Sense of Place, Sense of Self, Sense of Humanity
In France they have a concept called terroir. Philosophically, terroir is based on the total experience of a place — first, the geology, geography, and climate which give food and wine their unique taste, then additionally the culture, sensory perception of the environment, and ultimately one’s relationship to the land, what the land produces, and the people who have lived on it. Terroir embodies the pride people have in their locality, traditions, and what they produce through their labor. It is tied to their sense of identity.
In recent years I have become more and more active in the sustainable agriculture movement in the United States. The organization of which I serve as president, Gardens for Humanity, is expanding from community art and gardens into the areas of food security, sustainability education, and local farm to table agriculture. In the Verde Valley of central Arizona we are trying to rediscover the roots of Native American and pioneer agriculture that made this area self-sufficient since 900 AD until well into the twentieth century. We call our overall purpose the effort to inspire an agricultural renaissance.
Most people who now live in Arizona were raised elsewhere, many in urban areas throughout the United States. In such living environments there is little connection with place as a source of life-giving sustenance other than what one does to make a living. But there is no terroir. America is no longer a nation of family farmers supporting communities within a two-hundred mile radius. Most people eat food that has travelled long distances to reach their table. Packaging and industrialization of the food chain further serves to homogenize foods and isolate one from the reality of the food they eat.
Many people and communities in the United States are trying to reconnect with the place they live, in order to experience the feeling of being rooted to a home territory. This is more than a nostalgic longing for a more stable community life. It represents an effort to consciously acknowledge and feel gratitude for everything that contributes to the making and experiencing the food they eat. It is a type of empowerment. It is the result of an urge to take more control of their participation in meeting their survival needs, and more participation through sensory refinement in the experiences that we take for granted in daily life. This process is often described as a slow food movement. What is “slow” is the recognition of the time it takes to grow, prepare and enjoy wholesome foods consciously.
When we start to use and experience the everyday things in life more consciously, we are on the path of self-reflection. Starting with food, which is an unavoidable necessity, we may expand our awareness to treat our other relationships more consciously and with gratitude. The sense of terroir is a basic sense of ownership of our experiences, choices and resulting life. If we feel that all that we undertake, ingest, and digest makes up the fabric of who we are, we start to shape our life, put our values in order and appreciate living more fully. In an era where people are more mobile and life is in greater flux, “sense of place” is replaced by “sense of self” where “self” becomes the (mobile) “place” in which we live.
This process of expanding self-consciousness is not an increase of self-centeredness. In fact, whereas in past eras people’s sense of self was more strictly tied to narrow geographical, familial, cultural, racial, religious and traditional determiners, people now seek community based upon communication. Our new communities are based on who we feel connected to. With the expansion of the tools of communication such as the internet, has come the expansion of who we feel connected to. There is less insulation from the lives others are living. More and more, people are able to tell their stories and have an audience for them. We start to get the flavor of others' lives. Our empathy increases. As imperfect as it may be, it still serves to increase the mental and emotional senses with which we perceive and experience life. Our terroir expands to include the planet and humanity, not just the soil upon which we walk.
The apparent contradiction of localization and globalization is one of scale but not of quality. Localization enables us to heighten our sense of place and the sense of enjoyment and gratitude for the gifts we use in order to live. By expanding this awareness to our greater home, the planet, we can increase our sense of responsibility towards our place in it. The expression “think globally, and act locally” recognizes that the whole is the sum of its parts. A healthy planet requires healthy communities. We must cultivate the sense of terroir so that we feel inseparable from where we live and our co-inhabitants. Destruction of the living environment is a result of disconnect and alienation from place and people. Terroir seeks integration on all levels of experience. It is the celebration and nurturing of the diversity that makes up the many unique facets of the whole and gives them their identity.
*Richard is currently living in France for three months.
© 2010 Richard