By Jon Ignatowski
As I stood in the middle of the severely rutted pasture, I kept a wary eye on the hogs – unlike the frolicking piglets, the matured porkers would not mind a bite or two of my leg. Unfortunately, the four hundred pound cask-shaped creatures were upset by the piercing screeches of a piglet who managed to wedge its head between the sheet-metal wall and wooden floor of a horse trailer. Chris Austin struggled to extricate the piglet while fending off the upset mothers. After a few minutes of persuasion with a crow bar, the horse trailer released it small, squirming prisoner, and the sows lumbered back to their sunny spot in the pasture.
“Where else do you see this?” Chris remarked.
In Chili, New York, it is becoming increasing difficult to find sun-bathing pigs, or any other livestock for that matter. Chris Austin (a local supplier of grass-fed poultry, pork, and beef) is one of the remaining members of the small scale, subsistence farming community — a community that has been in sharp decline in Chili, and across the nation. However, it is not the type or size of his farm that impressed me the most; it was his connection to the land, the same land that his family has farmed since 1932. “Out here, we see things people don’t see or wouldn’t see,” Chris described to me. “It’s just nice to walk around and see…hawks flying around…the wildlife…stuff that you would not see [anywhere else]. We have fifty pigs across the street, and people don’t see pigs anymore….We just had two litters, you walk across the street and see a litter of pigs all together walking around. They are doing what they are supposed to do; dig and play, and be outside. You just don’t see that…” It is this appreciation of the land, its life, and its history that characterizes a strong relationship with Place, a connection that was once inherent in a community, and now a diminishing influence in our modern culture.
However, it is important to understand the meaning of “Place,” compared to its cousin, “space”. Place, defined in Webster’s, is the “part of space occupied by a person or thing”; an area that is filled somehow, and recognized specifically by the quality of what fills it. This includes many realms – physical, emotional, abstract – and it is these diverse perspectives that draw us to, and root us to Place. Place is a relationship. On the other hand, space is used to describe “the distance, area, etc. between or within things,” an expanse of some sort that is usually measured in miles or acres. Essentially, this definition implies, if not emphasizes, that space is an empty and faceless void; it is merely the distance between two points, neglecting the substance that lies in between. For instance, I have a map of New York State on my wall. The state is neatly divided into color coded counties with an intricate web of highways covering almost every square inch. This is space. I do not know most of the names on the map, I have never been there, and I have no emotional connection to them. I can only assume, if that. However, under the city of Rochester, miniscule typeset that forces you to squint reveals the location of South Chili, my hometown. And if you ask me about this almost imperceptible location on the map, I can sit down with you for an entire day and describe its people I have lived with, its farmland that I have labored on, its sedulous creeks that I have paddled, and its community issues that I am concerned about – this is Place. Unfortunately, as I and many others have witnessed, space is a concept that can be easily manipulated, and possibly used as a destructive force against Place. With a map in hand and without any connection to the places that are depicted on the paper, it is easy to assume, to ignore, to compartmentalize and model, for the emotional and intrinsic connection is completely absent. Place is a realm of reciprocating relationships; space is of manipulation.
Applying these concepts to a human scale, Places are the vibrant, diverse communities that have strong commitments to one another; the wild forests and fields that children explore and adults relax in; local governments with grass roots leaders; local economies supported by the local mechanic and locally grown zucchinis; the cobblestone school house and annual memorial day parades; values that are publically expressed and protected. Place is what is familiar, what is home. However, in the United States and all over the world, Place is being ransacked, being counterfeited by synthetic, meaningless spaces. American culture, in general, is experiencing a mass movement towards rootlessness, a ‘Great De-Awakening’ in a sense, where people unknowingly severe their connection to their Places due to a growing preoccupation in intrinsically devoid spaces. And the upshot of this prevailing shift? Waning sanctity in meaningful Places, decreasing civic participation, more self interest, larger homes and less forests and fields; all of which are creating a breeding ground for generations that are inherently dismembered of their ability to appreciate the intimacy between ‘You’, ‘I’, and ‘Place’. A burgeoning affixation to place-unfriendly spaces is resulting in a slow unraveling of society, a transition from purposeful unity to demoralizing discord. This trend is relatively nascent, for a generation or two prior to ours, Place was an omnipotent force that united individuals in a commitment for community, the land, and the future.
