A Sense of Place

The other day at the grocery store I bought two containers of strawberries. I always check the label to see if they are from Oxnard, CA; this time there were two options, and I chose the Oxnard berries. Purely sentimental reasons. We moved to little Port Hueneme, CA (which is surrounded by Oxnard) when I was in fifth grade and stayed through the summer before my final year of high school. The smell of strawberries reminds me of the fields surrounding town, not just of strawberries, but onions, broccoli, lettuce, celery, and other vegetables. The drive to the stake center in a neighboring town was perfumed by farm smells. I'm sure that many of those fields have been covered in houses now, but Oxnard continues to produce a lot of vegetables. When I think of Oxnard I also think of the smells of eucalyptus trees, the feel of the ocean breeze on my face, the smell of rotting fish at the pier, hot Santa Ana winds, and the smell of wet earth from spring rain. My childhood memories are full of other sensory input from the rest of the places we lived--sagebrush in Idaho, papery bougainvillea blossoms in San Diego, blazing orange leaves in Maryland. I don't know if I'm unique in my sentimental attachment to smells, colors, textures, and tastes.

I have been thinking about this lately because I just read two books on the importance of nature in our lives. The first, Last Child in the Woods, talks about what the author terms "nature deficit disorder" in the lives of children. He discusses changes in the way that children interact (or don't) with nature and ways we can change our society to encourage a "sense of place" in our children and a better attachment to their local environment. While I found a number of his points interesting, I actually had a little trouble reading the book and it seemed disjointed at times. The other book I read, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, was much more fun to read. The author is certainly enthusiastic about her subject and I can understand why the book is generating so much positive press. She describes her family's efforts to spend one year eating only seasonal food that they have grown themselves or acquired locally. I loved it because I love food and I would love to learn about gardening, plus the writing is really that great. I have heard it presented as somewhat of a how-to or call-to-arms sort of book, but if you read closely you will find that Barbara Kingsolver spent a number of years in preparation for her year-long experiment. I don't think that I'm feeling fired up about raising and killing my own chickens just yet, despite having read this book.

Reading both books reminded me of the extent to which nature really influenced my childhood. On the one hand, I grew up in the city. I've never lived on a farm. I've also never been a particularly active person and didn't spend a lot of time hiking or communing with nature in that way. On the other hand, I spent a lot of free time outside in unstructured play. I walked to school for most of my childhood, even through high school. My mom grew up on a farm and we often visited my grandmother's farm in Wyoming. I know that milk comes from cows, carrots grow from seeds planted in a garden, and raspberries come from bushes and are only best in July. My mother is also very committed to the importance of fresh food, gardening, and canning. We even had our own chickens for a time; I have vivid memories of a dish of eggs in our fridge that had come out of the insides of the chickens we'd just slaughtered. I thought it was the coolest thing ever--shell-less eggs directly from the chickens. We also spent time as a family camping, hiking, exploring tide pools at the beach, and other outdoor activities. I'm grateful my mom valued nature and made it an important part of our lives.

The main thing that bothered me about the first book was that the author never really was able to answer his main question: why is nature important for children? What benefits do they get from spending time outside, getting to know local plants and animals? He pretty much takes it for granted that time in nature is good, and I agree. I just can't figure out why, and maybe no one ever will. I think one benefit I've had was a sense of place; I know how to look closer and really savor things that make each part of the world special. The world is getting more homogenized and globalized, and I think it's good to preserve the unique features of each area. Both authors point out that our understanding of science and natural processes like evolution of species or the life cycle of plants is seriously damaged by a lack of exposure to animals and plants. I actually don't have a lot of experience with observing these things up close, but I think that experiencing the death of pets as a child or the difficulty of trying to grow a garden helped me deal with change. Animals get old and die; sometimes an early frost kills your plants; nature can humble us and teach us that we are not all powerful.

This post is getting really long and I'm not sure what my point is. I'm feeling like I've lost some of my connection to nature and I'd like to get it back. I especially want to do this for my kids. Every year I think that we'll try camping or go for a hike or start a garden, but it never manages to happen. Hopefully I'm finally building up the energy to make a change this year. Last year we tried picking our own blueberries and the end result was enough mosquito bites to send S-Boogie to the emergency room with a badly swollen hand. I hope that we can start having more positive experiences with local food, and the only way to do that is to keep trying. Of course we'll be taking baby steps, because as long as California strawberries are only three dollars a package I'm going to consider that as "local". It sure smells like home to me.


