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Sense of Place

Those who know me well may find it laughable for me to speak on the importance of place. I’ve had a life full of motion, travel, relocation and adaptation. I’ve lived in Illinois, Michigan, California, New Jersey, Minnesota, Florida. That’s 6 states—plus the District of Columbia. I lived abroad for 8 years, in Hong Kong and London.

That said, I did have some serious grounding before I went to college. I grew up with my family in the same modest house for 18 years in suburban Chicago. We were really imbedded in that spot and rarely went anywhere far away. We did take a few trips to Florida to see family and spent some weekends in the Driftless area of Wisconsin where my parents bought an old farm for their retirement years.

A warm, sisterly hug and smiling friends at the prairie’s edge

Next to my childhood home was a piece of pristine land, maybe 20 acres, that we called “the prairie”. There we built forts and rafts. We roamed through tall grasses in the summer and shoveled and skated the ponds in the winter. We picked the berries, climbed the trees, built trails. We gently examined the mosses, pussy willows and bark. We wandered through the dense woods, sumac patches and thickets of brush. Sometimes we’d stay out there all day, coming home only when we heard mom hollering out the back door, calling us in for supper. That’s where I felt so happy and free. It’s where I wanted to be; with my brothers, sisters, cousins and neighborhood pals. I liked being close to the birds and little critters, too.

When I was in high school, my beloved prairie was bulldozed in order to build a condo development. The developers named it “Big Oak” because they’d somehow found it in their hearts to save ONE big tree in the middle of the property. Something died in me that day—when I woke up to the sound of the horrid equipment. And despite the fact that I’d lived in and loved that little corner of the world for so long, I never really felt a connection again. My mother died not long afterwards and then I really lost my moorings.  Wanderlust ensued.

A rosy sunset from Pass-a-Grille Beach, Florida

Twenty years later, I traveled to both Florida and Wisconsin, where our family remained involved, and, in both places, I reconnected. I found a sense of comfort and indescribable physical and spiritual joy in being there. In terms of place, it was all I had left from my young life. I’d finally come home and, luckily, both places took me as I was. No judgment.

So, for me, a sense of place has had a lot to do with nature, the senses, relationships and early life experience. Surprisingly, it didn’t have much to do with how long I’d stayed in a place. It was more about the feelings, connections and physical sensations. When I came back to Florida, where I now spend my winters, I felt exhilaration walking against the stiff wind on the sugar sand beach. Knowing my ancestors must have had similar moments and sensations brought me a unique comfort. When I got back to Wisconsin, I felt an indescribable bliss running barefoot through the morning dew on the meadow. I was reminded of my earliest visits as a child, discovering the farm for the first time. These are the feelings that gave me, a prodigal creature, the sense that I had once again found myself in the right place.

Jeanette Leehr
March 2022

Editor’s note: Jeanette wrote this reflection in response to the foundation’s Leopold Week 2022 program series, “Explore Your Sense of Place,” which attracted thousands of online viewers from all 50 states, 12 countries, and countless other beloved places. 

Explore your sense of place here!