Why We Need a Sense of Place

By Dr. Eric Romero

I’m originally from a town called Walsenberg in southern Colorado. It is historically a mining community, and the nearby hills offered the most glorious playground I could have ever imagined as a kid. We had a significant garden plot – we grew food every year. I spent a lot of time in the backyard learning biology and plant procreation. We grew corn, peas, squash and so much more.  It was such fertile soil we used to say that if you ate a watermelon and spit out the seeds, that’s where your watermelon patch would be the next year. We had a beautiful distribution system where we would take food to family members or neighbors if there were leftovers.

Walsenberg, Colorado

Walsenberg, Colorado

My uncle was a hunter and then I became a hunter. We lived at the edge of town, near a river and an acequia and 25 miles of piñon and juniper forest. At the first light in the summer my dad would chase us out of the house and we wouldn’t come back until the dark - we entertained ourselves. When I was 9 years old I got to climb some of the significant peaks in the area, and that enchanted me for the rest of my life to be up on the top of the mountains. Like many individuals, we take for granted our rural roots until we don’t have access to them, and then we recognize how much that’s a part of our identity and our culture.

I went to the University of Colorado in Boulder for my undergraduate studies, received my Master’s degree from Mexico City, and then went to the University of Arizona for my PhD.  Wherever I go, I make it a point to understand the topography. Then I was offered a position here at Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico, which is only 2.5 hours from where I’m from. That was 23 years ago.

I consider myself a multi-culturalist and a diversity educator. My dissertation was titled The Narrative Formation of Place and Identity in Northern New Mexico. I looked at where we get our rhetorical and linguistic roots and this sense of querencia for the land. We learn this through the stories that we grow up with. Individuals, not brought up with those story-telling traditions, may not have that sense of land attachment.  We should be aware of this and bring it more into our school systems so that students coming out of these mountain villages and rural communities have a more developed sense of place.

Without this sense of place, young people don’t have the foundation of understanding their immediate environment and connections.  If you don’t have that anchor, there’s the potential you can feel alienated. Many of our rural students eventually go to the city, and if they don’t understand where they’re from and what their culture and value systems are, they’re easily distracted and more vulnerable to substance abuse and other self- deprecating behaviors.

Place-based education is not just a rural activity.  We want to bring it into the urban school systems also. We humans have an innate desire to commune with nature. A kid who lives in an apartment will notice the plant growing in the window or a tree growing on the curb, and they’re naturally attracted to it. In the city we don’t have the same resources that we take for granted in the country where the outdoors is our museum.

I do a lot of work with acequia communities, which are sustainable agricultural systems reliant upon technologies that are ancient, going back to the Mesopotamians.  It’s a governance and management system of natural resource allocation so that everyone has water in appropriate amounts. It’s a beautiful system, in that it recognizes the sacred nature of water and exercises appreciation on a daily level. When a young person starts working on the acequia they go as a mococito. They’re not valued at first for making a work contribution, they’re mostly a gopher, but it’s a first introduction to a civic engagement and civil engineering project. It’s a measurement to see how well their work ethic is, which transfers into so many other areas of life. When the person is tall and responsible enough they’re handed a tool like a shovel or a machete that demonstrates they’re becoming a greater part of the community. It shows they’re self-determined and can be trusted to watch out for the welfare of the ecological zone of the acequia system.  Similarly, when young children are given responsibility of wood gathering. They learn what kind of wood to burn in the winter and the spring, how to determine if the wood has been seasoned and dried out long enough, and a whole lot of other lessons. Querencia isn’t just love and spiritual attachment – it’s learning how to work with the natural resources around you and use them appropriately. There’s a deep culture transmission that takes place.

Asequia in Northern New Mexico

Asequia in Northern New Mexico

This system of cultural knowledge sharing has been diminished to a big degree. We need to revisit with it in our education systems. It teaches values and appropriate behavior, which is not all technology-driven and geared toward the most convenient or the most comfortable. We’re doing some work in the schools to teach kids where their water comes from. Some students think it comes from the faucet.  We had a significant fire 10 years ago. We wanted kids to understand that if the watershed burns that would impact their entire fresh water system.  

There’s a lot less environmental education now because of the modernization and the comforts we bring into our cities. Historically Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado have been land-based cultures. We lived more sustainably and had more appreciation for what the land had to offer. Now we don’t need to worry about how much water is in the mountains because we buy our vegetables from the store.  

We’re fighting with different ideologies that see the landscape as a source of revenue versus our native concept where we look at the landscape as a manner of sustainability, survivability, stewardship and responsibility, and not about the accumulation of wealth, privatization and personal benefit.

The idea that public lands, particularly monuments, should be opened up for exploitation is a difficult situation. National parks were established with an ecological understanding but also a community orientation. These parks aren’t just to preserve the pristine nature of the environment, but they were established so people can enjoy them. There’s a humanistic intention.  

My uncle used to say there are two laws in the mountain – the law of hunger and the law of the state government.  We hunted for meat when we were hungry, but state regulations have a different idea. They want to lease these lands out to oil or timber companies. We hunted to survive, but now Vermejo Park Ranch charges $18,000 for a bull hunt. Wildlife is common, it’s not private property that can be herded and navigated and adjusted so it just benefits the wealthy. As conservationists and hunters we need to be aware of where those trends are going.

We need to work with local school systems to tell stories that teach values and morality, like how to get along with elders and not contaminate your body. You don’t become a fully developed person until you go out into the landscape and learn these stories. There’s a knowledge base that that anchors us in place.