Sense of Place

One of the things my dog, Barkley, taught me was about having a sense of place.

Our dogs teach us so many things – so much about life, love, trust, attitude, loyalty, living in the moment, feeling joy for the smallest things – and all those things we aspire to know and understand and be. But THIS dog, this dog taught me about having a sense of place.

And I got to thinking about it. What does it mean, exactly? How do we get it? It came so natural to him.

Listen, whatever you see and love—that’s where you are.

From Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

In my mind, a Sense of Place implies a sense of belonging – a connection – whether to a region, a culture, a community, or a specific place that influenced your life. The “Place” becomes more than the place itself – it is something you identify with on a deeper level, an extension of who you are.

We often talk about “going home” for the holidays. What does that mean? Where our parents are, if we are lucky enough to still have them alive? Where we grew up? Someplace we are not?

A few years ago, I had the chance to return to an area that greatly influenced the early years in my life: Alaska. I was ecstatic at the thought of finally going home! But once I got there, I was dismayed to see how it had changed. Freeways, overpasses, and underpasses criss-crossed heavy traffic all over Anchorage. The rugged muddy road where my grandparents had lived was now a main arterial. The cabin in the woods we built beside a lake was now a gravel pit with a small airstrip nearby. Belugas and 300-pound halibut were now a rarity in Kachemak Bay, and the road to the end was now a long tourist strip like most any other, but with a spectacular mountain backdrop.

My connection was broken. After giving it some thought, I realized how fortunate I was to have lived there when I did, but it is no longer who I am.

And that is OK.

Perhaps we have to leave to be able to see, understand, and appreciate the places where we were – and also where we are now.

Because our paths are often doorways. As we evolve, so does our place in it. As our place shapes us, so do we influence the place around us, however we define it. Our sense of place becomes our personal truth.

True, a place can be many things, depending on our perspective: through a child’s eye? A connection to generations past? A place where we have grown through overcoming hardships? A place where we have loved?

I think of it like a garden. We plant the seeds of ourselves and nourish them and watch them change and grow. We harvest crops of memories. Our relationships with family, friends, and people we see are rooted there. We are all interconnected.

And if we do not feel this sense of place? If we are not feeling grounded at all, but even feeling a bit lost, more like seeds in the wind?

Sometimes we need to seek that connection and allow ourselves to be vulnerable to what is there.

My friend, Barkley, for example, would sit on a hill in the sunshine and watch the clouds move. Or perhaps it was the neighbor’s cat. He didn’t always say, but he was keenly aware of every scent floating his direction on the wind. The afternoon sun frequently warmed this very spot, and he took full advantage of it. “Sometimes we just need to sit and be,” he explained patiently. “A nap is also nice.”

A dog can never tell you what she knows from the smells of the world, but you know, watching her, that you know almost nothing.

From Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

When we follow how the sun and shadows change throughout the day and seasons, which directions the strongest winds come from, where the puddles form when it rains, where the frost stays the longest, where the geese like to land, and on what path the deer come up from below the hill, where the softest patch of dandelions are, and where the best place to listen to the hummingbirds is when the red flowering currants are blooming…  we start to understand a place. 

As Head Guardian of Barbolian Fields, and true to the herding breed to which he belonged, Barkley kept track of all these things and also everyone on the property, including rowdy grandchildren (“Which is like herding cats,” he once confessed).

His bond with me, his personal human, was stronger than any other, and his perceived duty to protect me and this place from any and all intruders could at times be a bit problematic. He took it upon himself to patrol the house at all times, warding off threats real and imaginary, and just “checking on things” in general. His rounds resulted in a well-worn path around the perimeter of the house.

There is nothing this dog would not do for me. Granted, I was not an easy person to follow or keep track of. I often forget one tool or another and am not very efficient – I do a lot of walking back and forth throughout the day. Sometimes I would hide and see how long it took him to find me. In short, I can be exhausting – and as he got older, he told me so.

Still. He took his job seriously, even at age 15. Every day, he kept an eye on everything going on – the visits from the curious chocolate labs from next door, the neighbor’s comings and goings (he could identify each of our cars and even let me know when the mailperson stopped at the mailbox across the road), the new clutches of quail and the birds at the feeder, which he respectfully did not try to herd but just laid down and watched, and the feral cat that moved into the blackberry patch, which, in his old age, he found to be too much bother to chase down.

As one season folded into the next, he took each one to be the very best. Taking care of our place was his commitment. This was where he belonged.

Athletic, clever, communicative, a bit on the scruffy side, and with a very uncertain past … my most devoted dog ever … this dog followed my every move and defined “intense” at a whole new level. Eventually I realized that he would continue protecting me and doing whatever he could possibly do to please me, no matter how hard or how much it hurt, until the day he died – and I knew at that moment that saying goodbye to my old friend was the kind and loving thing to do.

Job well done, Barkley. From my heart, I thank you.

So, that deepest sting: sorrow. Still, is he gone from us entirely, or is he a part of that other world, everywhere?

From Dog Songs by Mary Oliver

And now – I look around this place – which has this gaping silence where my fur-faced friend once greeted me with such exuberance.

This place, where we raised our children for at least part of their lives, grieved over the loss of my brother and our mothers, where we got married, played with grandchildren, celebrated birthdays and every holiday, and now have placed Barkley to rest along with Griffin, Argus, Molly, Lambchop, Lupine, Ginger, Guy Noir, Sebastian, and Chili (whew!), and watching over them all, my mother. Yes. Her ashes are out there, too. It’s exactly what she would have wanted.

This place, where buildings have fallen down and we have rebuilt again. A place where seasons have turned from one into the next and where I have aged 25 years. This place, where I have planted flowers, herbs, and vegetables, berries, cedars, and hazels, and brought in bees to pollinate them all. Where I’ve planted willows and shaped them into cathedrals and danced beneath their twisted ceilings. This place that sustains us through the winter and shelters and feeds birds, pollinators, frogs, and snakes. We listen for their calls in early spring and tuck in the plants with mulch before winter. We exclaim over every new sprout; we provide life-sustaining water through the drought of summer; we give thanks in the fall.

I am just a visitor here. This place will carry on long after I am gone. But for now, this is where I stay. It is a part of who I am.

This, here, in the Pacific Northwest between the mountains, the rivers, and the sea, defines my sense of place. It extends to the community we support, the local growers who provide our food, the people we have grown to know and love, with whom we share food, art and music, laughs, and sometimes, yes, a few tears.

When we connect, we care; when we care, we protect; when we protect, we try to heal, nourish, and help grow.

These are the bonds that tie us to our sense of place. We build the world around us – we are invested in it thriving – whether it be our home, our backyard, our community, or even our very planet.

Perhaps the many challenges we face ahead for our Earth might be made easier if we developed a greater sense of place?

The answers seem so simple. It’s all about connection.

We can learn the stories of our ancestors, build on them, and preserve them for future generations to share with their own.

It all becomes a part of who we are—this continuing thread.

But for now, like Barkley, I am learning to take each day for what it is. We connect the moon phases from one solstice to the next, from the dimming of the days to the increasing light. We allow ourselves to delight in plants that are still available in midwinter and with the buds that are already forming on the shrubs. We smile at the geese calling to one another as they fly overhead — such a ruckus!

This is where I am rooted and this place is what grounds me. It is an understanding that has grown from nurturing: a garden, a home, and my children’s children. Intermingled here are the scents of flowers and pine, the herbs covered with bees, the abundance of berries throughout the summer, and the pets that have befriended me and taught me important lessons in life. Here are the birds, the snakes, the insects, reptiles, and all those creatures and earthly features that are part of the balance we call Gaia.

When we care and love, we protect.

At this close of 2019, I wish you all an abundant 2020.  May your sense of place grow stronger and bring meaning and many opportunities for caring in your life.

I dedicate this post to Barkley, my true and loyal friend, always at my side, who gave me so much love and devotion, and who helped me better understand myself and my sense of place. It is no small gift.  Adopted 10/1/05; died 12/2/19.

In gratitude,

Blythe

6 Comments

  1. Beautifully done, Blythe- so sorry for your loss. Everyone who has loved and lost a dog can relate. Your sense of place is a beautiful concept which I’d never thought about in quite this way. I was moved and have thought about it often in the past few days since reading your post. My friend, you are inspiring.

  2. Barbara Thompson

    Beautiful ode to your dog. Blythe. And I love that you referenced Mary Oliver’s moving poetry on dogs. I know your heart is still hurting, and hope this writing was somehow chathartic, or will be. Dogs are indeed a fine link to our “place” – through them, with them, we develop a sweeter connection. A fine life Barkley lived, and was blessed to have you as his person, as you were to be his person. Peace be with you.

  3. Teresa Lyn

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful post. You have articulated what I’ve been striving for, for years – to make deep connections to the places on earth where I live. Despite living in multiple states, and loving those places as well, the PNW is my “place” and I feel so grateful, like you, to live here. All I really want to do is live simply within its rhythms, seems like such a hard thing to do in our crazy culture and times. Your writing has inspired me to keep reaching for that. Going to print it out and keep it with me.

    May 2020 bring you joy and peace.

    1. “To live simply within its rhythms…” Exactly! It is terribly hard these days, it seems – there is so much vulgarity, insensitivity, and violence in the world, compounded with so many distractions and misguided values. It is an important concept to pass on to the next generation, perhaps best by example. I, too, keep striving for that. This post – and these feelings – were difficult to put into words. I am very grateful for your comment – thank you.

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