators and journalists (often one in the same), musicians, political junkies, cultural intelligentsia, athletes, spiritualists, and, of course, "people of places." This last group is small but includes a few people, like myself, exploring the connections between people, places, nature, and culture.

Thanks to those who have been following my own little stream of information sharing. And thanks, too, for reading The Topophilian blog. Now leave a comment.

01 March 2013

The Topophilian Daily: Stories of People, Places, Nature and Culture

Just FYI, dear reader, you can see an aggregated set of highlights culled from my various Twitter streams once a day at The Topophilian Daily.

I follow a combination of people, media organizations, musicians, nonprofits, and governmental agencies via Twitter. This adds up to a more-or-less left-leaning, pro-environmental, activist, and journalistic crowd. Everyday the paper.li automated program selects a large handful of interesting links from people my Twittersphere, including tweets that I send or re-tweet.

If you like "stories of people, places, nature and culture," check it out. Let me know what you think.

27 February 2013

A Bit on Bioenergy Use in America

Bioenergy is a composite word combining the terms “biomass” and “energy.” Biomass is plant matter or material derived from plant matter. Bioenergy then is the production of heat, power and liquid fuels (also called biofuels) from biomass and is a form of renewable energy. The term bioenergy generally does not encompass energy derived from other renewable resources such as wind, solar, tidal, or geothermal power.

Biomass is often classified along a simple division of either woody or non-woody material. These bio-materials are also often referred to as “feedstocks” but should not be confused with animal feed used for domestic livestock. Researchers have offered a more nuanced view of sources for biomass, using eight specific categories: natural forests/woodlands, forest plantations, agro-industrial plantations, trees outside forests and woodlands, agricultural crops, crop residues, processed residues, and animal wastes.

In its raw forms, biomass is highly variable in terms of chemical and physical properties, dependent on plant physiology, environmental growing conditions, and how it is harvested, stored, and processed prior to conversion into useable energy forms. Availability and cost-efficiency of renewable energy feedstocks differs by region in the United States with regional boundaries often divided into the American North, South, and West. Harvesting efficiencies associated with various feedstocks, and production of energy from those raw materials, also varies by region (see: Department of the Interior, 2011).

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy consumption in the United States grew by 6 percent, from 7.60 quadrillion Btu to 8.09 quadrillion Btu, between 2009 and 2010. The relative share of renewable energy to total energy consumption grew to 8 percent in 2010.

In 2011, renewable energy production accounted for about 13 percent of all energy in the United States and, according to the EIA “Annual Energy Outlook 2013 Early Release Overview,” is projected to top 16 percent by 2040. Concerns about peak oil, climate change, domestic economic development, and dependence on petroleum fuels from politically volatile regions have, in part, driven expansion in the bioenergy sector.
Of the dominant renewable energy categories, which also include wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal; biomass made up over half (53%) of total American renewable energy consumption in 2010, followed by hydroelectric power accounting for nearly one-third (31%). Growth in biomass consumption has been spurred by increased ethanol production as a result of government policies such as the Renewable Fuel Standard for biofuels production and the Renewable Portfolio Standard for bio-power production (see: US Department of Energy, 2010 - pdf), contributing to a two-fold increase in renewable energy consumption in the American transportation sector between 2006 and 2010.

25 February 2013

A Case of Beer: Branding Brews and Sense of Place

Will sing for beer.
Now here's a sense of place study I can really get behind!

Published in the Journal of Marketing Management (paywalled) just this month, Leveraging the side of the brand using a sense of place: Case studies in craft breweries, authors Hede and Watne investigate craft brew branding strategies that attempt to connect consumers to place through the bridge of beer.

Academic articles like this are often only available to paying costumers or to students whose institutions pay for such access. It's a huge money-making market that doesn't actually pay the authors and keeps most scientific research out of the hands of everyday people. But that's a different debate.

A short description of the beer branding study, the abstract, is provided by the journal:  

In order for consumers to connect emotionally with brands, brands must be transformed from inanimate entities into the realm of acquiring human characteristics. Following a review of more than 1000 breweries from online sources and beer companion books, we explore how a sense of place, derived from myths, folklores, and heroes, enables marketers and consumers to co-create narratives that humanise brands. We add to the theory on brand humanisation as we conclude that a sense of place offers a novel, and different, approach to humanisation strategies based on anthropomorphisation, personification, and user imagery, but can also operate in tandem with them. Further research is recommended to understand how and why consumers respond to branding strategies that use a sense of place to humanise brands.

18 February 2013

TTBOOK goes Back to the Land, Again.

Over the weekend I heard a great segment from To The Best Of Our Knowledge (TTBOOK). To say there's been a great segment on TTBOOK is redundant, of course, but this one caught my ear because of its focus on connection to land as a mechanism for personal change.

Here, TTBOOK goes Back to the Land.

From growing up as a child of the Back to the Land movement of the 1960s, connected directly to Helen and Scott Nearing (the somewhat stern grandparents of that particular movement), to the growing recognition of the immensity of food waste in America, this four-segment broadcast covers a lot of ground. Literally.

