On Friday morning, I wrote a short post about homesickness and how I miss living in Florida, my home state. In the comments, Russ Campbell mused about the connections we feel to certain places. The ecology of place is something I am sensitive to on an emotive level, but it’s a feeling I’ve never tried to corral into words — spoken or written. Last fall I typed up a short post about how I was getting to know the seasonal rhythms of my new home in North Carolina’s Piedmont, and I drew a comparison to the “sense of place” I was challenged to design as a student in UF’s College of Architecture versus the “sense of place” I now come to know in natural spaces through reading or interpreting the landscape. That post is probably the closest I’ve come to verbalizing the personal connections that I develop to a natural space. I think of this connection as the “ecology of place.”
My relationship to natural places in N.C. is, so far, tenuous. Which is probably why I am struck with nostalgia for what I remember as “home” in Florida. I used to be a long distance runner. Before I hurt my back, I could run all day. There was a park northwest of Gainesville that I ran in at least once a week, San Felasco State Park. I used to run the trails there in the morning with one arm raised in front of my face to cut the golden orb spider webs. While running, I saw deer, turkey, boar, rattlesnakes, black racer snakes, warblers and woodpeckers. I knew exactly where to cut off the trail and trek through the underbrush to reach a seasonal pond rimmed with live oaks. One day, I climbed one of those oaks and sat in the tree for half the day, just thinking. I saw deer, a great horned owl, a pileated woodpecker, a gopher tortoise and a wild turkey… and I carried a deer tick home, buried in my calf. Once, I drew a sketch of the landscape from that limb vantage point: mostly loblolly pines with turkey oaks and some wax myrtle trees. These are pictures of San Felasco’s interior:
South of town was another protected space, Paynes Prairie State Preserve. There, I saw my first American bittern and loggerhead shrike on the La Chua Trail. And countless alligators sunning. A bike path winds through an area said to have the highest density of cotton mouth snakes in all of Florida. My friend and I wandered off trail one day, and came within 20 feet of an alligator. We circled cautiously, slowly, behind the armored reptile. It never stirred.
After my back healed, I took up cycling and spent many days over many years riding my bike through rural north Florida. My favorite scenes were watching sandhill cranes forage their way across cow pastures or melon fields in the morning. These birds are always moving, working over the earth for insects, frogs, salamanders, anything they can eat. Their feathered bustles jostled to and fro as they snaked their beaks through the grass. Encounters like these connect me to a place, almost viscerally. My memories of animals and their habitat become rooted in that particular place. The way the summer sunlight hits the wire grass or pine needles, the way the air smells after an afternoon rain shower, the way the ocean bottom pops through shallow sea turtle grass — all these little parts and pieces weave together into the ecology of a place.
In time, I think I will form an ecology of place in the Carolinas. I just haven’t spent enough time outside yet (I work too much now). So for now, I flip through my old photos from Florida, and the waterborne adventures I used to take there.
What is your favorite outdoor space, and why? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks.