Sense of Place in the Anthropocene

I grew up in the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest under the languid drip of raindrops on oak leaves, cascading from perpetually overcast skies. Beneath the canopy of Oregon’s old growth forests lay a different world, the floors of which were almost untouched by the sun, blanketed in a carpet of fallen needles that sunk beneath footsteps, the air quiet and saturated with the smell of rain and moss and fir. In these forests, time seemed to pass on slow feet as if the creatures there knew a different pace of time, measured by the lives of trees that grew for hundreds of years.

These rain-soaked forests sheltered the tiny town where I grew up. My family lived in a home dwarfed by the land upon which it sat, which held a grove of young spruce trees, oaks, maples, a redwood and space for my mother’s gardens. That piece of earth held my brother and me for most of our childhood, which we spent running barefoot after garter snakes and skinning our knees on the oak trees we tried to climb. School was half an hour away, the trip there a study of the trails of raindrops that ran across our car’s windows. Another hour past school and we could reach the Pacific coast, where it was too cold to swim but not too cold to camp; at night, the distant drum of the ocean might find its way between the zippers and the mesh windows of our tent, filling our dreams with the mysterious power of the sea. Oregon is a diverse landscape ranging from deserts to forest to mountains to coast and I lived near its west coast, in a region of rain, and the tall trees it nourished.

As a child living and growing in the landscape of western Oregon, I felt deep resonance with the places there where I laid my roots. Home to me are days filled with incessant rain drumming tirelessly on the roof, a ceaseless, cleansing rain that makes me feel as if I could stretch my leaves skyward to bask in the light of shy sunbeams. Home is the earthly smell of this rain and the deep green, eerily beautiful glow of a moss covered forest where I would stand with the trees, hushed beneath falling drops. Home is the deep sense of belonging, the intimate connection I feel knowing myself to be a part of that landscape, not a passerby, but a piece of the green-blue mosaic of western Oregon.

Although I felt a deep sense of place and connection to the landscape of western Oregon, and to the mountains of western North Carolina that I later moved to, I also felt a sense of sostalgia, a term described by Glenn Albrecht and quoted by Robert Macfarlane in Generation Anthropocene. I feel sostalgic when walking through old growth forests; in experiencing how forests would have been several hundred years ago, it is heartbreaking to confront loss the of ancient trees and the ecosystems they cradled. I experience the pain of this loss most acutely in the Appalachian mountains of western North Carolina where, a hundred years ago, the forests were dominated by American chestnuts. The pain of this change stems not only from the death of most of these trees, but also because, as Macfarlane describes, “a familiar place” has been “rendered unrecognizable”. There are few people alive today who remember the American chestnut forests of eastern North America; that landscape is no longer familiar and has been lost, to some extent, from the American imagination.

In a rapidly changing world, there are echos of how the landscape used to look, in observing the growth patterns of oaks that have spread across the Appalachians and in, as Richardson writes, “the ghosts of flora and fauna” that are found in the western Lake District of England (Richardson, as quoted by Macfarlane). In this understanding, the earth holds very real memories of what has lived upon it and is shaped by the imprints of past life. In defining the epoch of the Anthropocene, we acknowledge the imprints that human activity will leave on the earth or, maybe more accurately, the scars we carve in the Earth’s skin as we “bor[e]” for oil and “remove mountain tops to get at the coal they contain” (Macfarlane). As Macfarlane explains, our footprints will leave a deep imprint on Earth for thousands of years.