(June 8, 2020)—I’m really missing the field school and some of what have become yearly traditions since I became field director in 2013. I miss going to the airport and trying to guess which people are the students I’m supposed to be picking up based on their luggage and outfits. I miss introducing those who have never been here to the desert Southwest. I miss hearing the exclamations of wonder as they discover our vast expanses of blue sky (“I can see all the way to the horizon!”), our exotic flora (“Whoa! Is THAT a saguaro!?”), and our general scenic surroundings (“I’ve never been this close to a MOUNTAIN before!”). And that’s just on the drive from the airport to the University of Arizona’s dorms, where they crash their first few nights before we head to the field.
Those first days are usually spent getting to know one another. The students have never met most of the staff before, and none of them know each other, either. That’s one of the great things about this program—we get to meet, and facilitate introductions to, such a wide variety of students from all over the country who have different opinions, beliefs, and life experiences.
One of my favorite activities during that introductory period is learning about everyone’s ideas about what “sense of place” means to them. It has always a little bit different, and I love hearing the variety of answers that we get, too. Staff members are also included in this sharing experience, so I thought I would take this opportunity to share what comes to mind for me when I think of having a sense of place.
I was born and raised in and around Phoenix. I went to Arizona State University for college, and then made the HUGE 150-mile leap to Tucson to go to the University of Arizona for grad school. To say that I’m a Desert Rat would be a bit of an understatement. So, when I think about what having a sense of place means to me, I think of home.
“Home” to me isn’t a house. It isn’t the house I live in now, or my parent’s house, or even the house I grew up in. It isn’t my things (which is maybe sacrilege for an archaeologist), it isn’t my cats (though I love them dearly), and isn’t my family (they’re spread out all across the country).
Home, to me, is the Sonoran Desert. Where on a breezy day, I can hear the wind whistling through the saguaro needles. Where I can smell the creosote, which is what the entirety of southern Arizona smells like when it rains. I’m not home without roadrunners and rattlesnakes; tumbleweeds and tarantulas; palo verdes and prickly pears; mountains and mesquite. For me, “sense of place” evokes feelings of home, and home for me means the low desert.
So, I love the excited exaltations I get to hear from our students in the backseats of our 15-passenger van as we introduce them to the area around Tucson in those first couple of days (“I never knew the desert could be so GREEN!”). I love to watch their hesitation as they try to navigate a tamale for the first time. But mostly, I love introducing them to my home, the landscape that gives me a deep and intense sense of place.