Sense of Place: Home Edition

While I live and go to school in the same state, my hometown of Williamstown, Vermont has a notably different sense of place than that of Burlington/at UVM. At home, my sense of place relies heavily on experience and social interactions; in general, I have little to no knowledge about the history of my neighborhood nor my town, nor have I taken the time (nor had the knowledge) to assess my town through an ecological lens. Prior to my first semester at UVM, I’ve understood my town as my rural home in the middle of Vermont; in my community (as I perceive it), there are hunters, townees, farmers, and everyone else, and many obsess over high school sports (especially basketball). In my high school (with 350 people grades 6 through 12), these values were reflected; I always felt like there was an emphasis on athletics over arts and academia. These perceptions of my community are the main factors of how I perceive my town on the whole – that is, as small in scope with limited opportunity and limited understanding of broad, global concepts. It is important to note that this is my sense of my town based on my own biased perceptions. I’ve also had many positive experiences in Williamstown that have countered the frustration I’ve often experienced as a result of my seemingly close-minded town; I still keep in touch with my three best friends from high school, and the time I’ve spent and people I’ve met through theatre and band comprise some of my fondest memories of my town and high school. My time in Williamstown has shaped my identity through the contrast between what I value and what my community seemingly values. For instance, I feel like I identify most as a scholar opposed to the common title/identity of athlete (although I did play sports in high school). While I often feel resentment towards the setting of my upbringing, Williamstown is still my home, and I think I’ll always appreciate it as such.  

My education thus far at UVM has made me realize that there is more than just this social element to my sense of place of Williamstown, Vermont. One of the most interesting facets of sense of place to me is the ecological/biophysical setting. Thus far, I’ve always had an experiential view of my home, I recall the time I’ve spent in the woods surrounding my yard with my friends, cousins, and sibling, the forts we built, and the trails we blazed or followed. Additionally, I recognize that some of the land is used for farming, and that hunters often trek through the woods in search of prey. However, I’ve never stopped to consider exactly what species hunters hunt for, how agriculture impacts the land and water locally, and what the organismic composition of the woods I’ve been in so often is. With the new knowledge I am continually accruing at UVM in the domains of ecology, history, society, economics, and critical thinking/epistemology, I think my sense of place in my home of Williamstown, Vermont will continue to grow and develop beyond what is already established so that I may understand the setting of my upbringing as more than just the biased perceptions based on my experiences.

A panoramic view of my (back) yard spanning from the north on the left to east on the right.
One of the numerous forts my sister, two cousins and I made in the woods. There are not actually explosives around it (as far as we know!).
The “Danger Explosives” sign which me and my older cousin found under some junk and brush in the woods edging our lawn.

Sense of Place

The characteristics of a geographic area and the experiences one has there often contribute to one’s sense of place, that is, the connection between a person and an area of land. At the Projection, I find that the phenological changes I observe correlate to my own knowledge of biology, ecology, and history. I continue to learn from this area in Centennial Woods as it changes throughout the seasons and each visit is reflective of the new knowledge I gain from books and lecture. For example, just today I took note of fertile fronds, the reproductive structures of ferns like sensitive ferns which lack sori (spore-bearing structures) on the underside of their fronds. As I continue to visit the Projection, I become more attentive to the organisms and natural characteristics of the place, and the Projection becomes more integral to my learning of phenology.  

Sense of place can also be described at different scales. Alone, I feel that the Projection and my visits are a piece of my experience as a student at UVM; they contribute to my pursuit of knowledge and familiarity with the area. Sometimes, the associated solitude also brings a reprieve from the bustle of campus. However, when I sit there and listen, I can hear planes fly overhead as well as nearby traffic and other machinery. This reminds me that Centennial Woods is a place not just within my UVM experience, but my experience as a Burlington resident. When juxtaposed, I feel a looming sense of obligation and stress when I trek through the woods in search of signs of life, often not knowing what to look for or what I am looking at (and hearing). In contrast, I tend to associate my off campus/downtown experience with recreation, free time, and company. Altogether, these two sides of the “Burlington Resident” coin (my student life and social life) are a piece in my sense of place within the entire state (in which I was raised). Right now, Burlington feels like a densely populated urban center full of opportunity, independence, and new experiences (including those in Centennial Woods). In comparison, my hometown (Williamstown, VT) feels small yet significant, and the time I spend in Centennial Woods is slightly reminiscent of my experiences in the woods in my backyard. As a part of Burlington, Centennial Woods is an allusion to home, and my familiarity/experiences in both Burlington and Williamstown comprise parts of my experience and sense of belonging in the state of Vermont.  

