Building a Sense of Place

Alzar School | 30.08.12

Greetings from Alzar School’s English teacher!

These first few weeks back on campus have been full of new inquiries and discussions, adventures and discoveries as we embark upon our “Journeys in Place.” On the very first day, we dove into our first unit (Mountains and Rivers: Experiencing Wild Places) through nature writer Barry Lopez’s essay “The Rediscovery of North America.” As we shared annotation techniques for close reading, navigated new technological tools, and practiced a diverse set of discussion skills, we began to build a foundation for success in a class that seeks to bridge the page with the natural world.

One of the central philosophies in Barry Lopez’ essay proclaims the solution to human-induced environmental crises: creating a “sense of place.” He defines this cultivation of an intimacy with one’s natural surroundings with the Spanish term “la querencia: a place on the ground where one feels secure, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn” (Lopez, 14). In our first unit, we have undertaken Lopez’ challenge.

Each student has established her own “querencia” location on our beautiful campus along the North Fork of the Payette river. Through daily reading and writing assignments completed on site, students begin to build a connection to their own place here in Cascade, Idaho. In this way, we gain greater insights into some of the classic American nature writers through our own parallel experiences in the wild out-of-doors. Students read Henry David Thoreau’s narrative detailing a warring ant colony (“Brute Neighbors”) and then get to complete their own macro-lens observational narratives in their querencias. Students compare poetic form in Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore, and William Carlos William, and then weave their own poems from the fabric of their evening meditations by the river.

Yesterday we undertook a great adventure, sojourning across the river to our own private island to dig into the exultations of Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” We loaded up the raft armed with PFDs and dry-bagged iPads and paddled our group of 12 to the wilderness across the riverbank. After reading and discussing –  building connections between common themes in Lopez, Whitman, and our own experiences – we circled up for a ceremonial closing to put Whitman’s words into action:

“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world” (Whitman, 62).

And so did we.