Some Thoughts on What we Do, and Why

by Conrad Vispo


It is clear that we don’t live in Lima or rural China; not in London or even the Scottish countryside. It is usually apparent that we don’t live in Texas or California. But beyond those gross distinctions, we are often blind to place. ‘Place’ is not just the physical landscape around us – the shape of the horizon, the distance to the nearest lake, or the thickness of the forest; it is also all of that through time, and it is also the tap roots of human culture, the fingers of human history that stretch back through our wild history, and have been responsible for modifying it and have been modified by it. And place includes the future course of our ‘apical meristem’ – the forces of ‘predestination’ that say, ‘such is likely to happen here’ or, at least, has the potential to happen here. The purpose of this essay is to outline our conception of place and, in relation to that conception, what we see as our programmatic role.

We hear much about the homogenization of place, about the fact that, set down upon one of the commercial strips that radiate out from our towns, one would be hard pressed to know which state, perhaps even which country, one was in. Our ability to travel far and wide, and the global reach of the news we hear daily has numbed us to finer distinctions. Likewise, the natural smallness of our personal worlds continues to envelope us. As humans, we are rarely blind to or dumb about our neighbors. At some radius around us, our informal, if not formal, channels tap into our local news, gossip or otherwise.  What is missing from our consciousness is the middle ground, not only the understanding that our place is different from the peaks of the Himalayas, the troubled land of Afghanistan, or the biodiverse neotropical forests or that , at the scale of intimate gossip, our neighborhood differs from the next, but also the realization that we are enveloped by a soft-bounded geographic unit of collective being – the scale at which we are still actors in the story of place but at which it is our collective ideals and actions rather than our personal life stories that will be our legacies. It is that scale of place that we refer to herein.

The defining parameters of place can be divided into two broad groups: the physical and the situational. The physical defines the actual lay of the land at this moment, where are those hills, lakes and forests, and what are they like? This is the aspect of place that a landscape painter could capture and the board of tourism could tout. It is not simple, but it is, at least, in front of our eyes. And then there is the ‘situational’ or contextual – where are we in time and cultural space? How do we compare not with the lands beyond the oceans, but with those lands beyond the hills or across the river which may look much the same? What is the inertia and momentum of our place at this scale beyond the parochial but less than the impersonal? We have been taught by the facility of travel, the geographical scale of most media, and by the impetuous mobility of our society, to suppose that, at that intermediate scale, we the people are a single coating on the land, not with complete uniformity, but largely without pattern that bears caution or inspires potential. Yet, crossing into Massachusetts leads one to realize that the Berkshires are not the Taconics although the name one applies depends more on where one is standing than the physical geology one is viewing. Likewise, traveling south along the west bank of the Hudson, gets one to a place where generations of vegetable farmers (as opposed to of dairy or fruit farmers) have been able to parley good soils and proximity to the City into a particular agricultural legacy. The situational is not divorced from the physical, but it is more than just the physical.

While the current situational topography of place is somewhat unseen, the implications and opportunities of situational place are even more obscure. But focusing on place means focusing not only on where we are now but also on where we could go. At this time, what is the personality of our county and why? How have the accumulation of history over time; the location of our place relative to other regions; and the nature of our riches and deficiencies as defined by the needs and desires of present-day society come together to define the personality of our situational place today? And from that, what do we, as the current human blood of this place, know about that personality? What can introspection on place tell us about what begs for correction and what beckons as potential? And, perceiving that potential, how do we shape place, through creation and preservation, in order to realize it? It is this interaction, at any point in time, of physical and situational place with the future that we call ‘the will of place’.

Over the past decade we (the Farmscape Ecology Program) have worked at defining place at the scale of this County, a scale at which we feel there is stimulating biography and yet immediate intimacy. We have thus sought to describe both the physical and situational aspects of place at the scale of that collective middle ground. It has been a pursuit that strives to condense, from the apparently trivial and disconnected, a meaning – what does the presence of a particular butterfly, bird, flower or ground beetle tell us, for example, about where we are in the tapestry of biodiversity (i.e., our biogeographical context)? What do the Dutch gambrel rooves along the Hudson and the stoic New England barns in the Taconics (and the techniques of agriculture that accompanied those structures) tell us about where we came from, still are, and might head? What do the personal stories of new and seasoned farmers say about the legacies, limits and opportunities of our social/cultural landscape? And, beyond these efforts of description, we have been dousing for the ‘will of place’: what might understanding all of those dimensions simultaneously and in the greater context of our region, country and globe, mean for the vision of place that we create in our heads and can exercise with our hands? It is perhaps only when we envision the will of place that we become self-conscious, communal beings, grasping not only that we are individuals with our own stories, senses and intentions, but also that we are inhabitants of a particular place with opportunity to influence a collective will bounded by the physical and situational characteristics of our location.

In the 10 years of our work we have done little, and we only hope that those ‘littles’ may coalesce to help pique the much bigger, potentially much more meaningful,  will of place. We frequently ask ourselves as a program what we are doing. We struggle to define for others the patterns in our actions. Is there anything more than random curiosity in our urge to know and share the kaleidoscope of creation and human experience around us? Is there anything more than awkward circumstance in our programmatic pairing of ecological and anthropological studies? Is our work a disposable ‘child of luxury’, with as much meaning as yet another ribbon of taffeta at the party? We cannot yet and may never be able to prove our worth based upon sums of numbers or ironlinked chains of conclusions. As with our own wills, the will of place, when it stirs at all, is held by numerous fibers and only loosely interacts with the ‘hard reality’ from which we demand proof of its existence.

That said, our work is no less apparent to us and our aspirations no less demanding from us: we seek to prick the drowsy will of place by reaching out to the many hands that, sometimes unknowingly, hold it. We try, in our humble, incomplete ways, to press our fingers and noses to the ground and so track the will of place through the thickets of time and the distractions of the present, through periods of its nascent consciousness in human minds and through periods of its unmarked evolution. We try to look around us and sketch that will as it is now expressed by the life on the streets of our towns and beneath the rocks in our forests. And we try, as friends, to show others what we see. Finally,  with the baby steps deriving from factual ignorance and conceptual uncertainty, we attempt to step back and wipe away the fog of minutiae so that the will of place can be seen not only in the immediacy of today and in the scatterings of yesterdays, but also in the imagination of tomorrows. In doing so, we need to both kick ourselves to press onwards with ever-imagining and console ourselves that the will of place does exist, even if we can only ever imagine it (indeed, only when we imagine it).

We cannot, as a program, say we are doing ‘Big Things’, we cannot claim that our voice will be loud, we cannot aspire towards social recognition. Not only “cannot”, for the sake of our own sanity, but also “should not”, for the sake of our goal itself.  At best, all of our efforts (and here “our” refers not just to FEP, but also to the many others who, in their own ways, seek the same goals) will but help build a mirror in human minds by which our place can see itself. If ever the will of place blinks its eyes in the imaginations of people, then it should use that moment of self-realization to study itself, listen to its own voice and flex its own fingers, not to wipe away any personal or programmatic trappings we have attached to it.

Going onward, we can only believe in ourselves and the utility of our enterprise. We can only hope that our modest actions and our ever-to-be imagined aspirations will be strong enough to convince a few others to fuel our quest. We can only strive to be open enough and free enough from vanity to let us forever focus primarily not on ourselves as a program, but rather on the listening and sharing that can lead to realizing, nurturing and releasing the will of place. We can only continue to hope and believe that a self-consciousness, collective will of place, as opposed to a will unseen and buried, can bring more opportunities and more compassion  to the rain-soaked and sun-streaked realities of our land and the life upon it.