When I was 17 during the snowboard season, my brother and I woke up while the sun was just peaking out above the wintery pines in our backyard. We slipped on our first layer of clothes, and then stuffed the rest into backpacks. Boards and helmets sliding around the back of the trunk, we pulled out of our driveway and out of the suburban town we live in to get a little weekday escape at the mountain. By the time we arrived, the sun was bright and the sky was clear, and we felt so small standing beneath the mountains and great evergreens. I thought to myself, this is my place, as a wispy breeze made my zipper rattle.
A year later, I felt a similar, but warmer, breeze. The sun was out, beating down, and I was not nearly as clothed as the winter at the mountain. Still, however, I couldn’t help feeling so small. Looking out at the vast sky and fields that stretched to the horizon, I was humbled. I was no longer at my home in New Jersey, but somehow, the flat, endless land of the Eastern Shore of Maryland had helped me feel so at home. Maybe, I thought, this is my place.
This semester has forced me to confront an aspect of my being that I never really felt the need to before: my sense of place. I, like the rest of us, am a citizen of place. We are creatures with the unique ability to appreciate nature and the environment we reside in for not just its resources, but its beauty. The aesthetics that a place creates and shares with a person establishes a unique connection that we often take for granted today. Throughout the semester, we have explored this phenomenon and the way it affects the people of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Many of my classmates live within the Watershed, and have now been forced to confront their daily actions and how they may be negatively impacting the Bay they so depend on. They remark on the connections they share with the Bay and the memories it has created for them. While I deeply admire their sense of place, I can’t help but feel like maybe that is something I have been missing all along. I’ve spent my entire life in the same home in Flemington, NJ, a relatively quiet suburban town. Over the summers, I would travel by plane to England where my mother’s family lives. Each place we would visit painted vivid, colorful memories in my mind that made me feel whole. When I finally got the opportunity to leave my small town and venture out into the world through my studies, I fell in love with Washington College upon stepping on the campus. Finally, I thought, maybe I had found where I would be able to nurture my sense of place.
And then I enrolled in Chesapeake Semester and I spent a few months traveling all around the Watershed, and to Belize and Guatemala. I had countless experiences that invoked a sense of euphoria in me, some of the memories I wrestle with daily to keep myself from thinking I was dreaming them. It was this semester that really made me realize exactly what it was that I was missing about being a citizen of a place. I’ve been surrounded by so many people that have a part of them rooted in the ground they grew up, I thought that was how it had to be. But then I looked back on my life, and how all I ever knew about what I wanted from it was to travel the world and expose myself to experiences completely new to me. I may be able to find myself drawing connections between the mountains by my home, or the river stretching through Chestertown, or the patchwork rolling fields dotted with sheep in England, but I will never be rooted to a place. Therefore, I am not a citizen of place, but a citizen of the world, and the environment as a whole.
One of the most unique things about me as a participant in the Chesapeake Semester Program is that I am not an Environmental Science major like the other students; I am an International Studies major. I care deeply about the way the world works and how our society is constantly dependent on those seemingly so different than ours across the globe. I find it to be incredibly fascinating, and I believe that the single greatest threat we have facing us today as a world is the threat to our environment. As I do not find myself to be a citizen of a specific place, I find that it is my duty to pursue a role in which I can ensure the environment thrives alongside society all around the world, and that the future generations get the same, if not better, opportunities than I did to be exposed to enriching, aesthetic experiences provided to us by mother nature.