How societies and different people value a place may vary across cultures and time periods. Such is the case with Centennial Woods. Historically, Centennial Woods wasn’t always a natural area nor was it valued for its ecological importance. Prior to deforestation and settlement by European settlers, the land where Centennial Woods now stands was likely all forested and used by the Abenaki Native Americans for subsistence. The Abenakis viewed the land as a living entity with which giving was just as necessary as taking. The Projection, if it existed as it does now, likely would be appreciated more spiritually than it was later in history. However, as Europeans pushed the native peoples out of the area, the land was simply viewed as a supply of commodities made for pillaging; deforestation for pastureland and timber ran rampant throughout the state. This unbridled utilitarian view, which began with European settlement in the 18th century and ran well into (and beyond) the 20th century was checked by conservationist movements beginning in the early 20th century. Centennial Woods was eventually recognized as a natural area after it was bought by UVM. However, before UVM made a deal with the Vermont Land Trust to not develop the land, Centennial Woods was not treated as a natural area. The land UVM had acquired shrank to make way for development of other buildings and parking lots on campus, and was a site for dumping fill material, oil, and even cadavers from the hospital. While it seemed as if Centennial Woods was valued for its natural beauty and use for recreation, it was still seen as a commodity for human use. Today, now that the land cannot be developed except under special circumstances, Centennial Woods is wholly a place for recreation and academia for the community. Throughout its history, Centennial Woods’ meaning as a place has clearly changed numerous times.  

A fertile frond, likely from a sensitive fern.
A view of the field from the projection, featuring the trees still bearing green leaves.
Looking toward the sky under the needles of pine and hemlock.
Notes from Naturally Curious months September, October, and November.
Field notes from today’s visit.

Mapping and Charismatic Species

During my hour-long visit to my phenology site in Centennial Woods, I was able to hear (and occasionally see) some of the organisms nearby. At the beginning of my visit, I was able to identify a black-throated bird with a brownish white underbelly. From my previous visit I was able to identify this as a Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Additionally, I spotted a blue bird with a white fringe along the bottom of its tail fly across the field; it was likely a Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) but it was too far away for me to tell for sure. Briefly, I viewed a bird with a silhouette similar to what is drawn in my field notes; my drawing and observation skills are too underdeveloped to identify the exact type of bird, but it was likely from the Order Falconiformes. As heard in the audio sample, there was another bird which I did not see that made a call I have not heard on previous visits to my site and I can only say the call’s owner belongs in Phylum Chordata. I also heard a rubbing sound that presumably came from an organism in Subphylum Hexapoda or at least in Phylum Arthropoda. I also befriended a Clover Mite (Bryobia praetiosa) who crawled around on my hand and journal for quite some time. At the fallen log which intersects the trail at one point (seen on the included map), I noticed some holes bored into the rotting, wet wood. I am unsure if these marks were left by a chordate or an insect. Due to the number of Black-capped Chickadees I have seen during my visits, I would imagine that these birds are often found in Centennial Woods, perhaps year-round. Birds might be quite active in Centennial Woods (and thus around my phenology site) at this time of year because they are finding, consuming, and/or storing food to prepare for overwintering or migrating. Other insects and arthropods might be out looking for food as well as mates at this time of year. This would explain the distinct rubbing in the included audio clip as well as the general hum of a collection of insects (or arthropods presumably) in the field adjacent to my phenology place. 

Since my previous visit, the generally needle-covered ground has become more littered with fallen leaves, especially those from birches, oaks, and maples. The Norway Maple to my left (as I look out upon the field) still hangs onto its leaves, although they are yellow-green to orange-yellow now (they were very green during my last visit). The leaves still attached to the oak trees are yellow-brown and red. The low undergrowth (ferns and grasses) are still green and show no signs of yellowing; some of the shrubby undergrowth bears green leaves while others completely lack leaves. Of particular note, the Barberry bushes, which are quite plentiful in this area, are displaying leaves in shades of red, orange, and yellow. In the field, the grasses are mostly yellow and brown, showing little of the green seen in prior visits.  