During my summer break, I explored the Places in my hometown, Chili New York, through the perceptions of individuals, like Chris Austin, who passionately interacted with their Places. Most of these individuals were farmers. A farmer, like any other citizen, can tell you how much land he/she has, how much it is worth, and what future it may have. A farmer, unlike any other citizen, can tell you a detailed history of their Place, the natural forces that interact with it, and the reasons why disappearing Places drives a figurative stake through their hearts. And the farmers in Chili, in particular, seem to be the remaining ilk that recalls and still practices the values that their ancestors nourished. In the presence of these venerable individuals, whether it was on a front porch of an old farmhouse or in the cab of a rumbling combine, I realized what Place once was, and how it has stagnated. As I recorded their wisdom, my understanding of Place and community dramatically evolved. In particular, I perceive a Place to be an asset of a healthy community. And I perceive community to be a collection of many dimensions – the people, the environment, the history, and the future. Farmland is a Place to me, for it contains the heritage and the values of the families who have worked it, and it also provides sustenance for Chili’s economy. Forests and wetlands are a Place, for they are the remaining vestiges of pre-white man Chili, where wolves, bears, and Seneca natives once roamed. The local Target is not a place, for it is an invasive species that cares little about community values, the local environment, and the history of the land it gobbled up (Target and its sea of asphalt suffocated land that once bore fresh sweet corn). The Places that I wish to protect are Places that others have lived in and cherished, and their voices are the voice of Place.
Joyce and Bud Krenzer, a farming couple in their eighties, live down the road from me in a modest cobblestone house that has sheltered four generations of Krenzers within its solid walls. Bud grew up in the house, while Joyce’s formative years were spent in the rolling fields of Clifton, a small hamlet on the West side of Chili. In their lifetime, the Places that they, their grandparents, and their parents have known have dramatically changed. Place has evolved from a mosaic of woodlands and subsistence farming to state highways and sprawling suburbs, a rapid change that has them both concerned about the fate of their beloved open Places. “I would hope that they would endeavor to preserve the farmland,” Joyce said to me in a serious tone. “If they build on every square foot that there is available, it will destroy [Chili]….I think this land should be preserved, primarily, because it is farmland, it is indigenous to the development of the town….there is a lot of land in Chili that should be preserved, and I hope that they do.” This is a sentiment shared by most farmers in Chili, and I would not be surprised if it is similar across the country. For some farmers, land is not just an economic asset, but a member of the family; a living being that needs careful stewardship, nourishment, and protection. This unwritten land ethic is a cherished heritage, and the asphalt and tract houses that loom in the distance tend to be viewed as a direct threat to these multi-generational practices. In the thirty plus interviews that I conducted, a particular fear emerged in each one: beloved land being bulldozed, graded, and paved. Everywhere, Place is at risk to the seemingly unstoppable giant of sprawl.
Urban sprawl, often deemed ‘exurban sprawl,’ has catastrophic impacts on Place across the United States. Large, well spaced single family homes arranged around quaint cul-de-sacs, a few miles from monolithic Walmarts and Targets are the two prime nemeses to the health of Place. Ironically, these airy suburbs are often cherished for the farmlands that lie nearby, for the “rural” feeling that residents can enjoy… temporarily. But from what we have seen, and what I have seen in Chili, the sprawl machine keeps chugging away, gobbling up the fallow hay fields behind the white, vinyl picket fences, creating a new labyrinth of tidy asphalt driveways, pesticide laden lawns, and humming swimming pools. The sprawl machine does not care about the family history invested in the soil; it does not care about the land ethics that allowed wildlife and crops to exist harmoniously. Between 1992 and 1997, six million acres of farmland were paved over, equivalent to the size of Maryland, or for New Yorkers, the size of the Adirondack park. The scarier thing is though, population in the United States only increased by seventeen percent between 1982 and 1997, while land consumed by sprawl grew by forty-seven percent. Our Places are being murdered by inefficient use of land. Historical houses — demolished (happens in Chili); wetlands — paved and polluted (also in Chili); forests — clear cut and then paved (again, in Chili). Our gluttonous appetites for big houses, big yards, and big stores are quickly severing the roots that have connected Place to people for numerous generations.
