THE WISDOM OF ONE PLACE: Why We Need to Know Where We Are

About the Author

Fred First, teacher then physical therapist, is now an embedded naturalist and armchair biology-watcher. Blogger, author, and photographer, Fred is involved in sustaining the creative economy and relocalizing agriculture in Floyd County, VA.

My brief return to the biology classroom in 2005 after a 17-year absence brought a shocking revelation: the outdoors was an alien and unknown place to my students.

Out of 120 on field trips near campus along Virginia’s New River that semester, only one student could call one of some 50 observed living things by name: poison ivy. Everything else—birds and bushes, wildflowers and vines, insects and fungi—were anonymous strangers.

That revelation disturbed me. What would become of this place if future generations were so out of touch with the natural world? A short while later I learned that this oblivion had been given a name: nature deficit disorder. Reading that phrase for the first time confirmed to my dismay that my students’ nature blindness was not an isolated condition; but I also took encouragement knowing that others were becoming aware of the need to reverse the consequences of this retreat indoors.

I’ve since come to think of our latter-day denaturing as just one among several interrelated but broken bonds within the tattered web of human identity. Many of us also suffer placelessness and eco-apathy—distortions of perception that prevent us from clearly seeing ourselves rightfully integrated in our here and now.

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Writer Eudora Welty perhaps holds the key to the needed remedies in this one statement: “One place understood helps us know all places better.”

To restore wholeness to the brokenness we’ve inflicted on the planet’s living systems, we need go no further than that one place just beyond our doors—to sense and know that accessible fragment of the whole of nature that we can see, taste, hear, smell and wrap our heads and hearts around in our own nearby terrain.

As we succeed with that reintegration of human lives with nature, we also will grow to appreciate the places where our stories unfold, to reclaim sense of place—an identity with the where of our lives in all its uniqueness of topography and history and culture. We become placed persons even as we become a renatured people.

From this reintegration with nature and place may evolve eco-empathy: an organic personal-ecological ethic that puts each of us back into the web of right relationships, back not only into local nature but into the intended natural order as stewards with a seven-generation commitment to the well-being of people and planet.

Broken relationships with nature and place have been wrong roads on the map from which we have blundered our way to a desolate mental and spiritual landscape. We need a new map, a new story of who we are that reveals that web of inter-connectedness we have learned to ignore. Better maps require that we become wiser, not smarter. Wisdom is wielded in fostering and guiding vital relationships to nature, place and community.

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One place understood helps us know all places better. One mountain stream, one wildflower meadow or mountain bald or beaver pond better known helps us both to know and to hold an empathetic bond with all meadows and balds, forests and wetlands, and with their non-human inhabitants. Our species becomes placed properly as one living actor in the larger web called Life on Earth, but one with awesome obligations.

My students’ indifference to nature facts, I now understand, was a symptom of a broader blindness to essential relationships in their lives. This blindness also made them indifferent to where their water or food or electricity came from back in their home towns. As denatured and placeless humans, they were barely aware of who or where they were in the context of nature or the landscape or time.

If we are successful in renaturing, relocalizing and instilling a personal ecology, we may yet reconcile relationships for tomorrow’s children and students, and for all of us—bringing us closer to healthy and just and whole ways of thinking about ourselves within our personal habitats, neighborhoods and the grand web of being.

This reconciliation will be local, relational, and personal. It is possible, within our grasp, and already underway.

In this hope, we may come back to the best of our selves, with wisdom and humility, whole and thankful within our one known place in nature, and connected by that understanding to better care for all places.


Photo: child in water © Ashley Turner
Photo: road © R.Louv

Additional thoughts:

The Nature of Place: Fred First at TEDx

Getting to Know My Place: Searching for Authenticity in a Virtual World — by Richard Louv

Peace in Nature: Aylee Tudek, 16, Shares Her Sense of Wonder

What’s Good in Your Hood? Nearby Nature and Human Hope — by Akiima Price


  1. As I read this it occurred to me that just as infants must bond with their mothers in order to grow into wholesome, empathetic beings so all members of our species must bond with our mother earth in order to have the reverence necessary to work with the natural world and to cherish all living things.

  2. Excellent article! I agree with Susan. Parents often play a large role in this. My mother gardened and loved animals of all kinds. I’ve never thanked her for passing her “eco-empathy” and knowledge on to me. Now that she’s 90, I think I will! I hope I’ve provided the same service for my daughters.

  3. I liken this disconnection to place as a kind of “homesickness.”

    When we block out our local and personal landscape, we feel restless, uneasy, and no amount of material wealth will make it go away. We don’t realize it but when we try to shrink from the process of reconnecting ourselves to nature – our first and ultimate home – we are denying ourselves the very sense of wholeness that we are yearning for. If ignored, that homesickness buries itself deep in our psyches.

    We must, if we are to heal ourselves of our perennial emptiness, attempt to name all the landscapes – both inward and outward – that we ache for. And in the process, it will be impossible for us not to come awake to our inherent empathy for the natural world.

  4. One of the most powerful ways to connect with nature and yourself more intimately is to find a place in nature that you visit regularly – your Sit Spot. With all of your senses awakened, being in this one special place again and again and over time helps you develop keen awareness and observation skills, and a presence with all life. You begin to experience patterns and cycles in nature and understand your place in the community of all beings.

    In his book, Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature,
 Jon Young tells about his Sit Spot
 from which he was able to watch a family of raccoons grow up:

    “Sitting at that one spot, I watched those baby raccoons grow up, finding crayfish to eat and playing with each other in the stream. I also got to know other wild friends that lived there: deer sniffed me and stared at me before crossing the stream, beavers carried sticks up and down the stream, eagles swooped right over my head, great blue heron walked up behind me silently and scared the heck out of me, and even a little springy jumping mouse once jumped right into my lap! I spent a lot of time sitting at the one special spot and it seemed the animals accepted me as a natural part of that place. Going there felt like going home.”

    It’s a good time of year to find a Sit Spot. But don’t feel that you have to travel far to find one — a backyard or even a park bench are perfect places to begin. The point is to go at least a few times a week for even a few minutes. Just sit comfortably and notice what you see, hear, smell, feel and even taste on the wind. And above all else, enjoy!

  5. To help children learn about living things in their area, I published two poetry series: The Wonder of Wings contains 24 poems and illustrations of common North American birds, plus several other bird poems. Incredible Insects contains 26 poems and illustrations of common insect species. I feel the rhyming poems will help children remember what they read in these 2 books.

  6. I absolutely love this. It resonates with things I’ve thought about for the past few years as I’ve gone away to college and realized with much gratitude how connected I am to my hometown–community, natural spaces, and history. Great article–it inspired part of a blog post I just wrote, so thank you!


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