Land conservationists have long spoken about the importance of person’s sense of place. Place is more than where we live or where we stand, it is where we connect. Place once determined the way of life for every American Indian, since they were taught that their people came directly from the mountain, valley, or lake nearby. In Indian culture, this place was celebrated with such regularity and consistency, life at a great distance from it seemed impossible.
America’s culture now has shifted from connection to dominance. Every acre has been measured and appointed the property of someone. Where Indians believed they belonged to it, we now declare it belongs to us. Thus it is difficult to grasp the concept of “a sense of place,” much less let it dictate our daily life. Yet there are those, such as the land conservationists, who know its value and appreciate the endless reward from regular correspondence with a place, written, spoken, imagined, or otherwise. To know where you stand is to know why you are standing there.
So how do we introduce ourselves to the places where we are? How do we rekindle this kind of connection? One way is to ask where it sits in relation to earth’s core, mostly commonly communicated as its relation to sea level. Mean sea level is a universal benchmark on a vertical scale, a designation for declaring a place’s position between earth and sky. (We may not realize it, but the number we assign to “sea level” is forever in a state of change since factors such as gravitational and lunar pull, water volume, and oceanic terrain effect the global average.)
I cannot pinpoint why this respect for elevation matters so much to me, but it does. I love to explore, to see what lies beyond the home I know so well. As I move along the horizon, rising over the mountains, diving into the valleys, my internal energies are attuned to more than just the sum of latitude and longitude. My heart feels the altitude. Thus, whether consciously or not, I feel most at home, not just when the terrain and its plants and animals are familiar, but also when I stand in its sea level counterpart.
As I move up the scale, conditions change. The air thins, the trees shorten, and the weather shifts. I know I am moving farther “away” with a rise of just a few hundred feet. If I stand in a valley and gaze up at a granite cliff 2,000 feet above, I am smacked by the enormous elevation contrast.
Meanwhile, typically, awareness of where I am in relation to home–the place of my deepest connection–passes unrealized by my busy mind. That is until the vertical datum point is communicated, until I read the sea level number. Then, when I close my eyes, I can truly sense that I am high, low, or somewhere just like home.
When you travel, pay attention to sea level and you will begin to awaken an inner sense of place.