There is a terrible irony hidden in this crusade to expand – all of these houses and businesses, these new people, are not creating a stronger community. Rather, there is an absence of community, a dearth of civic mindedness, an utter disconnect between citizen and Place. Our hankering for more square-footage and more acreage is, unknowingly, a self deprecating desire, for our homes ultimately become prisons, and we become the climate-controlled, electronic entertainment savvy prisoners. When your home is essentially a large indoor playground, who needs to go outside; when your house is wired to cable and internet, who needs neighbors?
However, Place depends upon neighborly relationships. A tract of houses is not a community if neighbors fail to converse with one another regularly, if local issues are not debated, if children and adults do not intermingle with one another. The health of Place depends upon a vibrant fabric of interconnectedness between many people in a given Place, and unfortunately, sprawl is homogenizing Place, and dehumanizing the people. In one of my earlier interviews, I pedaled to a small, white tenant home surrounded by corn fields, the home of Ethyle Miller, one of the last agrarian matriarchs of our town. She could vividly remember the vitality of her community in her earlier days, and now she can only solemnly nod her head to the increasing traffic in front of her house, and the waning community spirit. “It used to be more neighborly,” Ethyle asserted. She than listed off all the relatives and friends that live or once lived around her. “I think people were more friendly years ago because they didn’t have the activities they got today. People are busy, everybody is working, two in the family are working… the woman stayed home years ago, and took care of the family, they didn’t work. It has made a big difference. You don’t really see anybody anymore, to visit with or anything….it has changed quite a bit, especially in Clifton, it has changed a lot, I don’t know anybody in Clifton anymore….we used to get together all the time over there, have coffee… in the morning, but we don’t have that anymore.”
Evidently, Place slowly dies as our lives are consumed by our homes, our jobs, our seemingly insatiable penchant for growth. Our desire to have “bigger and better” is quickly eroding our connections with Place and people, for our time is being siphoned away by our appetites. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average work day for employed persons ages 25 to 54 with children entails an average of 8.8 hours of work, and 7.6 hours of sleep – two activities that consume almost 70% of our day. The other thirty percent is dedicated to leisure and sports (2.6 hours), household activities (1 hour), eating (1 hour), caring for others (1.3 hours), and other various activities (1.7 hours). It is evident that the majority of our lives are dedicated to labor, but have we reached a point where we are consumed by our jobs, where our workplace envelopes more and more of our free time? Between the years of 2003 and 2008 alone, the average time every American devoted to work increased from 3.69 hours to 3.73 hours. And as we work more to afford our things, we devote less time to our families, to our neighbors, to our communities, and to our Places. However, work is not the only reason why we are becoming less attuned to our Places – a larger, more prevalent, issue looms.
On the first of June, I sat in Marion Bartle’s living room with her niece and nephew, Gale Boville and Gary Hauer. At the age of ninety three, Marion could fondly recall the days of subsistence farming and strong communities, although Gary and Gale stepped in to provide some details that had faded from her memory. “I don’t think I would have lived as long,” Marion exclaimed after I asked her about the benefits of being a farmer. “I think it’s from the hard work, I really do. It kept me going. I liked being a farmer’s wife, it was a hard life…I liked it.” Gary asserted, “I had a great childhood, because when I got off the school bus, there was always someone home….there was a hub of activity…people gravitated to the farm.” For Gale, “I lived up the street, and as soon as we got up in the morning, that was the first place we headed until we got chased home. There was an old truck my Uncle Ralph let us drive….we always had a baseball game going on the front lawn….it was just innocent fun, not like today. You could go anywhere, and you wouldn’t have to worry, you weren’t afraid.” “You sometimes cared more about your neighbors than you did your own family,” Gary emphasized. However, Marion, Gary, and Gale recognized that there is a growing chasm between their generation and the new. The young people, they feel, see nothing when they drive by the open land that the Bartle family had worked and carefully stewarded since 1900. Their Place is almost invisible, for everyone else sees a space, and cannot relate to it, nor can they care about it even though the pressure to relinquish the land to development is growing. And what is the root of this trend, what has severed the ties between the older generations and the new? “Technology!” Gary and Gale asserted simultaneously. “They’re all like this. You sit at the table and they’re like this,” Gale described as she pretended to be a teenager glued to a cell phone. “Or they got the I-pod; you talk to them and they don’t hear you.” It is technology that is causing this disconnection between generations, between Place and space. Place is threatened by urban sprawl and imbalanced investments of time, yes, but technology trumps them all, for technology is a space in itself, an all-encompassing, unconnected realm that consumes our attention and quickly severs our relationships to Place.
