By Lundy Pentz, associate professor of biology

The point in time and space where we are located is much more than a mere set of coordinates. As rational and feeling beings, our species has, for a very long time, had a sense of the importance, even numinousness, of places. We can even amuse ourselves by making up some evolutionary-behavioral stories about how our omnivorous ancestors were strongly selected for remembering where the best berries and the juiciest grubs could be found, and in what seasons. Personally, I have always derived a very deep sense of awe and mystery from significant places; perhaps this is a redeployment of an ancestral ability to recall what delicious bugs could be found under a particular log. We may never be able to determine exactly what the environment and its effect on the behavior of our remote ancestors was, but it is certainly true that, for example, those who study closely related species of nectar-eating bats have shown that the species which has the most specialized diet has significantly greater spatial memory ability (Henry and Stoner, 2012).

Of course, every living thing on this planet is, in the strictest and most literal sense, the product of the place its ancestors occupied. Evolution by natural selection boils down to just this, that species are profoundly shaped by the environment (i.e. place in the fullest sense) in which their ancestors developed. This is no optimistic formula about constant improvement of a species, since the current environment may be so altered from the ancestral one that a heavy selection pressure in the form of failed reproduction or premature deaths may be the fate of the now poorly-adapted present generation. As long as genetic variation remains, of course, there is a chance that the next generations will be better adapted to the new environment, so that in time new generations will come to be marked by their ancestors’ environment just as the current ones are marked by the environment of their ancestors. Does that necessarily result in any enhanced responsiveness to place? As in the case of the bats and many other studies, it clearly does where essential activities such as food gathering and reproduction depend on place, as in the celebrated cases of butterfly migrations and breeding salmon finding the stream where they hatched. Whether there are other sorts of appreciation of place (without obvious practical outcomes) has to be confined to the species we can communicate with best, ourselves.

A full appreciation of one type of place is unfortunately very widespread among humans.  A watershed is a very real place, though the misuse of the term by verbally impoverished journalists who want a synonym for “defining” or “crucial,” as if “watershed” were an adjective. Not so; it is a very, very concrete noun meaning all the land area over which, if you pour out a cup of water, that cup of water will end up going into a particular stream, river, or estuary. We in the Shenandoah Valley are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and many people are amazed to realize that the water that rains on the Valley (and the irrigation water sprayed on it, and the liquid chicken farm waste as well) runs almost due North in the Shenandoah River to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, then East and South into the Potomac River and finally into the Chesapeake Bay (and of course from there into the Atlantic Ocean). That, in fact, is why native valley inhabitants will speak of going “down” the valley from Staunton to Harrisonburg — the reference is to the direction the Shenandoah (and all other streams) in the valley flow, to the North. Some (fortunately, not all) valley farmers are indignant when told by the Commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Quality that they must restrict the flow of pollutants from their farms because of the damage caused to the Chesapeake Bay. I vividly recall one snowy winter day when the College was open years ago, when as I walked in to teach my classes I came upon a miniature environmental disaster. In the fire lane between Pearce Science Center and the original PEG dorm (the old King’s Daughters’ Hospital) a heating oil delivery truck had pumped a large quantity of oil into a sealed-off pipe by mistake, sending it down the fire lane. You can still see the ancient grating near the sidewalk where it disappeared, but city officials knew very well that it was on its way directly to Lewis Creek, and then into the Middle River, the Shenandoah, the Potomac and the Chesapeake if it was not stopped immediately with inflatable booms and absorbent packing (which it was). As the old song about San Francisco put it, “What we flush into the Bay / they drink at lunch in San Jose.” We really need to know which way is downhill, to understand the place we are in so that our actions may have fewer unintended consequences. Recently the Lewis Creek Advisory Committee placed small, round plaques on may curbside storm drains, plaques showing a picture of a fish and saying “goes directly into Lewis Creek” in the hope that people will think before dumping soapy carwash water or weed killers into these drains.  It is a start on reclaiming the sense of what the type of place called a watershed really is.

Losing one’s sense of place, or never having had one in the first place, can be linked to a variety of pathologies, sometimes in a general way as with the disorientation seen in many dementias, but more interestingly in highly specific ways. Mice with a transcription factor knocked out in an effort to replicate some types of human autism turn out, besides mimicking the social behaviors characteristic of autism, to perform very poorly in the water-maze, a standard test of spatial memory (Brielmeyer et al., 2012). Similar findings have come from knocking out adhesion molecules involved in synapse formation in mice; alterations in these genes have been associated with human autism and these mice also displayed defects in spatial memory (Blundell et al., 2009).

Loss of our sense of place, our ability to locate ourselves, may actually be promoted by our mass commercial culture in which truly local food ways, folkways, and speech are supplanted by identical malls and identical food chains, much as zebra mussels and starlings and kudzu have taken over so much of the natural environment. Fortunately, I believe, there are opposing trends emphasizing local foods and a renewed appreciation of local folkways and culture, which may help restore the sense of place as well as encouraging us to be more reflective about the impact of our behavior on that place.

Blundell, J, CA Blaiss, MR Etherton, F Espinosa, K Tabuchi, C Walz, MF Bolliger, TC Sudhof and CM Powell (2010) Neuroligin-1 Deletion Results in Impaired Spatial Memory and Increased Repetitive Behavior. J. Neuroscience 30(6):2115-2129

Brielmaier, J, PG Matteson, JL Sliverman, JM Senerth, S Kelly, M Genestine, JH Millonig, E DiCicco-Bloom and JN Crawley (2012) Autism-Relevant Social Abnormalities and Cognitive Defects in Engrailed-2 Knockout Mice.  PloS ONE 7(7): e40914. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040914

Henry, M and KE Stoner (2012) Relationship between Spatial Working Memory Performance and Diet Specialization in Two Sympatric Nectar Bats. PloS ONE 6(9): e23773. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0023773