Active searches for Forrest Fenn’s treasure chest seem to slow in late fall and stop all together during winter—kind of the opposite of what the Mountain Men did. Beaver pelts reached their best quality during these periods and though the trappers had to hunker down during the heaviest snows and when temperatures in the mountains dropped to bone chilling levels, the work of trapping went on. And when outside activity was impossible, they stayed in their crudely built huts or in their buffalo skin tipis, told lies to one another and “philosophized.” So, since winter is here and my sweet wife is now deep into remodeling our 17’ long Casita (which we will take to Southern Arizona where we are volunteers at the Tumacacori National Historic Park), for the next couple of months this blog will do the same (by which I mean I also will tell lies and philosophize). Here goes.
One of the topics that often comes up when people discuss the places they love is a concept called “Sense of Place.” You may not call it that, but I’ve no doubt that you have felt it.
There are hundreds of writings out there that discuss the topic. Architects, land-use planners of various kinds, conservationists, deep ecologists, photographers and a sociologist or two, write most of them.
Some of the writings are scholarly tomes, others are scientific studies and others are just downright beautiful descriptions of a specific place that, if read alone late at night, bring moist eyes and throat lumps.
Still, though the musings on ‘a sense of place’ are each different from the other, they do have some things in common. For example, I dare you to read any of them without stopping from time to time just to remold the concept and make it your own. Other similarities are that they describe places that demand either protection or attention; and, though the descriptions are deeply felt, they are often preceded or followed by a statement that the concept itself, is “fuzzy.”
I had never really thought about that “fuzziness” thing until one day a friend and I were riding along in his old jeep station wagon with the observation deck on top somewhere between Rowe and Las Vegas (New Mexico). We were discussing a recent photography book that had a page or two on “a sense of place” and he asked me what I thought it meant.
Having never thought about it at any depth, and therefore I could opine, I offered the first thing that came to mind: “Banter,” I said, “It has to do with banter.”
Fortunately, we were fast approaching the corner where we were to make a very important turn lest we wind up in Trementina rather than Watrous and the conversation died.
That was a while ago and now that I have had time to think about it, I find the statement that, among other things, a sense of place has to do with “banter,” to be perfectly justifiable. You see, a solution to the fuzziness problem can be helped along if, instead of emphasizing “place,” as most writers do, you emphasize “sense,” as most don’t.
Emphasizing “sense” rather than “place” takes you to what you feel and understand about a place rather than to what you see and think you know. It has to do as much with what is inside of you as it does with what is out there in front of you.
If you can banter within that place, it says that you are comfortable there. You know enough about it to hold an intelligent conversation. You can make jokes with those with whom you trust and defend yourself when things get more serious. Likewise, you know enough of the culture and language to recognize the difference between a “tease” and an “insult.” But, in addition to its beauty, you know enough of the dangers of that place to be cautious but not afraid. And, you know where you are, even if you are lost.
I’ve no doubt that Forrest understands the concept very well; that is why he has a specific place that has meaning to him, a place where significant life passages were taken, where he conquered beasts within, where he learned a great deal because of the battles that were lost as well as won, where he smiled and laughed the smiles and laughs of freedom, and, because of all this, it is a place where he would like to be buried. If we discover just where that site is, we have found the treasure. And, I am convinced we will also have discovered one of the Earth’s beautiful places. As far as I can tell, his aesthetic choices have always been impeccable. That, however, has only a small part to play in the concept of a “Sense of Place.”