'sposita said…
I'm not sure where my Mom learned this, but she made sure that we had a place to hide under bushes in our backyard because she read that children learn a lot about oblique angles and other mathematical stuff a lot easier if they've been exposed to nature a lot as children.

i don't know a lot about that whole math thing, but I loved hiding under that pomegranate bush and making houses out of the leaves!
FoxyJ said…
One of the interesting thing he pointed out in the "nature" book is that we stifle creativity by only offering kids playgrounds and parks that are wide grassy fields. Kids love to play in rough edges, under trees, and with objects like rocks and sticks. Most playgrounds are too boring for kids. I've noticed that here in our housing complex--the kids all ignore the playground and spend all their time hiding in the bushes!
Miss Hass said…
I have a lot of wonderful memories of playing in the mountains across the street from our house. I can still smell the sagebrush and dirt if I really think about it.

You've inspired me to spend more time outside!
Lindsay said…
Those look like interesting books. I'll have to look into them. Also, most of my memories are brought to the forefront of my mind by getting a whiff of certain smells. There are few things that make me happier.
Desmama said…
Interesting thing about the smells. I read somewhere--can't quite recall--that a particular smell can bring about a memory more vividly than anything else. Blueberry Lip Smackers still reminds me of my first kiss.

And while I sometimes feel a little, well, sheepish that I live so far out in the sticks, posts like this remind me that it's not all that bad. We live on over half an acre and there's lots of farmland around. Last night DesDad took the kids out to my grandparents' farm for some emergency milk to get us through till the milkman comes tomorrow. They got to see the cows "at work," so to speak and brought home some milk, unpasteurized and as creamy as I remember drinking as a kid. And I like that.
Courtney said…
This could very well be false, but I heard somewhere that the part of the brain that detects smell is surrounded by the part of the brain that stores memories, so that's why smells are so nostalgic.

I'm not even an "out-doorsy" kind of person, but there is something about being outside that is so refreshing. Now that I work full time in an office, I am starting to realize how rejuvenating it was to even walk outside for five minutes between classes. There really is something about getting back to nature that feels so good.
I was looking at the Burpee catalog the other day and they had a packet of sunflower that were meant to be used as a sunflower forest. They suggested that you create a secret room within your forest. I wish we could do this but if we did we would only have room for sunflowers and not tomatoes, basil, and pumpkins.
I think being in nature was important for me as a child because I was able to feel connected to the earth, and since the earth was God's creation, I felt connected to God. It has been easier for me to have unshakable faith when I'm standing next to the ocean or looking at the stars then when I am living in and by human creations and surrounded by human created problems.
Oh! I loved this so much!

I am teaching science exactly for this reason. When I taught in Houston, I had a really hard time sparking interest for life science. I did an assignment about making nature observations. One of the things they had to do was observe an interaction between a living and a non-living thing. Most of the responses fell into two categories: humans in a house interacting with various objects, or wild animals observed on television. The only well-written, carefully constructed observation I got was a student who wrote about rat eating from a garbage can. Really. Of all the schools I've taught in, these city-students were the most obese, the most un-curious, the most unhealthy, the least compassionate. The more I taught them, the more I realized that these issues were as much about their disconnect from the larger world and the saturation of their concrete jungle as it was about culture or even poverty.

Still, I had an amazing teaching moment that year while I was doing a mini-unit on the environment, talking about global warming. I had a student, who had seemed fairly lethargic up to that point in my lesson suddenly raise his hand with a very alarmed expression and say, "Why aren't they doing something about it?"

I asked him who he meant, and he said, "You know, the government."

I asked him some "find-out" questions about what he expected the government to do. (This was just months after Bush was elected; the reality turned out even worse than what I anticipated)He drew his own conclusions and said, "They don't care; it is up to us."

Light bulb!

As for kids--their brains and bodies develop so well when they have unstructured play time (there was a cool report last week on NPR about this), a blank slate for imagination, space to run and fresh air to breathe. Big, outdoor spaces fit the bill perfectly for this.

Yes, yes, I loved this post. Right on the money.
Oh, and the smells! Australia smells like eucalyptus just that instant before the rain comes. Each scape has its own beauty--the swamps of East Texas, wildflowers on the Colorado 14ers, the harsh wind on a glacier, the steaming bush in the early morning Aussie heat, the sage deserts of Utah, the red cliffs of the American west, the prairies of the central US. And now, I'm so lucky to live in a climate so green and clean that I sometimes think you can almost see the intelligence in the waving trees. There might be something to the dryad myths. . .
Mark said…
I thought your young gardeners would enjoy an indoor gardening adventure, growing the TickleMe Plant (Mimosa pudica).
If your bloggers visit www.TickleMePlant.com they will see the plant that closes its leaves and lowers its branches when tickled. THIS WEEK- your readers can put in the word READERS at check out and we will take TWO DOLLARS off the total of their order. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions. We love helping children and those young at heart to become excited about plants and nature!
Mark Chipkin
Educational Project Director
TickleMe Plant Company

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