Reflections on Place

Students in this year’s Understanding Place course will be exploring a shared place — the Otter Creek watershed — and a place of their own through several lenses in order to build a toolkit that will allow them to better understand any place. That toolkit will, in turn, allow students to teach others about the importance of understanding place while working towards positive social and environmental change. Below under the “Comments” section of this post you will find ongoing reflections about the place that each student has chosen, written in light of their readings, discussions, and activities from each week.


  1. Savannah Thompson says:

    Savannah Thompson
    Montevallo, Alabama

    1. Savannah Thompson says:

      Montevallo is a small “college town” directly in the heart of Alabama. It is characterized by local art and an atmosphere much more liberal than the state of Alabama as a whole. If you search for the town online, you are likely to find the faces of the trees carved by Tim Tingle in Orr Park. The old cedars in the park would have been cut down if not for this local artist’s transformation.

      Shoal Creek runs through the city, and there are swimming holes hidden in the woods that locals like to enjoy, such as Falling Rock. Ebenezer Swamp is an Ecological Preserve located on Spring Creek that is home to an abundance of plants and animals, among them beavers, turkey, sycamore and Tupelo gum trees, and a rare species of coneflower. It is also a host to classes and research, and features art sculptures made from recycled steel created by the University of Montevallo art program. Both Ebenezer Swamp and Spring Creek are part of the Cahaba River watershed. The Cahaba is the longest free-flowing river in Alabama and an environmental wonder.

      I have lived in Montevallo for three years now and now that it is a very special “place” that is hard for many people to leave. There is a very strong sense of community and a love for that community present. There are many aspects of the ecology and geography that make the town special, but it is the people who KEEP it special.

      1. Savannah Thompson says:

        In looking at Orr Park and the part of Shoal Creek that runs through it as a bioregion, its ecological sustainability results from human attempts to connect others to the area. I am writing specifically about Tim Tingle and the art he has left in the trees of Orr Park and the educational aspects of Ebenezer Swamp. The points from “the story of bioregionalism” in our reading “Interpreting bioregionalism” includes “attraction of an artistic, intellectual and literary vanguard”. This aspect definitely applies to both Orr Park and Ebenezer Swamp. They both encompass art that reflects nature, such as the dragonfly sculptures in the swamp. There is also literature to educate visitors, such as the signs in Ebenezer that teach about everything from plants to water sediment, and books for those who are more interested. I think the human-nature aesthetic allows for both engagement and fosters a connection to these areas, most crucially in younger generations.

        I would consider these areas bioregions in the sense of their waterways, but perhaps the human-defined lines that would only go as far as to define the park or the boardwalk in Ebenezer Swamp as its boundaries. But our actions that affect these areas go far beyond that. And I think that the protection and education of these areas is what is going to allow for bioregionalism to be possible in Montevallo.

      2. Savannah Thompson says:

        Post no. 3

        Reading Virtual Water (Kumar) gave me a new perspective and appreciation for both local and imported products. There are so many resources, such as water, that go into the production of the commodities and food that we buy that are taken for granted. Montevallo is a town in which little is made local. We have a small farmer community that makes local produce successful and contributes to a couple local businesses. There is also a small organic farm funded by the university that provides for low-income families. The area has the potential to contribute to the area much more, offering local, natural food to the region. But this may compromise local waterways. The increase of nitrogen and phosphorous discharges have correlated with increase in croplands in the Birmingham area.

        The Cahaba River is a free-flowing river and a tributary to the Alabama River. It is affected by the urbanized city of Birmingham and its surrounding counties, which include Montevallo. Croplands discharge nutrients into the watersheds, and the addition of nitrogen compounds due to human activity in the Cahaba River has affected its biogeochemistry (Springer). I believe that understanding the impacts that humans have on a respective “place” can allow us to envision ways in which we may bolster sustainability.

        “Water quality modeling of the Cahaba River, Alabama” by Springer (2004).

