Thursday, January 24, 2013

Buildings, Trail Trees, and a Sense of Place

(First posted at
Sense of place is the theme for this year's Princeton Environmental Film Festival, which begins its three weekend stand at the public library this Thursday. In adapting that theme to my presentation about the mathematician/visionary/outdoorsman Oswald Veblen, on the last day of the festival, I followed a trail of thoughts that led surprisingly to my birthplace near Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. The thoughts took this cross-country route:

Walking the boulder-strewn slopes of Herrontown Woods in northeastern Princeton, it's easy for those who haven't learned the trails well to get lost. Detours around the many storm-blown trees make it even harder to keep one's bearings. Several of the trails, though, converge on a 19th century farmstead where Veblen had his study. Out with my family recently, not completely sure of where we were in the preserve, I was relieved to finally catch sight of the red barn in the distance.

Across town, the house and restored dams at Princeton's Mountain Lakes Preserve serve the same role, as a reference point for walks in the woods.

The houses that often come with preserved land, then, do not necessarily detract from the natural setting but instead provide landmarks--a sense of place, a feeling of departure and return. Historical structures add even more to a natural area, endowing a spot with a story and an added dimension of time.
Sometimes fictional stories have particular power, such as the belief that Veblen's study had actually been lived in by Einstein.

The opposite of this, a spot with no sense of place, no stories to tell, might be a deep, flat woodland without any boulders, streams or other features to distinguish one direction from another.

This led to the memory of so-called trail trees--the trees American Indians would bend over, forcing the saplings to grow sideways and up in a distinctive shape, to mark a little used trail or the direction to a water source. White oaks, which can live for hundreds of years, were commonly put to this purpose.

The tree in the old photo is shown in a wikipedia post describing a series of trail trees that once led north from what is now Illinois up to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which happens to be where I grew up.

Another photo on that webpage showed a trail tree in Traverse City, Michigan, close to Camp Innisfree, where I first developed an interest in learning wildflowers and improvising melodies on clarinet. Whether this trail tree still survives, it's still doing its job, helping navigate to places of great meaning in the deep forest of memory.

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