As previously noted, the field, which was more apparently wet during this visit, is lower in elevation relative to the surrounding upward slopes on the east and west. In the north and the south, the land seems more low-lying; perhaps this provides a channel/direction for water to flow. The soil in the spot upon which I sat was damp. The needles that littered the ground likely promote an acidic soil, but there are also many leaves from deciduous trees that contribute to the organic layer of the soil and may influence pH too.  

Mapping this site, which from now on I will call the Projection, proved difficult – it’s hard to capture a bird’s-eye view from the ground – but it did provoke me to take a look at the more static aspects of my surroundings, such as some significant dead trees and stumps. It was also enlightening to assess the topography of the area surrounding the Projection; it gave me an idea of where and how water might flow (or not flow) in and out of the area. I wonder what processes created this distinct geographic outcrop… 

My mite-y friend the Clover Mite.
A fallen log (seen on hand-drawn map) with holes presumably created by another organism.
Field Notes from 10/30/2019

Introduction to Your Place

The view from my place with my back turned to the main trail.

About 0.29 miles along the trail head of the path through Centennial Woods off of Catamount Drive, there lies a projection of elevated land (a peninsula or plateau if you will) extending into a field in the middle of the woods. In journeying to this spot, one may cross Centennial Brook, but that depends on the path one chooses. There is a comfort in knowing that many paths can ultimately lead to the same place. This projection is forested, but just beyond the extent of the woods one finds themselves in a dry field full of grasses and cattails. However, from the peninsula one may feel sheltered by the surrounding forest despite the proximity of the expansive field and the walking trail (which lies directly behind a visitor if they face the field). The end of the projection is bulb-like, providing a circular platform upon which one may sit upon damp earth, observe, listen, and think. The plateau is essentially bare of trees and vegetation and is covered in pine needles; it is obvious where past observers have tread to reach this location. Whether the plateau was cleared on purpose or naturally is unknown, but the location feels central, as if it were made for an interaction between humans and nature. After a long enough period of time, movement occurs about the static observer accompanied by the chirps and cries from the abundance of birds in the area. On an overcast and windy day, such as it was on Sunday, October 6th, 2019, towering trees protected the organisms and the accompanying observer from the winds, which could be heard whooshing above; even in the field, the winds were assuaged by the trees which encircled it. Whether these noises were carried by wind or were simply nearby, one could also hear the cars presumably traveling along Interstate 89. In this location, halfway between the main trail and seldom-trotted ground, the songs of birds stood out against the acoustic retorts of mechanization and civilization. This pulled the observer between two worlds, or perhaps serves as a demonstration of the inseparability of humans from nature, and vice versa.  Below is the field journal from this visit along with images of the field notes and the location itself. 

6 October 2019 1327-1405 

Centennial Woods, Burlington, Chittenden Co., Vermont 

From the trail head of Centennial Woods, I walked 0.29 miles along the trail bearing left at every intersection until I reached a forested projection into a field on my right. This is where I made my observations at 272 ft in elevation.  

Weather: Overcast, windy, 54°F 

Habitats: A downward sloping, forested hill eventually giving way to a field then turning back into forest and sloping upward.  

Vegetation: In the forest, wood ferns and grass were dominant along the needle-covered floor which bore few leaves. The canopy primarily consisted of coniferous trees with some deciduous trees such as Norway Maples and Paper Birches; these deciduous trees still bear green leaves although some of the maple leaves are beginning to turn orange. Barberry and other smaller shrubs persisted in this area too. The field was mostly grass, with Cattails and Joe-Pye Weeds dominant among the taller vegetation. Some of the older Cattails were brown-leaved and lacked their brown furry structure.  

General Commentary: Insect activity was nominal or unobserved. Mammal activity was nominal or unobserved. Avian activity was plentiful, though mostly went unobserved. During the observational period, a presumably large bird gave long, sharp, high cries across the field (outside the range of visual observation). I observed at least three birds with black heads and throats, white necks, and grey bodies – these were identified as Black-capped Chickadees; their throaty “dee” call and sharp tweets could be heard. I also observed a woodpecker of the genus Dryobates pecking on primarily coniferous tree branches it seemed. The bird had a black head, white underbelly/body, and a patchwork of grey, black, brown, and white on its back. This bird gave short, clear tweets.  

Species List:  

Plants: 

Eutrochium 

Typha 

Dryopteris 

Birds: 

Poecile atricapillus 

Dryobates  

Mammals: None observed 

Insects: None observed