UR Here: Place in Time

For the past few years, July has been a special month for me. Since 2005, I have taught a one-week workshop in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival focused on writing about place and writing about nature. Since 2007, I have followed that up with a several-week course at the Iowa City Senior Center focused on the same thing. This year, my ISWF “Finding Your Place in the Personal Essay” workshop will be followed by “Story, Place, and Community” at the Senior Center.

These teaching experiences take me out of the academic setting and place me with people who want to explore writing and place from a purely personal perspective. I teach a university course called “Introduction to Place Studies,” and while I do try to tap into my students’ personal experiences and cultivate their individual ideas about place, much of what we do remains at a fairly analytical and “objective” level. That’s all well and good, and there’s a place for place studies of that sort (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it). But more and more I’m interested in tapping into something different from the intellectualization of what “place” means. I’m interested in interacting with people on the basis of what we feel as much as what we think.

As we understand more and more the necessity and urgency of “sustainability” in a world of diminishing resources, several visionary thinkers, as I discussed in this column a few months ago, are pointing to locally based economies as key to the practices that will lead to sustainable living. In other words, “place”—the locally based web of environments (natural, built, social and cultural) in which we dwell—becomes the locus for humanity’s future. Most of the discussion over “sustainability” focuses on the practical aspects of human life—using resources within limits, minimizing or eliminating noxious and destructive outcomes of human activity, and so forth. The health of place, therefore, remains for many a rationalistic project of living within means and avoiding practical catastrophe.

That is all well and good—and necessary. However, the human relationship with place based solely on practical necessity itself is not “sustainable.” Human life is multi-dimensional, rife with reactions, motivations, and actions other than the purely rationalistic. Connection to place can fully and persistently exist—and exist with fulfillment, not just survival, at its core—only when the whole human is engaged. The affective, as well as the rational, dimensions of a sense of place must be fully realized.

The connection to “place,” especially in the current environment of “sustainability,” tends toward the structures we have created around science and commerce. In that environment, the aesthetic, the spiritual and certainly the emotional receive short shrift. Beauty and design, soulfulness and inspiration, and love and hate regarding where we are must go hand in hand with preserving our watershed and stabilizing our climate. What I’m calling the “affective” dimensions of place are no more nor no less significant than the practicalities and economics of place—what we normally tend to categorize as “environmentalism” and “sustainability.” But they are just as essential, and in many ways a precondition for effective rational action. As bioregionalist Robert Thayer, Jr. has said that attachment precedes action, and attachment leads to care. A committed, engaged ethic and practice of sustainability—caring for our places—cannot fully happen without embracing how we feel, to express and be inspired by our connections to place. As Wendell Berry has said, we need to “give affection some standing.”

And so that’s why I especially love my Julys of late. In my Iowa Summer Writing Festival workshops, I join with a small community of writers who come to Iowa City from hither and yon—some with professional aspirations and even success, some with just a desire to fulfill their personal need to express themselves—who reach into their souls and their feelings and draw out expressions of their connections to place in (we hope) an aesthetically pleasing way. In my Senior Center classes, I do likewise with a small community of wonderful folks from right here at home. We feel and express together, we inspire each other, and sometimes there’s even something like a little enlightenment sparking amongst ourselves. Together, we seek beauty in, nurture affection for, and peer into the soul of this place we hold in common.

It’s July. The festivals and farmers markets are in full gear, the warm days of summer are in full bloom, and your neighbors are out in their gardens in full force. What a great time to tap into our love for our place, share it with each other, and express affection for our community and the marvelous Iowa midsummer. Go ahead: feel it.

Thomas Dean’s son Nathaniel is playing saxophone in the Iowa City Community Band this summer, so he’ll be going to a lot of festivals and park performances in the next couple of months.