    2. Savannah Thompson says:

      Post 3: Indigenous peoples and relation to place

      Our reading and discussion of indigenous peoples brings us back to the definition of place, and the notion that humans are a notable aspect of what makes up a place.

      I think it speaks measures that despite the atrocious history of the Abenake peoples and the immensity of what their ancestors went through, they still remain in the same place. The land is what connects and enlightens the Abenake as well as other indigenous peoples.

      There is much to learn from native peoples. Living in the same area and being connected with the land allows people to notice climate change from the landscape rather than science, such as peoples living in the north noting the melting of ice where they fish (, or learning medicinal properties of plants through trial and error as well as from a spiritual experience with the land.

      There is a lack of Native American history in Montevallo. If stories were present that offered a history more inclusive of the land, I believe that dwellers would feel more akin to the natural aspects of the town. There is a sense of respect and rapport that exists through the telling of stories.

      1. Savannah Thompson says:

        Edit: Post 4

    3. Savannah Thompson says:

      Post 5- Shadow Places

      It is not a surprise that such a conservative state like Alabama fosters many shadow places. Shadow places are the places that are far from our train of thought, but places that suffer as a result of our demanding lifestyle. In the Birmingham area you will find a myriad of BBQ hot-spots that are a result of factory farming and migrant workers; in most places you can only recycle two types of plastic (#s 1 and 2); and few places recycle glass or hazardous materials, such as batteries. Apparently, the landfill in Shelby County (which contains Montevallo) does not accept hazardous materials, but I doubt that the workers go through the trash and sort out what shouldn’t be there. Our actions are polluting the Earth and we don’t even see it. It is far to easy to dispose of our materialism in the trash.

      Corporations are prevalent where I live, unlike here in Vermont. Our dining hall food on campus is all imported, and none of it is organic. We don’t even compost in order to give back, but allow food to build up in landfills where it is released as CO2. As a higher-education institution, we should be more focused on where our commodities come from and to whom our actions are affecting. We should step up and take action in order to reveal what these shadow places are and to attempt to shift our decision-making to be more sustainable and aware. If we do not do this, these places will come out of the shadows and be right in our front yards.

  2. Emily Harrington says:

    Emily Harrington
    St. Lawrence University

    1. Emily Harrington says:

      “…I’m from” Post no. 1

      When I graduated last month, I commented to my friend Jane – who had just a year before graduated from here – that I was excited to enter a phase of my life where my go-to introduction would no longer be, “Hi, I’m Emily, I go to St. Lawrence,” as a sought to find my new, here it is, ‘place’ in the world. In floating around Midd for the past few weeks, however, I found myself grasping for some new identifier to add to my name. My intro went from “Hi I’m Emily, I go to St. Lawrence,” to “Hi, I’m Emily, I just finished at St. Lawrence” – a radical change, I know.

      In reflecting on what “I’m from St. Lawrence,” means to me, I realized that instead of an identifier, I might have been searching for a context. Or maybe I was grasping for the people amongst whom I had come into my own over the last four years in spaces like Commons College, the Java Barn, and the Dub. Or maybe I was grasping for the familiar rough granite of the Adirondacks, the warm red brick of SLU’s oldest buildings, or the ski tracks carved by Nordic skier on their ways to class.

      I started feeling as though, just as I had to leave, I had finally grown up enough to recognize St. Lawrence as its own cultural watershed, if you will. I had finally realized that St. Lawrence, where 18 to 24 year old “raindrops” falling on the Northwestern edge of the Adirondacks gather every September – amongst the primary growth pine forests of reclaimed farmland and the old growth stands of maple sugar – is in fact nestled within a larger North Country watershed where “raindrops” of the homesteader generation have been pooling and organizing and interacting with the history of the area for decades before I even thought of attending St. Lawrence. So, although it’s a little late for me to explore St. Lawrence through the lens of “place” as an active participant in the North Country community, I hope that I will be able to share how important St. Lawrence is to me. I will keep updating as I attain new ecological, geographical, temporal, and phenomenological lenses through which to reflect upon St. Lawrence and the role it plays in my life.