During our fourth Journey, we visited, and were visited by, quite a few people from diverse careers and backgrounds. We spent personal time conversing with farmers, and then provoked similar conversations with members of NGOs and other operations. One of the most frequent questions that was always brought up, almost as a way to shift a conversation that seemed to be getting gloom, was what can we do, as citizens of place? The reason the fourth Journey was so important in our curriculum was because it exposed us to direct ways in which government can impact real people with real jobs. We heard farmers talk about the environmental regulations and the impact they had on their farms, or how they were trying to shift their farms in order to stay ahead of them. Trey Hill, the manager of Harbour View Farms, seemed to be the most progressive farmer we talked to and demonstrated for each of us one way to answer our question. He spoke of the new technology that helped limit waste and more efficiently farm and process his crops. He gleamed while he told us about the mixed cover crop he was now planting on his bare fields, and how this was promoting healthier soil, healthier crops, and a healthier environment. Seeing someone plant their roots in a unique place like the Eastern Shore and fully except the civic duty he has, to protect the environment responsible for his riches, seemed unlikely. Trey Hill, however, had found a way to make this work. He was proud of being a citizen of place, and believed that we all have these responsibilities to protect it.
Not coming from a farming background, or even having my roots woven into any ground, Trey Hill’s revolution didn’t resonate with me quite as much as I wish it did. I was, in fact, incredibly enthused to hear him speak so intelligently about the subject. It was fascinating to hear someone put immense amounts of effort into making something that seems so out of date (farming) so progressive. But I wasn’t a farmer, and never would be. My mind wandered too much to be locked to a single place. So, as the week went on, I listened to the farmers and what they had to say, but wasn’t particularly interested until we visited St. Brigids Farm, a small-scale, grass-fed dairy operation in Kennedyville, Maryland. Judy Gifford, the owner of the farm, was an incredibly unique woman. She had about 60 cows on the property and knew them all by name. Shortly after being introduced to her, she asked us a little about ourselves, and then told us about some of the things she has been doing around the farm and the community. She was fairly open to us about her political opinions, and said how strange it was being the only democrat, often the only woman, sitting around the table with the other farmers in the area. She said she often feels targeted because of this, or like her opinions aren’t valued as much as they should be because she doesn’t do things like the rest of them, and simply isn’t like the rest of them. This struck a chord with me as all she really wanted was to see some change in the world. Like me, she felt as if we were stuck. At one point in our conversation, Judy told us she didn’t see the point in spending time looking for band-aids when the entire system was failing. What we need, she believes, is to simply rethink and rework the system. Judy’s mind, like mine, worked in ways that bypassed the little stuff and cared so much about the greater picture. She wasn’t concerned with laying down a certain type of cover-crop because it may produce better soil, like Trey Hill, she was concerned with the system we have created where in order to eat, we need to be damaging the environment in unimaginable ways. After a ten minute conversation with Judy about all the ways in which the system was damaged, someone sought a change of pace. The student asked the question: what can we do, as citizens of place? She thought for a second, and then her eyes widened, and she smiled a little before the word “vote” pushed its way out from her lips. She shrugged her shoulders, and lightly shook her head. I nodded along, thinking about how the greater picture doesn’t even just have to do with farming, or even the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. What Judy had been saying to us all along, in more words, was that we were born in and thrived off this land. We have a duty to protect it, if not for ourselves and what is left of our lives, then for our children, or our children’s children. The key, as I understood from her speech, was that we need to think broader and wider and with the future in mind.
When we introduced ourselves to Judy, she asked us what we wanted to get out of this experience. I told her I was most interested in learning about people’s relationship with the government and the regulations/laws it produces. Up until this time, I had been fortunate enough to get to experience the governmental side of this equation, and I was hoping our fourth and last Journey in Chesapeake Semester would be able to expose me to the people side of this. As it falls, the people side of the environmental problem on the Eastern Shore of Maryland tends to be accounted for by farmers. Talking to people like Trey Hill, the Davis brothers, Judy Crow, and Judy Gifford, I felt like I had fulfilled that. Now that I had a better understanding of this complex relationship between government and people, I needed to use this to determine my responsibilities and means to protect the environment.
