Sense of Place

Yesterday (Sunday) I went to the Knight library on campus to try and catch up on homework. Yet I got sidetracked into reading some of a dissertation from 97 on an ecological perspective on folklore. The day outside was delicious. The low clouds filtered the light; everything was softer, grey, dark green. There was no rain, yet the moss on the rees were damp to the touch. After two hours I could no longer contain myself. I had to go outside as my reading on the meaning of place and Nature in folklore had a cumulative effect.

I drove to Spencer Butte, the east side, to a small parking lot on the Ridgeline Trail. I knew where I was going and after a brief walk up the slope and through the forest I came to a hidden side trail that I discovered one day that leads onto someone’s property. They had clearcut it a couple of years back. The elevation and clearing gives me a wonderful view of the western side of the Cascade Mountain Range. Immediately before me, across a few hills and Interstate 5 (now a tiny thread through the green) is the well traversed western slop of Mt Pisgah. In the distance I can make out what I believe to be either Mt Jefferson, or Mt Washington, though I am unsure which. my view of the Sisters, seen from Skinner Butte, is hampered by westerly mountains in the range. Dotting the tips and ridgelines are bright patches of snow; some of them due to elevation, some are clearcuts of great size.

An owl began to hoot as darkness moved westward. A lone tree frog croaked on a lone tree in the openess in front of me, its echo resounding in the stillness. Yet thigns weren’t still. There was activity. A hawk shrilled twice at the lower edge of the clearing, sounding low to the ground. Did it catch a rabbit?

The wooly blanket of clouds hung still over the Earth, yet there was a slightly perceptable change in the mixture. The colors of the world began to leak out of things, blending together in one dark picture. Smaller frogs were taking up their song in the forest behind me. In the near distance I could see the twinkling lights of Eugene/ Springfield.

Darkness had fallen.

Sitting there in the slower world, my ears had a slight ringing in them. Used to a constant barrage of multiple-source noises of varying degrees and importance, the silence, or quieter world around me, was strange.

How does one use the word ‘strange’ in a sentence describing one’s being in the natural world, in an activity as simple and natural as sitting in a forest clearing at dusk?

As night enveloped me, my focus turned more and more on the horizon, specifically the contrast between the mountain tops and the sky above. I almost felt as though I were moving among those mountain tops and I could feel something of their essence in my heart as I did so. What is this essence? Was I not projecting my Self out onto those distant mountains? Was I, in looking at the edges of the horizon, looking at the edges of my Self?

The question of Self is one of historical importance in philosophy, psychology, and other fields. I believe it was William James (but I might be mistaken) who said that a person’s Self is more than that contained within his skin, but included the extensions of his will; his actions, accomplishments, even his property and family help to constitute his sense of Self.

If one’s property, family, and group affiliations can help constitute one’s sense of Self (see social psychology), then the distant shapes of the Cascade Mountains are beginning to constitute mine. But why? There must be something more than simply being ‘natural’ or ‘nature’ for it to do so. Even though the history of the human species gives us predispositions toward some things more than others to identify with (we feel at home on earth, but might feel quite odd on Jupiter, all things being equal. A westerner might feel at home in Chicago but out of place in Tokyo). It is strange now that we are becoming alienated from our first and primary environment.

The Cascades, particularly the view I was looking at, and the trail that I took to get to the view, are defining aspects of my sense of Self, they are pages from my scrapbook of memories. I remember past visits though I might not remember the social, financial, emotional states I was in at the time.

I pondered this as I walked the trail through the forest. I was reminded of John Elder’s “Reading the Mountains of Home” about his move to Vermont and he seeking a sense of place”

(end paper journal)


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