      1. Emily Harrington says:

        Bioregionalism and Congressional Candidates
        Post no. 2

        Christopher McGrory Klyza, professor of Political Science in the Environmental Studies Department at Middlebury College summarizes, “one of the major problems with theories calling for significant changes in the way modern societies and institutions are designed is that they are too abstract, removed from practical concerns and issues,” a problem he says applies to the theory of Bioregionalism. When I thought about how to apply the ideals of bioregionalism to the region surrounding St. Lawrence, however, it seemed an almost perfect fit.

        As an environmentalist, a graduate of a small university, and a generally optimistic individual, I was intrigued by the idea of bioregionalism. A reorganization of political boundaries around ecological patterns rather than human-imposed edges, the subsequent engagement in local food systems, pride in and preservation of local wild spaces – the list goes on – all seemed, a tremendous, novel take on large scale environmentalism. Though, as Klyza discussed with our class on Wednesday – sitting on the bank of Lake Pleiad just off the historic Long Trail in the middle of a human-mediated wilderness, no less – bioregionalism has faded since the 1990s, having been contextualized within the global climate change.

        Which leads to the question – is turning inwards and focusing on our own ecological region and its preservation a problematically narrow way of addressing global climate change and the issues that accompany it? To my thinking, it is not, nor is it mutually exclusive to outward facing, globally affective ideals of cooperation amongst bioregions. Though perhaps the pure-bioregionalism movement has morphed into a more delineated set of localism movements, from food systems to recreation to politics, I still am confident that connection to place on a personal level – including but not limited to the sensual connections described by Abram in Becoming Animal – is central to all of these movements, and is a significant part of the troublingly abstract task of changing the way society operates to adapt to and protect our changing environment.

        In visiting St. Lawrence and the surrounding region, one can already observe the ideals of bioregionalism in action. As a hub of commune formation in the 60s and 70s and the home of several homesteaders today, the North Country boasts a strong local food community. Even beyond the more obvious examples of bioregionalism’s utopian, socialist ideals found on communes and homesteads, residents of the North Country as a whole are extremely connected to their unique place just beyond the Adirondack Park. For example: the voting records of the North Country. In meeting with Mike Derrick, a candidate for Congress running to represent the North Country, I learned that 36% North Country voters cast their ballots across party lines in each election, as opposed to a 9% national average. Clearly, those who consider the North Country their home are engaging actively with the current systems of societal organization to protect and promote their ‘place’.

        A paradigm shift which would transform states into regions and nations into communities by shifting from exploitation of natural spaces to conservation, focus on stability rather than progress, and promote cooperation over competition would be a paradigm shift to align societies’ operation with those of the natural systems upon which we depend (Sale, 1985). As it pertains to the North Country, I could not think of a more just way of reorganizing society around the perils of climate change.

      2. Emily Harrington says:

        Sensing Place
        A poem on the separateness
        of the margins of the Java Concert Venue
        Post no. 3

        The heat of bodies –
        Swaying and swooning
        Recognizing and reaching
        Craning and careening
        is broken by a screen
        of cold, fresh air
        fresh enough
        except for the clouds of smoke
        mixed and rolled
        sealed and shared
        step aside
        around and out
        through and into

        pass the lights
        dim the sound
        for a breath
        from scents of blue ribbon winning
        cup suddenly too full,
        heavy and thick and spilling on snow
        butane sparking
        illuming circles of friends and strangers
        membranes between social strata
        pulsing and permeable
        as easily joined as escaped

        What a sky
        Obscured partly
        By pine needles
        Somehow cloudless
        Above the low,
        Repurposed buildings
        Of the Java – Geology –
        Concert quad

        Amidst fallen pines
        Reflecting on Now
        Papers read and mulled over
        Schumacher and Sartre
        Drinking screw top wine
        I could have sworn last night
        I read a poem you wrote
        And now this band is singing those same lines

        But what a sky

        Out from under branches
        A cloud appears
        Not of our making
        Carrying thoughts and songs
        Sounds and sentiments
        To here,
        Two square
        Twenty miles from our namesake
        And ages removed from anything else

