If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know that it started — four years ago! — as a space for me to write and think about the issues I was exploring in cities. Specifically, how we learn about a city: its history, its people, and its traditions. I’ve been interested in pop-up urbanism (or as i’ve called it, entropy) since my first post, and other issues like historic preservation, manufacturing and economic development came later, as I got to know neighborhoods and reflect on the stories that they tell about themselves. I’ve always been thinking not just about cities but about the institutions in them, those third and fourth places where people share and learn memories, ideas, and information. I got my start in those kinds of places, and think they’re an important part of our cities, whether they’re surrounded by granite and columns to tell us that learning is important, or they pop up in a public square to make it fun and surprising. The themes have been learning, attention, and engagement, whether it’s with the past, each other, or neighborhood wildlife. And walking. I’m always walking.
I’ve also been writing about food — farms and development, eating in public, learning while dining, markets, food traditions. Though my thinking on many of the things I’ve written about here are always shifting, changing, growing more nuanced and — I hope — more realistic, I keep coming back to food because I think it’s one of the most profound ways that we connect to place. The food comes out of the ground, makes some kind of journey, and then we eat it. That story tells us a lot about who we are, who we were, and, for those who engage in aspirational, thoughtful eating, who we want to be. The word terroir is a buzzword these days, and it’s important: food tells the story of the land and sea from which it came, whether large commercial farms or foraged from the sidewalk, and I always come back to those stories when I’m thinking about how people engage with their place.
This brings me to something I haven’t really explicitly addressed here, though it’s been a part of many of my posts. It’s the land itself. I’ve written about cultural landscapes (in fact, one of my most popular posts) and working waterfronts, but the actual environment has always been lurking in the background. How did those landforms develop, what did our places look like before we graded and planted and built them? How have people been navigating that waterway that’s now being developed because of its fantastic views? What is the ecology of those oysters being grown in farms and served in restaurants? What do people who live and work in the land know that those who see it as “landscape” don’t? In other words, how do I put the land into my understanding of place, which to know has focused on neighborhoods, communities, buildings and traditions?
This is where I’m going. I’ll still be interested in grappling with questions about authenticity and the past, and about work, but I’ll be thinking about the environment too. Some of the people who are inspiring me in this work are Robert Macfarlane, Annie Dillard, John Elder, and other nature writers who think about people’s role in their landscapes, and landscapes’ roles in our culture. But I won’t be leaving cities altogether: there’s space for urban birds, trees, and weeds, working waterfronts, the farm-to-table movement and even simply how a naturalist’s understanding of a habitat might be applicable for those of us who see a lot more pavement than meadow, or how an explorer’s sense of attention and curiosity might enhance our own experience of places we see everyday. There are some really interesting overlaps and I am excited to share them and think about them with you, and to share some of the work of others who are thinking this way, too.
These ideas are what have prompted me to change the name of this blog to Cultivating Place. At first, when I started this blog, I was thinking of myself as a flâneur: someone in and of but also outside consumer culture, aimlessly wandering the shifting city, encountering the people and the traces of previous cities they have left behind. But now I want to think of myself as a different kind of walker: a journeyer, traveling through the land, traversing distance and duration with attention and curiosity.