Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Kate Crowley
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Intrigued by 'sense of place'

Going Nature's Way


I am intrigued by the idea of sense of place — to feel completely "at home" in one particular place. I have read people who grow up on the Great Plains feel claustrophobic when they are in forested environments and in reverse, people who have grown up surrounded by forest find the openness of the plains unnerving, with nothing to break the view to the horizon.

I grew up in the city, but the Minnehaha Creek and Parkway were just two blocks away and I spent countless hours playing and exploring there. The city lakes were within biking distance. The Mississippi River was just blocks away from the apartment where I lived the first four years of my life. When I was 36, I married Mike and moved to our current home and it was perfect. When my dad first visited us in our new home, he said, “Kate must think she’s died and gone to heaven.” This is where I am supposed to be.

Scientists who have studied the evolution of humanity have proposed that over the millennia, our primate ancestors evolved in a way that took them out of the forests and into a savanna setting — a landscape made up of grasses and patches of woodland. In these places water would most likely have been found in rivers. Some studies have shown that when people are presented with pictures of different habitats, they more often choose images of a savanna over others.

I used to believe that where you were born and grew up influenced your preference for where you choose to live as an adult. Granted, due to economics and job opportunities, people may have to move to another region of the country with no similarity to their place of origin, but given a choice, do they choose to stay where the landscape is familiar?

Having been fortunate enough to travel extensively, I believe deserts can be beautiful at times, but more often they seem harsh and forbidding; mountains may have majesty as part of their definition, but to me they are pretty backdrops in the scenery and not inviting.

I am a Minnesotan, through and through, and I expected my children to be the same, but they’re not. My son, Jon, moved out west after college to work for the Student Conservation Association, doing trail work in Idaho and later in Montana. He had been in the mountains on trips with us as he grew up, but it was this immersion as a young adult that really cemented his love of the mountain west. As much as I would like it to be otherwise, he will be a lifelong resident of this region. He skis, hikes and mountain bikes in these mountains and most recently has started paragliding off of them. As a mom, I’m happy he has found a place that matches his heart — his sense of place — but at the same time I am at a loss to explain why.

My daughter, who now lives in Duluth (thank goodness), spent four years of her adult life living in Colorado and, if given the chance, she would happily move back. She, too, talks in rapturous tones about "The mountains," though she was never as involved in exploring them as her brother. I have wasted countless hours trying to impress upon them the beauty and uniqueness of their home state, to no avail. Now I will watch with curiosity to see where my grandchildren will choose to live. Alyssa’s three children have lived in Colorado, Wyoming and Ohio — all in less than 10 years. They will spend more of their childhood next to our great, beautiful Lake Superior and I wonder if that will be the magnet that keeps them here.

In my musings about sense of place, I have wondered about the impact our genes have on our preferences. The studies I mentioned earlier about our preferences for savannas would seem to be genetic and I sometimes wonder whether my Irish ancestry isn’t also programmed into my core, since I have found on several visits to that island nation that I feel completely in love with the multi-shades of green in the rolling hillsides. Here, too, there are lakes and rivers and, of course, the sea all around. I have no idea how many centuries my ancestors lived on that green isle, but I wonder if it isn’t somehow embedded in who I am.

There is another trait among humans that may be genetic and it has been given the name Biophilia by biologist E.O.Wilson. This is defined as “innate relationships humans share with nature.” His theory is based on the fact we humans evolved with direct experience in nature — our survival depended upon it. It provided us not only with sustenance, but also inspiration and an emotional attachment to landscape and animals. The concern is as we have moved away from our rural lives and become much more urban and surrounded by technology, we have become less and less attuned to our connection with nature. This alienation from the natural world leads too easily to destruction of the environment as we lose our understanding, appreciation and connection to it.

So what about you? Where do you feel most comfortable? Where do you experience “sense of place.” I’d be curious to know.


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