      3. Emily Harrington says:

        A Note of Context

        The above poem is written in the same vein as a poem I wrote for class this week, in which I attempted to infuse David Abrams’ ideas of sensual experience of place. For class I chose to reflect on a spot along the TAM, but for the blog I thought I would try to apply this Abramian lens to one of my favorite places at St. Lawrence – the Java Barn music venue. More specifically, I chose to focus on the sense of separation attained when standing apart from the crowd just off to the side under a couple of trees leading to the adjacent soccer fields. Though it is a clear departure from the more naturalistic setting of my poem for class, I hope this piece achieves the same end goal of drawing attention to the sensual experience of place we so often forget to have.

      4. Emily Harrington says:

        Boundaries, Edges, and Partnership
        Post no. 4

        In reflecting on ‘my’ place thus far, my temporal scope has been limited by the bounds of first hand experience, in one way or another. The four years I spent at St. Lawrence provided the basis from which I determined the relevance to my time there of a host of intertemporal phenomena. That I was attending barn parties or sweat lodges with friends at welcoming farms around the county rendered the 60 years of homesteading a salient part of my experience. That the Adirondacks provided regular weekend or afternoon getaways rendered the 500 million years of their rocky development germane to my four years visiting them. That I was even attending St. Lawrence as woman made the establishment of the University as the first coed college in New York pertinent to my sense of place there. The list goes on and spans widely from the historical precedents of eighties ski accouterments (see: Titus Global Cooldown Winter Weekend Event, every February) to the historical integrity of the Montreal sewer system (see: Montreal dumps 2 billion gallons of raw sewage into St. Lawrence River, Nov 2015). I won’t woolgather on the origins of such a self-centered curating of temporal significance except to attribute it to the Abramian, sensual experience of place I reflected upon last week. That may be a bit forgiving, so, please, forgive me.

        Having been tasked with gathering information on the historical peoples of our place, I spent Monday and Tuesday evening reading up on the history of the Akwesasne Mohawk reservation, which straddles a section of the St. Lawrence River not far from SLU, and spans across the borders of two countries and two provinces.
        The disparate conceptions of ‘place’ represented by these cross sectional edges of what is otherwise an indivisible and sacred piece of land speaks to a larger sense of separateness between those who indulge the cultural narratives of ‘America’ and ‘Canada’ and those who do not. Which leads me to wonder if my rather egotistical conception of ‘place’ is rendered less meaningful by its failure to acknowledge the history of this people. As a student of the humanities, I would consider myself aware of the general history of US imperialism and violence against the country’s original inhabitants, and the monumentally raw deals their descendants have been handed by the government, but is that enough?

        Personally, I don’t think it is. I do, however, see in this confrontation of my own flawed emplacedness, an opportunity to ‘unother’ the people with whom I obliviously shared the last four years of my life. That is not to say that I plan to visit the Akwesasne reservation and offer my help – there is perhaps no more historically damaging practice of ‘othering’ than the presumption of one’s role in a relationship as ‘the helper’. Rather, I hope to remember and act upon my (our) inherent role as a ‘partner’.

        Even as we spent an afternoon studying and discussing the history of the Abenaki tribe of Southern Vermont and the historical abuses of the US and Vermont governments against the Algonquian and Iroquois peoples, I was reminded of a story Peter Forbes told a few weeks ago of a woman from a similarly ‘othered’ group. Classy Parker, of 1990-something 125th Street, reminded Peter, as he entered her community garden as a representative of the Trust for Public Land, “If you have come here to help me you’re wasting your time. But Peter, if you have come here because your success is bound up with my success then we have some work to do together,” a sentiment which rings true in almost every scenario we’ve studied in the past few weeks.

        Z.A. recently defined sustainable development as seeking, “in part to imagine, then create, a just climate future,” a conception of sustainability which I believe to encapsulate the lessons and subsequent call to action to be gleaned from my narcissistic emplacedness, the history of the Abenaki and others who’ve been ‘othered’, and our (read: everyone’s) role as ‘partners’ in the future.

