When you carry your home with you, when are you home?

  • Jonathan Thompson


At High Country News, we think a lot about that overused but still relevant term, "a sense of place." I don't know exactly what it means, either. But I think it involves knowing that we're here, rather than, well, over there. And that we understand at least some of the characteristics that make this place -- the West -- different from other places.

John Daniel's well-wrought essay in this issue cuts right to the heart of the sense-of-place matter. Daniel talks of the almost primordial pull of the West --  a pull that comes from particular elements of the region, its plants, its soil, its rocks and rivers and overarching skies. Whatever it is, we've all felt it.

Then there's Nate Berg's cover story. He, too, writes about place -- Quartzsite, Ariz. -- a barren spot in the Southwestern desert that has become a mecca for RVers. An estimated 1 million or more RVs stop in Quartzsite each winter, with 10,000 or more staying a few months or longer. Many park in the desert, on a vast expanse of federal ground that was long ago trampled flat. There, they form a sort of community. Actually, it's more like a small city, albeit one without infrastructure or an elected local government.

The force that draws people to Quartzsite is as strong as the one that drew John Daniel out West. The RVers return, year after year, with the intense loyalty of homeward-bound geese, driving hundreds, even thousands, of miles and spending bundles on gas. But rather than being drawn to Arizona by the ocotillos or the lizards or the way the light falls on a particular rocky crag, this giant, temporary city appears to be pulled together by the prospect of swap meets and a cheap place to camp, dump sewage and get water. That, and the impromptu community the RVers create.

In other words, they are not drawn by anything particular about this place, except for its sunny winters and the flatness that makes it perfect for parking RVs. Sure, there's an illusion of place -- the chance to live in a desert diorama, with jagged mountains in the distance, yes, but also with TVs conveniently on hand to transport you away, if you get bored. Really, this is the opposite of a sense of place -- a sort of blank slate on which all these folks can create something new.

There's something inspiring about all these strangers coming together peacefully, year after year. At Quartzsite, you don't need to dig roots to enjoy them; if the "community" doesn't suit you, just gas up and go. But it's also a bit creepy, this idea that place really doesn't matter.

Berg talks about an academic who flies over Quartzsite's "boondocks" and sees the mirror image of a real city. More and more, we mirror the RVers societally, as well. We specialize in living without commitment: "Hooking up" has many connotations.  We live in cities and towns that may have been settled in a particular place for a reason -- good water, good soil, a coal or mineral seam nearby. But in many cases, those original reasons were long ago paved over or sucked dry or just forgotten. Our chain stores and strip malls could be anywhere. We revel in our placelessness, working on Wall Street from a home office on the outskirts of Aspen. We are at home everywhere now. Everywhere, that is, except for where we are -- where the trees take root, the rivers flow, the sun hits the earth in that certain way.

Anonymous says:
Mar 22, 2010 06:13 PM
Sense of place may or may not be an overused term, but geographers, anthropologists, architects, philosophers, and others have been thinking about what it means for quite a long while.

The writings of the late Yi-Fu Tuan, Edward Relph, Edward Casey (Stony Brook University), Keith Basso and Gregory Cajete (both at University of NM), Daniel Williams (Colorado State University), and Richard Stedman (Cornell) all help to characterize sense of place.

I'm interested in exploring and defining sense of place as a way to authentically inform and assess "place-based" teaching and learning. I've borrowed a useful definition from a number of geographic publications: sense of place is the sum of the meanings people find in places and the emotional attachments they affix to places.
Anonymous says:
Mar 22, 2010 06:15 PM
Another good author on sense of place is Lucy Lippard.
Anonymous says:
Mar 23, 2010 02:07 PM
The contrast in the writings of Willa Cather versus those of Marie Sandoz vividly speaks to the vast differences in culture that arise from man's connection to place. Separated by only hundreds of miles and located in the same state of Nebraska, Cather's "Little House on the Prairie" descriptions of people and life in farming country could not be further from the edge of the world hangings and cattle rustling in Sandoz' Sand Hills ranches. Pioneers separated only because the Platte River so randomly channeled wagon trains either north or south, ended up as strangers in daily life primarily because of the strong emotions ripped to the surface by the nature of the ties to land so different in its demands. "Civilized" farmers versus those not long removed from the fur traders.