Computers, cell phones, television – they are all responsible for the rapid decline of Places, for technology offers a ‘Place’ of its own, a synthetic realm of role playing, instant communication, mindless entertainment, and an escape from the pressures of our daily tasks. Technological realms offer instant satisfaction and knowledge with the click of a few keys. Now that we have acclimated to instantaneous pleasures, Place is more or less a boring background, for its value cannot be extracted in a few seconds. Now that we can sit in plush chairs while cruising at light speed through unlimited channels of media, the effort it takes to learn and love a Place is too much for our attention spans. Essentially, technology has, is, and will continue to create rootless spaces that develop connections to the instant and the ephemeral rather than the meaningful and lasting. The time we invest in our video games, facebooking, and web surfing – to what benefit has it served to the collective, to the people that live in our communities? Relationships stagnate as our finger tips acclimate to minute keys and toggle controls, meaningful conversation is lost to transient text messages, Place is relegated by false dimensions that contain little trace of heritage, traditions, and values.
Unfortunately, the trends reflecting electronic media consumption of younger generations is not promising. Place is at more risk as my generation matures. For instance, according to Tamar Lewin in “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online,” youth from the age of eight to eighteen spend more than seven and a half hours a day with media devices, and due their ability to multi-task, they can pack in eleven hours of media consumption in the seven and a half hours. Remember, we are usually awake sixteen hours a day. In addition, according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, the average American watches close to three hours of television a day, which is the greatest amount of time we devote to any particular leisure activity. The addiction to cell phones, computers, I-pods, and televisions – they are destroying the Places that we once depended on for nourishment, and creating a rootless, apathetic, stimulus craving society, one that inadequately stewards Place.
One powerful indicator of the decay of Place and the cancerous growth of solipsism is the decline of civic participation within government, especially local governments. The 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation report quantifies the disengagement from civic participation, especially among the younger generations. In 2006 for instance, only 20% of youth from the ages of 15 to 25 were active members of at least one group, compared to 26% in 2002. And for those 26 and older? A dramatic plummet from 33% to 22% in only four years. The health of Place depends on active participants, yet it appears that Americans are becoming less and less willing to sacrifice their time for collective work. In addition, participation within government of all levels is falling as well, an indicator that we are becoming less involved in our communities. In 2002, 56% of Americans between 20 and 25 years old voted; in 2006, only 26%. The same trend for those older than 26 – a drop from 54% to 24%. The declining number of active voters is an ominous trend; without active citizens, local governments will stagnate, communities will crumble, and as a result, our Places will be cast aside and forgotten. We are losing the spirit to protect what we love. My mother, Virginia Ignatowski, is a council woman for our Town, a position she sought after heading a grassroots campaign for public water in our neighborhood. As a politician in a town of roughly 29,000 people, she has many insights regarding civic participation. According to her estimates, roughly 30% of the Town votes. Surprisingly, the strongest district, the make-it-or-break-it district for every politician is the South Chili bloc, the region home to the farmers and the open Places, not the newly erected subdivisions containing hundreds of families within a few square miles. My mother has also observed that there are spikes in voting when hot button issues erupt, but many are NIMBYs, the “not in my back yarders” who suddenly break out of their civic dormancy to fight a particular issue that directly effects them, then afterwards, quickly return to their complacency. Chili, like many communities across the nation, is experiencing lackluster civic participation. “Just as long as their leaves are picked up, their roads are plowed, and they have a library and their services, they are not going to bother on a whole,” she explained. And as we continue to not bother, we summon the tragic consequence of disappearing Places. Place cannot be protected by one person, nor can it be preserved through the government alone; it is the constituents, the citizens that are the fundamental stewards of Place. When we decide to quite stewarding, Place will ultimately succumb to the parochial desires for more, for bigger and better, for homogenization. Place will no longer be Place, but a barely habitable space.