      5. Emily Harrington says:

        Reference, Reverence, and Realizations
        St. Lawrence and the Politics of Dwelling
        final post

        I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that musician Father John Misty was thinking of ecofeminist Val Plumwood when he wrote the line, “try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record”. Maybe he was just poetically noting the prevalence of mind/body, reason/emotion, respect/use binaries in western culture. Either way, both his commercial success as an artist and my (heretofore non-commercial) success as a student, are dependent on the “staggering amount” of shadow places you, I, we, “try not to think about” in order to pursue business as usual.

        St. Lawrence is no exception. ”Nestled ‘neath the purple shadows of the Adirondack hills,” it is similarly dependent on shadow places, and the injustice inherent in their existence, for its own continued success. The material accouterments of a small residential college – in the middle of nowhere, no less – are considered part and parcel of the ‘northern’ environment. Of course, St. Lawrence is not alone in this perpetuation of dualistic values. As Val Plummer explains, western tradition is dependent, to some extent, on, “the dissociation of the affective place (the place of and in mind, attachment and identification, political effectiveness, family history, ancestral place) from the economic place.” Thus, St. Lawrence, as an institution of higher education; myself, as a student of the environment; and other similarly minded residents of the ‘global North,’ are almost able to excuse ourselves from indulgence in this dualism. By writing off the environmental injustices inherent in the drive to and from St. Lawrence, the transportation of garbage off of campus every week, the growth of the endowment by investment in fossil fuel companies – the list goes on – as ‘economic transactions’ we excuse ourselves from a true accounting of the cost of such privileges.

        As we begin to approach the horizon lines of resource availability, the shadows we cast in our dependency on them will begin to spread. No longer will we be able to insulate ourselves from the effects of our material consumption with economic reasoning. Thus, it is important for institutions of such privilege as St. Lawrence to take a stance, to shine a light on shadow places and use its considerable social influence not only to educate its students on their existence but to affect a change to ‘business as usual’. Having just graduated, I hope to do so in my life moving forward. But having invested so much of myself in the ‘affective place’ of St. Lawrence, I hope that the future will bring a dissolution of the dichotomy between SLU as a, “place of and in mind, attachment and identification,” of love and curiosity and creativity, and SLU as an “economic place” of ever invisible garbage trucks, imported foods, and fossil fuel dependent endowment funds. It will take a radical rethinking of the ‘western traditions’ upon which St. Lawrence was founded to affect these changes. I do, however, believe that a metaphysically grounded conception of the privilege of spending four years, “nestled ‘neath the purple shadows” of the Adirondacks and insulated from the shadows the consumption inherent in that arrangement could and should herald that change. I just hope I can be there to raise a Labatt to the occasion – although I can’t imagine it would still be priced at $1.

        Shadow Places and the Politics of Dwelling, Val Plumwood, 2008
        “The Scarlet and The Brown,” St. Lawrence School Song

  3. Kristin Topich says:

    Kristin Topich
    Mill Creek Park – Youngstown, OH

    1. Kristin Topich says:

      Reflection #1 : Youngstown, OH – Mill Creek Park

      The connection I have to Mill Creek stems from the summers I spent in Youngstown; my fathers’ hometown. Youngstown was a booming steel town, reaching a peak in the 1930s, until the collapse on “Black Monday” in September 1977. The city itself was built for 600,000 people, but has now lost 60% of its population – leaving a desolate area after the closing of the mills. Bruce Springsteen covers the collapse in his song “Youngstown” from his album Ghost of Tom Joad : [] It was the employment in the steel mills that brought my family to Youngstown, OH from Croatia. Mill Creek is the highlight of Youngstown. Over 4,400 acres, Mill Creek has a variety of bridges, ponds, streams, gardens, and waterfalls. The park has faced numerous issues in the last few years; dealing with sewage and employment of the park.

      1. Kristin Rochelle says: