As a young college student, I took many courses in architecture and interior design. We were often challenged to create models that conveyed a “sense of place.” How do edge conditions create a unique space? What factors must meld to form a sense of place? My classmates and I struggled over these questions into the wee hours of the morning in a cramped design studio, cutting and gluing chip board to give physical form to our answers. That was ten years ago. Now that my life is more steeped in learning about nature than architecture, my answer to this question is framed differently. It is no longer edge conditions, planes and patterns of tectonic linear striations that define a place, in my eyes; it is the native plants and wildlife that infuse it with uniqueness, give it a sense of place.
At my home, the eastern towhees and Carolina wrens lead off the morning with lilting “drink your teeeaaaa” and “cabbage, cabbage, cabbage” calls. Today, Canada geese honked from the skies when they passed over the golf course behind our house.
In June, dusk brought hundreds of fireflies twinkling and blinking from our backyard all the way down to the Haw River where they enlivened trees crowding the river bank. When we backpacked in the Uwharrie Wilderness in May, we heard a never-ending chorus of wood thrush’s singing flute-like from the crown’s of trees, and a lost ruby-throated hummingbird hovered among the pines. In late April, daffodils poked up stiff green sprouts through the red clay by our front gravel drive, and the eastern bluebirds began showing up more regularly in the nearby cattle pastures and corn fields. It’s taken me a full cycle of seasons to begin decoding the “sense of place” that defines my home in North Carolina’s Piedmont.
Last weekend, my boyfriend and I stepped outside with a tree field guide in hand, and we deciphered about eight types of trees in our yard. Learning to read the flora opens up a new dimension for me, as I tend to mostly read the birds and mammals of a place. We learned the paw-shaped leaves on our yellow poplar, and the outline of scraggly “cork wings” on our winged elm tree. We learned that the juvenile tree which had burst into a flaming orange and red visual melee last October before dropping every last leaf is a Florida sugar maple; and we learned that the dry-looking, straight-trunked evergreens are eastern red cedars. We have a flowering dogwood, a redbud and a sweetgum tree on either side of the driveway, and a sweet birch tree struggling to grasp sunlight under a thick canopy of yet-to-be-identified pine trees.
For me, learning the names of the plants and animals in a given place make them active characters in my life. Upon learning their name, and a bit of their natural history, I “know” them better. Just as learning the names of your neighbors makes you more inclined to be friendly to them, to care about them, so does learning the names of the flora and fauna of a place. I care whether or not the Florida sugar maple is healthy, whether the scarlet tanager that’s been hanging out at my bird feeder makes it to the end of her migration, whether the red fox I spied behind our house lives another season. But I fear too that we are losing touch rapidly with the natural fabric of our environment. The majority of people grow up literate in our society, but the majority also grows up illiterate to “reading” the natural landscape. It’s a different language. One that I am trying to teach myself.