Imagine living in a 12' x 12' shack in back-country North Carolina or taking on with grand naivete a transcendent, blister-inducing journey along the Pacific Crest Trail. The folks at TTBOOK go from subsistence living to an immense journey of pure determination.

New York City resident William Powers found himself with the chance to live in a cabin for a few months (and then wrote a book about it) while Cheryl Strayed is featured in the final segment, talking about her book Wild and the story behind the story which has now become the story after the story behind the story. Don't think about it. Just listen.

15 February 2013

Voices of Green Fire: Connecting City and Country

The Aldo Leopold Foundation's YouTube channel is a great resource for information on Leopold and his incredible legacy.

This new video, Voices of Green Fire: Connecting City and Country, builds off of the inspiring dialogue heard in the Green Fire documentary. Take a ten minute break and enjoy!

11 February 2013

The push-pull of Environmental Communication

Tema Milstein wrote the chapter on environmental communication theories in The Encyclopedia of Communication Theory (Littlejohn & Foss, eds., 2009).

In is, she writes that scholars studying environmental communication do so because they are "particularly concerned with the ways people communicate about the natural world." Such communication, Milstein writes, "has far-reaching effects at a time of largely human-caused environmental crises."

In a similar chapter for a more recent compendium, 2012's Greening The Academy, Milstein writes about "greening" communication. In it she writes that environmental communication is based on two primary assumptions: (1) the ways in which we communicate powerfully influence our understanding of nature and (2) these understandings inform how we relate with and within the natural world.

Communication allows us to both express and understand our experiences, our being-in-the-world. Within this ever-changing sphere of influence and understanding are implicit (though often not consciously recognized) patterns of power, symbolism, materiality, memory, and persuasion, among other existential elements.

We filter all of this through our conscious mind yet the true filter, one we often give short shrift because it is so very subtle, is the pre-conscious or sub-conscious mind. The metaphor I like to use here evokes the winds powering the waves on the surface (consciousness) while the silent moon and mysterious stars push and pull the deep, heavy (subconscious) currents below.

24 January 2013

Mobility, Placelessness, and Continuation

Reading through Tim Cresswell's book "Place: A Short Introduction" (2004, Blackwell), I am finding more support for the idea that place is a fundamental filter through which most people process the world around them.

Early in the book, Cresswell states that an important theme of the book is that "place is not just a thing in the world but... a way of seeing, knowing and understanding the world."  Continuing, he says the book "is as much about place as a way of knowing as it is about place as a thing in the world. It is as much about epistemology as it is about ontology."

In discussing concerns with "placelessness" that emerged largely through Tuan and Relph in the early work of humanistic geography in the 1970s, Cresswell writes:

Clearly, if place is the very bedrock of our humanity, as some have claimed, then it cannot have vanished because it is a necessary part of the human condition. (p.49)

This is put forth after a short meditation on Thrift (1994) on place and mobility, to which Cresswell suggests:

Thrift sees mobility as a mark of all of life in an increasingly speeded up world. The study of the modern world is a study of velocities and vectors. Rather than comparing mobility to place, mobilities are placed in relation to each other. Place in this world seems increasingly redundant. (p. 48)

All this springs out of a chapter tracing back work on place up through post-modernity where, it often seems, that we have lost a sense of place... that all strip-malls and shopping centers look the same, chain restaurants have replaced unique regional diners, and the hyper-linked connections of a modern mobile world continue to wipe a virtual eraser across a wide swath of the blackboard of culture.

In some respects this is no doubt true. But there is also an enhanced regionalism that seems to be budding. Farmer's markets and local music and arts scenes come to mind for me.

At the end of this chapter, Cresswell introduces Lippard, writing in 1997:

Even in the age of a 'restless, multitraditional people' she argues, and 'even as the power of place is diminished and often lost, it continues -- as an absence -- to define culture and identity. It also continues -- as a presence -- to change the way we live.' 

# # #

Thrift, N. (1994). Inhuman Geographies: Landscapes of Speed, Light and Power in Cloke, P. Ed. Writing the Rural: Five Cultural Geographies. Paul Chapman, London, 191-250.

Lippard, L. (1997). The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicultural Society. The New York Press, New York.

16 January 2013

David Dye in Memphis

Another great installment of World Cafe's "Sense of Place" series. This time: Memphis, a city of rich cultural and musical traditions. Stax Records, BBQ, Beale Street, Sun Records, the Mississippi River. Whoa.

And Graceland! 

I enjoyed Dye's "sense of place" Dublin tour in early 2011, accompanied by musician Glenn Hansard. This 'tour' of Memphis is just as fun.

I'm feeling thankful for new media and our ability to "visit" so many wonderful places in the world. There's still no substitute for actually traveling, for getting oneself out of the daily humdrum, but it isn't always possible. So, here, you can get a dose of The King, some real-deal juke joints, some sights (if not scents) of lip-smacking BBQ... the list goes on!

Don't let me stop you.

Root's Roots

Robert Root's recent entry, Having a Sense of Place, posted on The Loft Literary Center's blog works over some nice thoughts on place as related to creative nonfiction writing. 

Relating his experiences as a writer in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Colorado -- and spending time in and actively engaging with those locales he's called home has influenced his developing "sense of place."