How Do We Instill a Reverence For Place?

Perhaps because we are such Olympians at moving, at shifting and transitioning to new lives, new jobs and new houses, Americans know relatively little about the places in which they live. Much of my own work has been about the creative ideas for educating about place and region, and for deepening connections to nature and landscape. There are many possibilities, some tried, others only pondered. Part of the task I think is to make learning about community and place fun; something that you would want to do, and that would compete well with the many other life diversions available. We review a number of innovative strategies in out book Green Urbanism Down Under. These include, for instance, efforts in the Perth region to educate and stimulate interest in fungi—turns out there are 250,000 species (potentially) of fungi in Australia, and they are absolutely essential to the ecology there. Beyond a handful of mycologists, however, there is little popular knowledge of fungi, specific fungi, or broader patterns of diversity and value. A program in Perth aimed to change this through public workshops and publications, but also by organizing "fungi forays"—walks in the urban bush to discover, identify and collect mushrooms. There will also be especially opportune times to educate about native flora and fauna. One especially promising time is when residents are moving into the neighborhood, when they've bought a new home or rented a new flat. They may be especially open to learning about the larger "home" that they've just joined. In the Sydney, Australia, metro region there is an interesting community environmental center called The Watershed that runs a promising initiative called "Welcome to the Neighborhood." Working with local real estate agents, the idea is to convey informational material and tips about living more sustainably to new residents as they're moving in. While the information conveyed is definitely tilted towards sustainable living (e.g. where can I recycle?) the basic concept of trying to reach people about nature and place at the time they move in makes much sense. For a number of years I have advocated the idea of an "ecological owners manual" that every new homeowner or renter would receive as they move in. Mostly what new residents receive are things related (narrowly) to the equipment and running of the house. And these are not unimportant—that manual for the dishwasher may come in handy! But it is the larger manual for responsibly living in the watershed, in the bioregion, that is needed even more. Such an ecological owners manual might include basic information about the ecosystems and plant and animal communities in which the home or apartment is located, ways in which a homeowner or renter can help in small ways to restore or repair these. An even more strident approach would be to impose some form of (dare I say) mandatory short course about the nature, natural history, ecology of the community and region. We don't think it's unreasonable to require all those wishing to drive an automobile to obtain a license (and to pass a test demonstrating minimum levels of knowledge and competency). Similar testing and licensing is needed to fly an airplane, or operate heavy equipment, or even to engage in fishing and hunting. As one model, several years ago I had the chance to visit a beautiful marine park north of Honolulu, Hawaii, called Hanauma Bay. Before you are permitted to descent into this pristine beach and coral reef you are required to watch a 9 minute film about the park, its biodiversity, its fragility, and the standards of care expected of visitors. The film was quite good and effectively conveyed not only helpful information, but more importantly a sense of the sacred and unique nature of what was beyond the gate of the visitors. I don't know if there is any evidence that this short film has changed the behavior or attitude of visitors, but my hunch is that the mere step of requiring visitors to watch it infuses a heightened reverence about the park they are about to explore. I'm not sure how we might devise an analogous tool for imparting a similar kind of reverence to new residents of a community or region (would it be a film, as well?) but I think it not an unreasonable request. What do you think? Leave us a comment. --------------------