“I shudder when I see real estate agents in transactions, and see land just looked at as either a commodity or an asset, or…a profit to made out of,” Bill Steimer explained to me as we sat in two lawn chairs facing the setting sun over his wheat fields. Unlike most of the farmers I interviewed, I knew Bill very well since I was an occasional farm hand for the past three summers. For several weeks during May, June and July, I would be dressed in long pants, leather chaps, gloves, and a white tee-shirt while unloading hay onto an elevator on balmy, humid mornings. Last summer, while I was conducting my interviews, Bill also taught me how to drive a few of his tractors with haying implements and gave me a chance to pull a loaded hay wagon with his reliable, sputtering Farmall. Compared to the other farms I had explored in Chili, I was intimately connected to Bill’s, and his Place soon became one that I loved. When he shudders at the thought of land being treated as a commodity, as do I. “There’s all kinds of feelings for [the land], and that’s the way some people look at it,” Bill added. “But I think…if some of those people ever worked with the land as a lot of farmers do, they would have a greater respect for it, than thinking of it as a profitability unit….I don’t, actually, like to think that I own [land], because if you really, really respect it, you’re part of it, and you are only a steward of it, and it is the stewardship thing that is more important than the ownership of it. [I]n whatever form, it is going to exist after you’re here, and it’s nice to think that you have taken care of it as well as it could have been taken care of by anyone while you had the chance. That’s how I look at it — I am just taking care of it while I am here.”
This is what we need to decide now. Are we going to continue to plunge into the space-as-commodity pitfall, or will we find reasons to respect our Places, to become caretakers and stewards while we still have the chance? How long will our chance last? Every day, new houses are sprouting on farmland; everyday, there is one less voter; every year, we spend more time working, more time on gadgets and gizmos, and less time with our community. Every second, some Place, somewhere, is drawing its last breath. Think of your own Places, that dot on the map that you could not imagine life without. If that Place is threatened, can you say that you are willing to fight for it; can you passionately describe why that Place has such significance that its destruction would create a gaping hole in many peoples’ lives? Or would you sit back, watch it go, and plug yourself back into whatever transient space you had been consumed in before? Across Chili, there are Places that remain –the farms of Chris Austin, Bill Steimer, and many others; the Reed Road Bird Preserve and the almost wild Phrengle Property; the cobblestone houses and Wells barns – that I will fight for, that I will try to be a good steward of since I still have the chance. But I am frightened, for these Places will not be saved by my own volition, nor will you save your Places by yourself. Place needs care through generations, the passion and time of a collective, the strength of civic-minded people. Listen to its voice for a change; its wisdom is far more subtle and profound than the waste stream that pours out of our modern spaces. Listen, and you may find a reason to save Place. Listen, and there might still be a chance.
Austin, Chris. Personal Interview. 3 June 2010.
Bartle, Marion; Hauer, Gary; Boville, Gale. Personal Interview. 1 June 2010.
Ignatowski, Virginia. Personal Interview. 17 October 2010.
Krenzer, Bud and Joyce. Personal Interview. 14 June 2010.
Lopez, Mark, Peter Levine, Deborah Both, Abby Kiesa, Emily Kirby, and Karlo Marcelo. “The 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation.” 2006. <http://www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/2006_CPHS_ Report_update.pdf>.
Miller, Ethyle. Personal Interview. 27 May 2010.
“Place.” Webster’s New World Dictionary. 2nd ed. 2002.
Schulten, Katherine. “How Much Time Do You Spend ‘Consuming Media’ Every Day?” New York Times 22 January 2010. <http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/how-much-time-do-you-spend- consuming-media-every-day/>.
Smart Growth America. Open Space and Farmlands. 7 October 2010. <http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org /openspace.html>.
“Space.” Webster’s New World Dictionary. 2nd ed. 2002.
Steimer, Bill. Personal Interview. 30 May 2010.
United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. American Time Use Survey. 2010. 7 October 2010. <http://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/>.