Sense of Place

Leopold near Chihuahua, Mexico, 1938
Photo: Starker Leopold

An era ago, a student of Nature named Aldo Leopold, after many years of living alongside the great American wilderness, wrote a classic book illustrating how a sense of place can become embedded in a person’s being. Some time later, an Austrian biologist stood on the banks of the Danube river and waxed poetic about his homeland. This man was Konrad Lorenz, and among his many discoveries as one of the founders of the field of animal behavior, or ethology, was that of imprinting. Imprinting is the process by which a young animal learns who its parents are. Gazing on this river, he mused that perhaps we imprint on the landscapes we belong to.

The basis of this thinking is of course clear – humans, as much as other animals, go through critical phases of development in our youth in which we are exposed to certain environmental cues – social, musical, cultural, and perhaps (critically) ecological. It’s natural to think that the lack of exposure to nature for those of us who grow up in urbanized environments may be in part responsible for the vast disconnect between individuals and the land in such places, a trend that Leopold was much aggrieved by.

Lorenz with his hand-reared Greylag geese.

Imprinting is a fascinating concept. We now know that developmental or environmental experiences (e.g. nutrition deprivation) can leave a mark even on the very stuff of life itself – our DNA. These effects might last over multiple generations, incredible as that sounds (see the Swedish Hunger Study). But I wonder if the reverse can also be true: it often happens that we are attracted to places and things we have absolutely no prior experience of. Can a craving for something missing lead us to pursue a novel connection to something very very old…?

I like connecting disparate ideas, so let’s that stew for a minute.

I had an overnight guest yesterday who’s a graduate student visiting our lab from the University of Nebraska. Our conversation started off with a fascinating topic that is now gaining traction in ecology – the so-called ‘Landscape of Fear’. Briefly, the idea behind the landscape of fear is something like ecosystem imprinting – namely, that prey species are affected not just directly by predation itself (i.e. being eaten), but that fear alone can drive their dynamics. So, for instance by animals adjusting their movement and behavior in response to perceived risks.

Fear not, grasshopper. Pic: Bob Handelman.

But what really blows my mind are how such seemingly subtle interactions can cascade throughout entire ecosystems. Thus the death of a humble grasshopper, can leave a unique signature on the very soil in which it died depending on whether or not it was exposed to the risk of being hunted by a spider. This in turn can affect what grows on that soil. The mere presence of the spider’s silk can affect the propensity of a plant to get eaten. Guppies that are stressed alter the ecology of entire ponds, from the algae upwards. Multiply this by all the many species on earth, and all their interactions, and all the inorganic substrates on which these interactions occur – and you get a tiny inkling of the complexity one has to grapple with in ecology.

Over breakfast this morning our conversation flowed in a different direction – also about landscapes, yet this time about attraction rather than fear. Despite being transplants from urban coastal urban areas, we both felt an inexplicable sense of connection to mountains. How could this be? We had not grown up near mountains – indeed, I never experienced snow until I was in my twenties. Yet upon moving out West, gazing up at the Rockies had almost moved moved us tears.This experience seems to be shared by many. In a collection of essays in the book “Snow Leopard,” biologist Jan E. Janecka describes arriving in the rugged Himalayan highlands of Mongolia for the first time in his life and yet feeling as though he had returned home, so strongly did the landscape resonate with him. Is it something about the sheer awe mountains inspire? Not necessarily – for other people may be attracted to deserts, and still others to oceans (having always been a stone’s throw from the deep blue seas, personally I have never been drawn to it when near or missed it from afar)

In my case, I could trace the source of at least some of my sentiments. You see, I spent my childhood in Sri Lanka with a healthy dose of old western TV programming – the ones from the US were circa 1960s-70s.  One of my favorites was Marty Stouffer’s Wild America. Big and small, the wildlife was all there – from chipmunks to cougars, marmots to moose. And bighorn sheep, who featured in the theme song.  These programs captured the spirit of the landscape he knew, loved, and belonged to – the Colorado Rockies. I’m quite sure it played a major role in my wanting to become a biologist, despite having had no interactions with nature other than with the caterpillars in my back yard. A documentary film maker, making films perhaps a decade before I was born, transmitted a message that left a mark somewhere in my psyche such that when I arrived on that very landscape the sense of familiarity made me catch my breath.

A non-rainforest forest outside Kandy, Sri Lanka

A non-rainforest forest outside Kandy, Sri Lanka

Does this explain the mystery? Well…not quite. Because I am also attracted to another, very distinct landscape, something I had never seen on television, and indeed something I thought I had dreamed until I actually came across it back where I came from. These are the tropical non-rainforests. They go by many names, and vary in appearance, but they share some features –  they are drier, have a more open canopy, and are more sunlit than rainforests.

Two diametrically different landscapes.

And now here I’m going to cut loose and speculate. Given the existence of a landscape of fear, might not the opposite be true – could there also be a landscape of love? The so-called ‘Pastoral Idyll‘ some say might reflect a very old human attraction to the type of landscapes (some of) our ancestors successfully made a living in – open meadows dotted with streams and woodlands. Whether or not this particular hypothesis is true, it would be intriguing to understand the mechanism that draws some of us to particular landscapes, for certainly the phenomenon exists. Perhaps in some cases, we are able to finger the source, and in others the causes are more diffuse.

And by extension, might it be that individuals – animal or human – who experience this profound contentment of place also leave a mark on their surroundings when connected to them in life or death, altering the very structure of these places in much the same way as those humble grasshoppers and guppies? And as we lose sense of place, when the native species are driven extinct and the identity of landscapes are lost, might we not be losing more than species and their interactions? Dust to dust…

 For a more academic treatment, see Sense of Place on Wikipedia.



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