20 Questions To Help You Understand Your Place

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

I read a provocative quote the other day in Stephen Bouma-Prediger’s book For the Beauty of the Earth: “Tell me the place where you live and I will tell you everything about who you are.”

Reflecting on this quote I had a realization; I don’t really know my place. I’m not sure I could fully do the first part of the quote, let alone see, once I’ve described my the place I live, see all the subtle connections between its characteristics and the shape of my life. Sure I could make a description of my home. I could say what town I live in. I could list its population. I could tell you if I lived in an urban or rural area. But beyond those general facts my description would quickly run out. But is the soul of a place contained within such a brief list of its traits? I don’t think so.

It raises the question: How can I come to know my place? For some help with the answer I contacted a a friend of mine who’s vocation is in the life sciences with specialization in plant science (botany), Leszek Vincent Ph.D. We came up with a few questions to help people think through the place they live.

Questions About Your Place:

  1. Have you met some of your nearest neighbors? What are their names? Their passions? Their personalities? When was the last time you had a conversation with them?
  2. Do you recognize which the trees, shrubs, or flowers in your area?
  3. What part of the year does your area receive most of its rain? When is it dry?
  4. When will the first flower of Spring come up? What species is it?
  5. When do the first Spring leaves appear in your area?
  6. What animals can you see from your window?
  7. Where is South or North relative to where you live?
  8. How is the waste water from the homes in your neighborhood processed?
  9. What is the composition of the soil in your neighborhood?
  10. Are there poisonous plants in your neighborhood? Edible plants?
  11. What does the wildlife in your neighborhood eat?
  12. What species of birds visit feeders around your home?
  13. What fish species are typically used to stock your local lakes/ponds?
  14. Are there trails in your town/city? If so have you experienced one or more of them on foot or by bike?
  15. Where’s a good spot in your town/city which is outdoors and would be a good place to meet for an important discussion with someone?
  16. How walkable is your neighborhood?
  17. Where is the nearest school to your home? Daycare center? Park? Playground? Forest?
  18. Is there a neighborhood watch in your area?
  19. If you live in a city, what are the zoning laws for gardens in your area? Is there a community garden nearby?
  20. What CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) are available in your area?

So now what?

Don’t get discouraged. Knowing what you don’t know is half the battle. Real, intimate knowledge of a place can only come with time. But there are some things you can do in the mean time to facilitate the process:

  • Be Observant. You can live your whole life in a place and not come to know it unless you are living in it actively and really studying what you are seeing. Emerson said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” For our purposes we can change the quote to say, “The unexamined place is not worth living in.”
  • Get Involved. Is there a group of outdoor enthusiasts that meets in your area? Is there a birding club or competition? Is there a community garden? Go out and meet some people and join them in what they are doing. Learning happens best in community.
  • Read. You’d be amazed to see how far a simple guide to plants and wildlife can go to help you start learning what is actually there. Read the guide and learn the names for things and you will start to see them when they appear. Here is a database of birdcalls to get you started on recognizing species you hear.
  • Talk to Your Neighbors. The best way to learn about a place is to meet the people who have lived there longer than you. If you know your neighbors you will come to know your neighbors needs and wants as they pertain to the small piece of the planet which you share in common.

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