We all live somewhere. We’re all from someplace. What does it mean, then, for some of us to have a more awakened sense of place than others? Is a sense of place something that can be deepened, or nurtured, with practice?
Sense of place is hard to describe; it’s often that intangible, indescribable quality that seems to linger in the air but is hard to pinpoint.
So let’s start with its opposite: we’ve all been to a place that lacked a sense of place. How many times have you driven through a strip mall that looks so identical to every other strip mall you’ve ever driven through that you feel disoriented, unsure of where you are? The same chain stores, the same chain restaurants, the same gas stations, the same anonymous, nondescript look that we’ve come to associate with an office building, a bank, a shopping center — or with a suburban neighborhood, for that matter. You could be anywhere.
A special or unique place, then, is the opposite: a place that communicates to you — unapologetically and through all your senses — that you couldn’t be anywhere else but here.
It’s a place that embraces its specialness, that which sets it apart. Maybe it’s its natural features, maybe it’s the pulse of the street life, maybe it’s the smell of salty sea air or spicy traditional foods cooking or the legacy of who and what was here before you. Maybe it’s the energy of the people who call it home. It may be gritty industrial or sophisticated elegance or the mossy moisture in the air in a mountain holler. But it’s someplace special.
If you live in one of these places with character, with its own vibe, consider yourself lucky. But wherever you are, you can absolutely deepen your relationship to your place. It doesn’t have to be your forever home. (And I say this as someone who has moved 26 times in her lifetime. I’ve often been transitional, nomadic, yet found that these ways helped me get a fuller taste of where I was.)
16 Ways to Deepen Your Sense of Place (and Have a Great Time While You’re At It)
Get rooted where you are
- Look at all different kinds of maps of the place… not just street maps! Visit the library or Google Images for old maps of your place. Look up your watershed map. Many counties have a free GIS database for maps that show the topography, water bodies, main natural landmarks and natural resources.
- Learn about the history of your place. Who was here before you? Who was here before them? How did they live, what did they eat? Plan a trip to your nearest museum or heritage center that celebrates the stories and lifeways of people who used to inhabit the landscape.
- Take the Bioregional quiz.
- Find ways to enhance your connection to nature and the seasons. Keep a local seasonal produce calendar taped to your fridge and plan meals around what’s in season when. “Bring the outdoors in and indoors out”: bring natural greenery into your house in all seasons — winter greens during the winter holidays, wild flowers in the summer — and take more of your daily activities, like coffee and lunch, outside during the warm seasons.
- Get a bird feeder, place it close to your window and notice how you simply start to develop a relationship with local bird life.
- Get to know one local wild plant a month. No, you don’t need to memorize the Latin names, and you don’t need to feel embarrassed if you don’t have your plant ID’ing game on yet: there are now tons of free plant ID apps to choose from that identify the plant for you. Tip: I find it much easier to remember a plant if I learn what it can be used for — for example, if it used to be a medicine for headaches, or if it’s an edible that can be thrown into a salad.
- Explore the natural world. Move in whatever way moves you: hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, rock climbing. Find a hiking buddy and make a monthly date. At least a couple of times a year, plan a longer, ideally overnight or multi-day, trip to a special place like a national forest or state park.
- Find your own special place. You don’t need to explain it to anybody. It’s any place that makes you breathe in a little deeper, feel a little more grounded, the place from which you return invigorated and feeling more like yourself.
Get to know your foodshed
- Farmers’ markets are great places to soak up the local vibe. You’ll be find local delicacies and special food varieties to sample, enjoy the sense of community, get to know who here grows what.
- Get to know your farmer in other ways. Join a CSA, visit farm stands, go apple-picking and pumpkin-hugging in the fall, join in on farm volunteer days.
- Get to know and celebrate your region’s specialties, heirloom foods, foods with terroir (“taste of the land”). If you need ideas, check out Slow Food’s Ark of Taste or the place-based foods lists from RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Initiative.
- Join the local chapter of Slow Food International.
Harvest your own local edibles
- Plant a garden if you haven’t already. There is no better way to connect with the land! If you don’t have access to land, join a community garden, trade with someone who does have land, or plant a windowsill/balcony garden.
- Join a local guided edible wild plants walk or a mushroom foraging club.
- Check out Falling Fruit to see what other edibles might be growing in your neighborhood, yours for the pickin’.
- Find other local initiatives to tap into the abundance of locally grown food that might otherwise go to waste, like fruit gleaning clubs.