Understanding Place reflection #1

Welcome, all students, to the 2015 SoE!  We shared a great hike up Snake Mountain and a beautiful, moving opening ceremony last weekend, and we are all very excited about the next six weeks. Now it’s time to dive into our work!

We have been exploring definitions, perceptions, and perspectives of ‘place’ this week in the Understanding Place course. Please describe two concepts or experiences you have discovered this week, and how they have contributed to your understanding of place. Also, share one still unanswered question or concern that this week’s classes and/or readings have raised for you.

Provide your reflections as a comment to this post, and remember that your comments are public.





  1. Sage Taber says:

    We began the week reflecting on places that we identify with. Unsurprisingly, one of my places was close to home – the mud flats of Juniper Beach. I have always associated the concept of ‘place’ as singular and rooted locally. However, Val Plumwood’s “Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling,” offered a new perspective of place as a multiplicity of regions and people – of which I had never thought of before. Place does not necessarily mean home, but rather everywhere that materially provides support. This means the recognition that coffee sipped daily comes from elsewhere as well as the majority of clothing on our backs. What about those places? I feel that Plumwood’s concept of ‘shadow places’ highlighted the missing connections in western consumer culture. We must acknowledge the places that are not immediately obvious in daily life but inherently make it possible.
    Additionally, we discussed the different ways we engage with ‘place.’ In excerpts from Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, David Abram wrote about a sensual (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) engagement with ‘place.’ Perhaps such a connection is a practice of mindfulness, which, I need to exercise. While people flock to nature for solitude, self-awareness and connection to place, can it also be found wherever we are? Upon reflection, I want to be more aware of my visceral reactions to different places I encounter. I believe that Abram is onto something powerful – intentionally experiencing a place can provide personal insights of ‘place’ not yet encountered.

  2. Ali Surdoval says:

    I sat on a cold rock on the edge of the river, clean water rushing over my feet, as I completed the David Abram reading (an excerpt from his book Becoming Animal). When I looked out over the water, I imagined trying to paint the scene. I froze the rolling water and reflecting sunlight, turned off the sounds of the hurrying stream and communicating birds, and put a dark border around the picture. I read recently a book by Robert Pirsig in which he comments on photographing a landscape: “as soon as you put a border on it, it’s gone”. Although this line has stuck with me, it wasn’t until I was sitting as part of the river, feeling the cool of the water radiate through the rock into me and having the constant whirl of water crashing on its various obstacles as a vital part of my thought process, that I understood what Pirsig meant. There is something incomplete about being in a place but only taking in the memories your eyes can hold. The David Abram reading we were given prompted us to be where we were by calling awareness to all of our senses and asking, how does what you see, hear, smell, and feel inform your understanding of a place?

    In our first class meeting at Lake Dunmore, Darrell said something that helped me to understand what I mean when I talk about place. We were discussing whether or not we wanted to define place, based on the stories we shared about a place important to each of us. Darrell replied by saying that defining place would be like “putting a straight jacket on something meant to be felt” (or something along those lines). Yes, place is more than a point on a map or a photograph in a book: it is something to be experienced. When each student shared with the class a place of particular significance, there was always more to the place than its physical being. Place included some sort of relation or connection between the individual and something else that makes up that place, whether it be people, an aspect of nature, or a concept like “consistency” or “quietness”.

    Readings and discussions this past week have left me wondering about how love fits into our understanding of place. For the places that had special meaning to each of us, love and respect seemed implied. But what about the places that don’t hold particular importance to us, who loves them? Is it enough to love only the places you experience? These questions are also prompted by the Plumwood reading “Shadow Places” because she draws attention to the fact that many of the places we love (often times our concepts of “home”) are made possibly only by not loving other places (called “shadow places”). In a globalized world, how is it possible to experience these places that are so distant in our bodies and minds? For now, I have made peace with an understanding of place that requires experience and reciprocity (i.e. I am a part of the place and the place is a part of me), but I am struggling to apply that belief to all places (since all places deserve love).

  3. Molly O'Neil says:

    This week, our class explored different definitions of place and how those definitions can influence an understanding of place. Personally, I found Val Plumwood’s idea of “Shadow Places” to be particularly illuminating because of the implications it has on the boundaries of place. Up until now, I have known place-based education to be focused on understanding a specific area to the fullest extent. However, identifying shadow places opens up the boundaries of specific places to include every other place that came to influence them. This idea is particularly enlightening because it is relatively simplistic and yet can have incredibly influential implications. In today’s commodity culture, it is extremely easy to forget that one’s “place” acts as a system with open boundaries that is heavily influenced by imports and exports. In is nearly impossible to understand a place in isolation. This realization underlines a significant weak link in more mainstream perceptions of placed based understanding. It would be fascinating to see how this idea could be incorporated into more localized place-based movements that do not currently acknowledge such boundaries.

    Secondly, this week has shown me that place does not only encompass a physical definition. As we described our personal meaningful places during our first class, I noticed descriptions that contained not only sights and smells, but also deeper connections that were defined by emotions and people attached to the place. In addition, some of us noted that although a place may change over time, it sometimes never loses the feeling that it originally provoked. These observations demonstrate that place represents something that is much broader and deeper than a physical location. Each place holds a profound amount of history. People have taken that history to new places and to new people. Therefore, physicality does not even begin to describe the true identity of a specific place.

    At the end of this week, we touched on the concept of virtual water. The graphs we were given showed an extremely imbalanced distribution of virtual water trade across the globe. I would like to explore the reasoning behind this unequal distribution and how a better understanding of place could be used to conserve water across the globe.

  4. Laura Berry says:

    In Understanding Place this week, the two concepts that were most meaningful to my understanding of place were Val Plumwood’s description of “shadow places” and our class discussion on the value of “natural” places versus more human-dominated places. Although I had explored and understood the idea of economic dependency of communities in the global north on resources and labor extracted from the global south in previous economics classes discussing dependency theory and global core-periphery power relations, I hadn’t ever considered the ramifications it had on how I personally defined place. Plumwood’s notion of critical bioregionalism definitely struck a chord with me as I have struggled to bring together the ideas of building local/solidarity economies with seemingly inevitable economic and cultural globalization. Individuals’ notion of place and belonging must acknowledge the economic connections of communities to one another across the globe, and Plumwood’s writings helped me better solidify a vision of how sustainable global community could be organized.
    During our class discussion on Wednesday at the Middlebury Gorge, I was once again reminded that I personally have a very strong connection to places that I perceive as “natural” – especially those with a significant amount of greenspace – as well as those that give the impression of having been relatively unchanged for a long time. It is difficult to say whether or not this is an inherently human thing to feel – is there a kind embedded value in certain types of physical locations, or do the cultural values that I hold determine what places feel significant to me? Many naturalist writers hold natural places above those that have been impacted by humans, but on a planet where human activity has left practically no place untouched, what does “natural” mean to people and how they connect to place? I’m eager to read and think more about this question, especially in the context of thinking how urban spaces can become sustainable.

  5. Timothy Harper says:

    Even in one week, place has become a far more dynamic concept than I ever thought it could be. To refer to place in strictly geographic terms is to do a disservice to the whole natural and cultural history of that place as well as the social ecological system that it is a part of and is acting on that place now. Having studied geology in the past I had already developed a healthy respect and understanding of the physical factors acting as far back as the creation of the Earth that come together to make a place what it is in a purely ecological sense, however I have recently come to appreciate the scale of a place in the present, brought about by our social systems. There are places, that may be far away geographically, that have direct and long lasting impacts on other places that must be considered in the discourse of place. Val Plumwood’s concept of shadow places captures this concept; a shadow place is a place, generally purely for extraction of resources, that serves to benefit another place though it is not considered when forming the concept of the affected place. This type of understanding of place is particularly important with regards to sustainability in that in order for a place to be sustainable, all of its intertwined places must also be sustainable.
    I am also learning how to experience a place in a more holistic manner. As a student of the natural sciences, I often seek first to understand a place without ever stopping to experience it. It is important to experience a place using all one’s senses to become a part of that place, to experience full breadth of what that place has to offer. It may simply be just an enjoyable experience or help one to connect on a visceral level with a place, but it also may help one to experience the way places affect others. The latter is critically important for my own personal development in that I know most people look at a place in a different way. This is something that I am still not entirely sure how to do. It is part of my personality to think in a purely critical way but it has also been a central tenet of my academic pursuits. To undo some of that training will be a difficult but attainable goal in my study of place.

  6. Hannah Root says:

    The idea of shadow places definitely stretched my understanding of place in a way that I hadn’t expected. Shadow places, according to Plumwood, are the unseen and unknown places that, through commodity production, support our lives and make our ideas of “home” possible. Every time we buy a bunch of bananas in winter, we are interacting with the place that they were grown in a profound but unacknowledged way. The system we have does not promote connection and responsibility between the place of the consumer and the place of commodity production. I grew up on a small family farm and I was always proud of the fact that we produced a lot of our own meat, eggs, and vegetables. It took me a long time to realize that even my family, out at the end of a dirt road in Vermont, participates in the perpetuation of shadow places. We buy fruit in the winter and throw away plenty of trash, relying on labor and the degradation of places that we do not know or think of. My experience at home helps me understand that the solution to shadow places is not complete localization. We need to engage with our economy in a thoughtful way, and begin to understand that no matter what our connection to “home” is, we are all intricately connected to and responsible for places beyond it.

    Along those lines, another experience that shaped my understanding of place was one of our first activities in this class. Each person in the class shared a place that was important to them. I expected to hear all about each of my classmate’s homes, and I was surprised to hear so many different examples of connection to place. As someone who feels a strong connection to my home, I shared about the woods behind my house. I heard stories about lakes visited in the summer, bus routes through the city, and locations of one-year school programs. Not only had we all connected to widely different places, but we had also connected to them in different ways. For some, it was the impermanence of an experience or a special spot, while for others it was the sights and sounds that always stay with them that make the place important to them. This exercise expanded my understanding of how we connect to place, complicating the definition of place in my mind.

    We talked a lot about David Abraham’s piece and how experiencing place with all the senses is something that anyone can do in any location, be it urban, natural, or anything in between. Although I agree with this, I also believe that there is something inherently different about being in a manmade environment and one that is wild. I wonder what those differences are and how they manifest themselves in our experiences of place. Can someone love a cityscape in the same way that they love a mountainside or a lake? Is the distinction between manmade and natural even important to make when understanding place, or does it get in the way of a true embodied experience of the location?

  7. Jennifer Damian says:

    For a long time, I have been aware that there are “shadow” people; people who get ignored in society whether due to misrepresentation and oppression. I also wasn’t too surprised to learn that there are shadow places around the world. However, reading about shadow places pushed me to think even closer about what might qualify as a shadow place. It doesn’t just have to be a place where the consequences of an action or group of people cause problems for a location. It can also be a place with a state of stability. Does a place only have to have an issue, disaster, or need to be classified as shadowed and thus requiring recognition from society? An example that comes to mind are rural schools who struggle to get funding or permanent teachers because teachers may only temporarily teach there only to leave for a city position. In the eyes of society, this issue might not be evident because it isn’t something that rings warning bells. I am curious about the implications that occur when places shift from shadow to unshadowed and the broad spectrum of the inbetween.
    When we were on top of Snake Mountain and looking at the view of Vermont in a broader lens, I was interested when I heard someone say that the other side of Vermont, blocked by a mountain, is different from the Vermont we were seeing and are a part of. It shows that a natural barrier can create different lifestyles among both sides despite outsiders of Vermont thinking that it is all mostly the same.

    One concern that the Val Plumwood reading Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling brought up for me was when she argues that dematerialization creates a “false consciousness of place.” I wondering about how this concept of dematerialization might conflict with efforts to get people to decrease their excessive/ unnecessary spending.

  8. Hernán Gallo says:

    This week, I discussed place in a formal setting for the first time. It is something I casually converse about, but I never knew it was called “place.” In class, I discovered the concept of “shadow places” as described by Val Plumwood. Shadow places are regions that are affected by what people in industrialized nations consume. We live in a society where one can consume products without having to take into consideration the struggles or issues faced by the people tied to these products or resources. They are left in the shadows due to ignorance and apathy. Through reading and talking about Plumwood’s interpretation of “shadow places,” I couldn’t help but think about marginalized communities and places in the United States. Would those still be considered “shadow places”? Are they separate concepts or merely a branch off of shadow places?

    An impactful experience I had this week was finding out that I am one of the few students in class that grew up in a large city. When we were asked to share a place of personal significance, I mostly heard stories of forests, lakes, and farms. As I thought about a place that is special to me, I struggled to connect with the natural spaces I knew. I thought about Lake Merritt, an urban lake surrounded by tall buildings and busy streets, but I could not feel a deep connection to that place even though it’s in my hometown and I have been there several times. So, when I spoke about a place close to me, I spoke about a busy neighborhood filled with restaurants, pedestrians, cars, buses, bikes, and a subway station. It’s not a place full of nature, but it is the environment I am most familiar with and feel most at home. I then realized that my perspective was unique in the group. My idea of the environment was juxtaposed with drastically different ones. I was always accustomed to being around people from very urbanized areas, so being from an urban area was unique for the first time to me, which made me appreciate my special place even more.

  9. Darrell Davis says:

    One concept that has informed my sense of place is the concept of systems that was introduced to me in my sustainability practicum class. Systems are basically the engines that make places function. If “Place” is a body, then the system are its organs. Systems analysis and mapping gave me a blue print for understanding place in a very calculated and methodical way. In this class, I was exposed to understanding place from my spirit. Meaning, I went into places and I felt the land scape with my soul, and listened to nature from my heart. The subtle noises of nature came together in a collective welcome that was deafening, but illuminating. I guess one concept that is still unanswered for me is the concept of colonial understanding of place vs. the indigenous understanding of place. Is is possible to truly understand place in a land that you are not deeply, historically, and evolutionarily accustomed?

  10. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    This week in understanding place we talked a lot about the components of place and how we connect to place. Questions we discussed were along the lines of “is connecting to an natural place easier than an urban one? What role does changing place and you changing effect how you interact or think of a place? What role do the senses play in how we connect with a place? As we talked about places that we felt very connected to or that were important to us, I was particularly interested in the sort of 4th-dimensional characteristics that connected people to place. It isn’t about how beautiful a place is or the its physical nature but the memories and experiences we’d made there or how this place made us feel that connected us to the place. We had this discussion on the shores of lake Dunmore and I was left thinking about how we all were now connected to the lake. During our classroom underneath a large shady tree and short break swim break in the lake, our own connection deepened. I add that experience to the other times I’ve been to lake Dunmore; swimming in the afternoons, barbeques by the beach, swimming under a full moon and I realize that every time I’m back there my connection to that place grows.
    This week we also read a paper by Val Plumwood titled “Shadow Places.” Her concept is, in my opinion, a pretty useful and cool idea: “shadow places” are the areas we don’t see or feel connected to that sustain us and absorb our waste. Traditionally, we’ve lived in the same place that sustains us: where we grow our food, where we live, where we gather materials and dispose our waste is all one area. And, because of this proximity, we inherently love and connect to the fields that grow our food or the places where we leave our waste. But, modern society sweeps these places under the rug; when was the last time you thought about where exactly your trash was going to go? Or which specific fields your dinner came from? Do you feel connected to these places? Plumwood goes on to make the point that we are responsible for these places but because we don’t love or feel a connection to them, it’s hard for us feel this responsibility. “Shadow Places” made me rethink the way we often approach conservation. Instead of talking in broad hypothetical terms like “the landfill,” maybe we can try to connect people to the specific lands that sustain them; know where exactly their trash goes, which fields grow their food and who is growing it.
    Finally, this week left me with more questions than I started it with. Place is clearly a more complex idea than I gave it credit for: it can provoke emotion and can “speak” to people. I guess what I’m most looking forward to learning about is what makes a place speak and how we forge connections to places.

  11. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    Coming into this course, I have limited experience in philosophy and abstract thinking. As a mainly critical thinker who generally tries to analyze and break down issues and scenarios, I tend to have more trouble approaching thinking from a more holistic perspective. That being said, one concept from this week that I found very thought-provoking is “shadow places”. This idea, that the places where we relegate our waste or extract resources or where marginalized populations reside deserve the same amount of respect and care as all of the places that are considered beautiful and “valuable”, is a totally new one for me. I had never given much thought to the places that I love and that I revere most in my mind. Once we discussed shadow places, however, I realized that I had shadow places in my head that were very significant for me. These places are usually in cities, as my favorite places are all in nature or the countryside. When I am in cities, however, I am always surprised at how much I enjoy them. The smells on the streets, the graffiti on the walls, and the dark alleyways impart similar feelings inside me that a field of waist-high grass or the smell of rotting bark.
    This leads me into the next concept that really caught my attention, which was David Abram’s idea of focusing on the immersive and full-bodied experience of nature. Rather than looking down upon nature and appreciating its aesthetic beauty from a romantic distance, he urges us to really experience every aspect of nature, to get up close and personal with the natural world to connect to your “inner animal”. This idea really resonates with me and puts into words something that I have felt for several years now. It can also be applied to every experience one has, not just in nature. For example, I believe he would urge me to notice the graffiti on buildings and the smells (good and bad) wafting from the hot corners of the city.
    One question from this week’s classes that I have is about “virtual water”. How does the real exchange and trade of water amongst nations truly affect water supplies in certain regions? For instance, is the fact that California exports so many vegetables a driver in the water shortage in the west (besides the obvious fact that exporting veggies is causing production to increase, thereby causing water use to rise)?

  12. Benjamin Harris says:

    Val Plumwood’s concept of “shadow places” calls attention to the locales that operate behind-the-scenes to sustain the Global North’s consumptive habits, as well as shoulder the byproducts of privileged lifestyles. On the one hand, these marginalized areas are vague, distant notions to the developed world, where people often remain blissfully unaware or willfully ignorant of their environmental and economic footprints. On the other hand, as Plumwood acknowledges, shadow places may actually be more substantive than the dominant metropolises and markets that take global center stage—an insight that came as a surprise to me. Ironically, it seems that the North’s technocratic culture has encouraged abstract economic networks and social media; in such a society, it is increasingly difficult to be present and fully engaged. In this way, the Global North has also slipped into the “shadows.” Invisible transactions, such as telecommunications and paperless currency, are the kind of “ghostly pursuits” (as Ehrenreich refers to them) that have obviated the need for face-to-face interaction and physical recordkeeping in modernized society. If we measure our culture by what we leave behind, then our legacy—measured in human relations and handiwork—has become a digital breadcrumb trail at best. Is this how we want to be remembered? Quite often, specialized professions cannot point to their tangible end product. This lamentable disconnect between producer and product is illustrative of how the western mind-body dualism enables someone to be physically “here” (in the office, for instance) but mentally and emotionally remote—“out there,” drifting in cyberspace. In the end, the Global North’s impersonal, mechanized modes of production make it just as amorphous and placeless, and impossible to pin down on the map, as any peripheral “Third World” location. Over the course of our first week, I’ve begun to wonder whether place-based connection is more possible in rural economies.

    Although the preservation of shadow places requires that the Global North take accountability and action, on another level, it seems paternalistic to assume that shadow places only benefit from philanthropy and foreign aid. As models of rootedness, shadow places could inspire the developed world to localize its sprawling economies. Despite their relative disadvantage (or perhaps because of), shadow places cultivate the sort of small-scale barter exchange, cottage industries, and neighborhood markets that enhance community bonds and empower individuals. The North, where cutthroat industry prevails, would do well to emulate the humanism and fraternity of shadow place economies. Ironically, while shadow places often permit only subsistence-level existence, shadow people may embrace reciprocity—not only receiving, but also repaying land and community—more than their affluent northern neighbors. In the documentary Waste Land, the tenants of a Brazilian landfill are portrayed not as greedy or selfish, but as survivors who believe in the common good of their work—as garbage pickers, they contribute significantly to Rio de Janeiro’s recycling efforts. Similarly, in her book Belonging: A Culture of Place, Bell Hooks constantly returns to the theme of symbiosis between Kentucky residents and the farmland that they steward. Farming, like salvaging trash, replaces mind-body dualism with holism, uniting the producer with the fruits of his or her labor. Mind and body merge through knowledge and manual work.

    Ultimately, the term “shadow places” can be misleading if it implies imagined and immaterial locations. On the contrary, shadow places are highly material (different than materialistic) because they generate raw goods and services, and solidify communal bonds through reciprocal exchange of tangible things, rather than theoretical investments. Meanwhile, the materialistic North, dealing in abstract units like stocks, is arguably more “shadowy” for this reason. In the end, Plumwood, Hooks, and Lucy Walker (director of Waste Land) weave together narratives that challenge cultural prejudices towards places, peoples, and livelihoods: the way condescending labels, like “unskilled labor” and “dirty work,” are ingrained in the capitalist lexicon, or how farming in the U.S. is rapidly becoming a dying (or aging) art, despite being the backbone of this country. Bell Hooks counters these biases in her memoir by repeatedly underscoring the “dignity of labor.” On the surface, it’s a paradox that Hooks, Wendell Berry, and the residents of the (former) Jardim Gramacho garbage dump assert that the dirtiest jobs—livelihoods like farming and scavenging—instill a stronger sense of pride than careers of “cleanliness” and sharp business attire. Yet “dirty work” is often deeply embedded in a place, and human dignity is not about outer appearance. Pride originates in belonging somewhere, and the beauty of witnessing it—of being able to hold, in your bare hands, the culmination of human creativity and nurturing environment.

    In the examples of agriculture and garbage scavengers, that nourishing home is fertile soil and a trash heap, respectively. Both give birth to vibrant communities, one ecological and the other human. Although these vital places and their residents should be celebrated, the reality is that smallholding farmers, slum dwellers, and squatters have been unfairly stigmatized in many social contexts. Ultimately, the discrimination levied against these groups boils down to the definition of “home,” a loaded concept that, along with shadow places, has come under intense scrutiny in the course of our discussions and readings. Whereas I once associated home with what Plumwood deems the “dwelling place,” my perception is significantly more skeptical now. To demarcate “the home” as a contained space—four walls, a family unit, and the ritual of sleep—is arbitrary, limited, and most importantly, an elitist construct. If the proverb “home is where the heart is” holds true, then home is wherever we are most emotionally invested. So if squatters, loiterers, and occupiers stake a claim to a place for the same impassioned motives as traditional “homeowners,” then who’s to say that they cannot call their place “home” too? Perhaps people such as garbage pickers are considered “pests” and sit-in participants viewed as “criminals” because they subvert the established economic order (often literally obstructing it) and political hierarchy. With the realization that the “home” concept can readily become a weapon of oppression (as the word “heimat” was in Nazi Germany), I’m more wary of restricting my notion of home to the typical trappings of family, building, and bed.

    Given my abiding interest in indigenous studies, I’m intrigued by the temporal tensions of place: namely, the conflict that results from competing property claims between old inhabitants of the land (natives or families) and new buyers. On an ethical level, I’m torn between cultural preservation and family lineage compared with the ambitions of conservation or charity groups that represent public interests. In resolving these property debates, should ancestral arguments or current land use purposes be given equal weight, or is one deserving of greater consideration?

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