As I have seen through my friends and the people I’ve met, being a citizen of place is often determined by deep connecting experiences like growing up somewhere or being the third-generation farmer on a plot of land. Experiencing the aesthetic qualities of a place help us fuel these connections, which really nourishes our admiration and appreciation for the environment responsible for it. Throughout the semester, I’ve come to realize that, much like Judy Gifford, I am best able to see the greater picture than anything short-term or localized. I find myself able to create connections with anywhere I am, and find myself not a citizen of a specific place, but a citizen of the world in its entirety. As such, I feel that I need to act out my responsibilities in a way that benefits the entire environment and can kindle change. While eating all organic or locally grown food is great, it’s a drop in the ocean where my self seeks to make waves. Spending time learning about the relationship between people and government, as well as talking with Judy Gifford, all proved to me that the most effective way to make waves like this is to be politically involved and act as a connection between government, people, and the environment. As someone who values and appreciates the environment and is a citizen of the world, it is my responsibility to be the voice for the voiceless, and as it stands today, that position is represented by the environment.
Humans are globally degrading the environment at rates unknown to history and, honestly, rates that do not bode well for the future. By giving the environment a voice, I can help make sure that humans maintain these important connections with the land we build our lives on and continue to appreciate and thrive off of it. As it has been responsible for our rise, it will be responsible for our downfall, and the joy that it has brought me through unique aesthetic and euphoric experiences is something that I believe the future generations deserve as well. We are the only species on Earth that can appreciate something simply for its aesthetic qualities, and this is something we should cherish, not take for granted. Abusing and manipulating the land as we do is just one way that we take this for granted. We haven’t yet realized the strength we truly possess, and while some may argue the human race is no match for mother nature, we can surely do enough damage to anger her, and lose the pleasurable aesthetics for the future. I will always feel it is somewhat my responsibility to pick up floating garbage bags in a creek I’m hiking through, or a discarded lighter at the foot of the bush outside my dorm, but with a mind that is constantly seeking a greater picture, I can’t help but feel that is not enough. Thus, I feel my responsibility lies at affecting change both at home, and throughout the world. Fulfilling my civic duty full-forced by volunteering for NGOs, supporting governmental candidates who believe what I believe, promoting and protesting what I find important, staying educated and informed on the issues, and most importantly, as Judy Gifford said, voting, is how I believe I will be able to send change around the world. For decades, the United States has been the leading edge in progressive agendas, and yet somehow, its begun to shift. I seek to fix this issue where it lies with the environmental threats humans pose. By being an effective citizen in government, I can affect more than just how much garbage I can see from my front porch. I can help laws and regulations built to protect the environment be passed and put in place here in the United States. Change in the United States has a greater impact than we often realize, as it is typically the kickstart of a dramatic domino effect. By us promoting environmental issues as a priority and not as a disturbance in our periphery, we can help others do the same.
Rehashing the responsibilities I believe I have, and the means I hope to use to address them, I can’t help but feel my sense of place has been solidified. I am not a citizen of place, but a citizen of the world, and I will always seek out ways to address the greater picture. Whether this is in how I demand change on a grand scale, or how I think about those changes and their global effect, the greater picture is what defines my vision. Before we met with Judy Gifford, Steve Kline from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservancy Partnership came and spoke to our class. He informed us about the Farm Bill, and gave us a sense of how government functions with pressure from the people and NGOs. I hadn’t yet spoken with a farmer who shared my appetite for wide-spread change, but I could tell through how Steve spoke that he, too, believed there were missing links between government, people, and the environment. I couldn’t help thinking, what if I could find a way to be that missing link? As a member of a generation faced with countless global problems, all almost unfeasibly large in scale, we need to, as Judy proposed, stop trying to create band-aids for the system, and just rework it. Obviously, I realize this is much easier said than done, but at the start is realizing who we really are and where we belong, maybe even finding our sense of place. For myself, I’ve taken that step, although it took quite a while, and I’ve confirmed myself as a citizen of the world. Being such, I owe it to the future generations to promote healthy connections between the environment and society, and to do so, I need to accept the responsibilities I have to be politically involved, and use the means granted to me simply for being born in the United States to seek to learn/be informed, invoke change worldwide, and always keep my vision directed to the greater picture.
References (In order mentioned)
Trey Hill, Harbour View Farms, 11/29/17
Judy Gifford, St. Brigids Farm, 12/1/17
Steve Kline, Theodore Roosevelt Conservancy Partnership, 11/30/17