The Ring

The lasting value of "sense of place"

Tue, 2013-11-26 11:34

May Sam and Nick Stanger. Photo: Mitch Wright
May Sam and Nick Stanger.

People often have a place that holds special meaning for them. Whether it’s somewhere childhood memories were made or a serene spot that soothes their soul, place can have a profound impact on people’s lives.

For former Lieutenant Governor, politician and tireless advocate for First Nations rights Iona Campagnolo, memories of talking with other youngsters at a North Pacific Cannery dock on the Skeena Slough in northwestern BC have stayed with her. It was a formative experience that played a recurring role throughout her life and demonstrates how powerful “sense of place” can be.

University of Victoria doctoral candidate Nick Stanger is researching the notion of “sense of place” and how formative places become transformative places, such as that cannery dock for Campagnolo.

Stanger says with increasing amounts of time spent online and in front of monitors, people are losing their sense of connection to the ecological systems that are life sustaining, both in the physical and psychological senses. His environmental education research, entitled “(Re)placing ourselves in nature: An exploration of how (trans)formative places foster emotional, physical, spiritual, and ecological connectedness”, issupported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council(SSHRC) Doctoral Fellowship and is an interactive investigation of how learning that occurs within childhood places has lasting effects on our lives.

“There’s been little investigation into the value of important places, or even the memory of them, and the impact of the experiences we connect to significant places have throughout our lives,” says Stanger. “Our lives are rooted in place, whether we acknowledge it or not. I’m interested in how those places foster emotional, physical, spiritual, and ecological connectedness and how that contributes to shaping our lives.”

Stanger enlisted the help of four prominent British Columbians—Campagnolo, Tsartlip First Nation Elder and UVic Elder-in-Residence May Sam, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Wade Davis, and Sharktruth.orgconservation initiative founder Claudia Li—who were filmed explaining their own transformative places. Watch a preview on YouTube here.

“I was raised outside of Montreal and that experience had a big impact on me.  I think it was how I became an anthropologist, because it was the two solitudes of the 1950s where the French didn’t speak to the English and vice versa,” says Davis. “There was a boulevard that ran down the neighbourhood dividing our worlds. I would look across this boulevard to another world—a different religion, a different language, a different way of being, a different way of carrying yourself, a different sense of family. I became really intrigued and crossing those barriers between cultures is all I have ever done all my life as a result.”

The stories are at www.transformativeplaces.com, where the project is now open to public submissions. People interested in participating are asked to respond to the key participants by filming themselves, creating art, writing, or taking photographs within and about their transformative outdoor place. This could capture written songs, playing, painting, or any activity in those places that connects to the underlying vision of the research—the role of these places over the course of a person’s life.

All submissions that are appropriate for the site will be made public, while 10 will be selected as part of Stanger’s data analysis.

Stanger—chair of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, which aims to connect organizations, families, and youth with nature-based experiences—is getting assistance from several high-profile organizations, including the Canadian Wildlife Federationand the Children & Nature Network, which was co-founded by author Richard Louv after the publication of his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods popularized the notion of “Nature-Deficit Disorder”. Both are sharing a link to the project on their website, Facebook and Twitter pages.

“Rachel Carson often said that children need two things to connect to nature: special places and special people. Nick is really talking about both, and he's right on target,” says Louv.