Emory Report
March 31, 2008
Volume 60, Number 25


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March 31, 2008
The power of place

Bobbi Patterson, senior lecturer in religion, leads the Emory as Place program.

Emory’s first celebration of PlaceFest on March 26 revealed webs of legacies that have and still shape this place, our identities, values and actions. Sponsored by the Emory as Place program under the Office of Sustainability Initiatives, it cultivated conversations about belonging, giving back, and challenging this place called Emory.

PlaceFest raised our consciousness about sustainability in ways that facts and figures on water use alone cannot. It drew out our curiosities and felt-experiences in ways that changed behaviors and recycling will not.
Information about, and actions for, sustainable living are useful and good. But PlaceFest asked us if we knew where we were, which meant: had we ever discovered the histories, cultures and peoples that made this place around us? Were we just passing through or had we inhabited a particular niche thoroughly enough to know, as Gary Snyder writes, the dances and songs, the sacred seasons and parties? PlaceFest asked if we yet recognized that ethics of sustainability cannot be sustained without love for the real and evolving places in which our ordinary lives unfold.

Whenever I ask people to tell me about places that have meant something to their lives, the stories pour out. They describe streams and stadiums, cabins and corners to which they turn — physically, emotionally or through memory — when decisions must be made or life pitches a ball too fast and too wild. People explain havens of solace and stability. They take me to spaces or loved ones embodying their deepest purposes and commitments. We have such places at Emory too.

When I think of Emory as Place, I scan to my first office, a little fourth floor corner of what we, in 1981, called the AMUC (the Alumni University Center). Next door to me was a glorified closet, taken over by two undergraduate women. They dreamed and maneuvered Volunteer Emory into life there. I still see them screaming in a kind of ring-around-the-rosey the day their dean gave them the full “go-ahead.” That was long ago. Now the outside AMUC spaces have grown internal as the DUC’s Coca -Cola Commons.

I recall wandering into the Rudolph Chapel or some corner of the Baker Woodlands when I felt lost as a young chaplain, wanting so fervently to touch the streams of the sacred and too inexperienced. But in those places, I found reflective and spiritual space as well as courage. Those places at Emory reoriented me enough each day to re-inhabit my work, and a campus that continually grew. As I changed jobs and the waves on waves of 26 years of new students pummeled on, I still return to those ordinary life-love places at Emory. They ground, inspire, and challenge me within community, here, in Atlanta, and the bioregion.

So, what are the places at Emory that matter to you, that call out, calm and recollect your body, spirit and mind? And equally significant, what have they to do with the stories, other people and creatures that live and move through this place? These ways of knowing and ways of practicing ordinary life profoundly affect our life-way and way of life. Without knowing, loving and belonging to the place, we cannot fully thrive nor sustain ourselves or partner for sustainability with other communities.

The courses, wood walks, service projects and educational programs Emory as Place is developing are designed to recultivate our senses of place within campus and within the bioregion. Teaching basic skills for paying attention to landscapes, traditions, climates, residents, ecosystems and spirits, Emory as Place restores inhabitation so that we can dwell here with enough rootedness to live justly and compassionately together in good and tough times. And if we move, we can take our place-based sustainability tools with us to use in new communities of belonging and justice.

Practices of re-inhabiting Emory “as place” will hold our feet to the soft grass of the Quad and the fire of unresolved injustices. To claim new stories of belonging, identity and community arising from this place, we also must struggle with the bent and broken. So we celebrate the Bike Emory campaign, and the Cliff shuttles. We shout gratitude over the papers of Alice Walker and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, while we contest construction designs and locations and ask more questions about fair wages and reciprocity in research, teaching and service partnerships with Atlanta.

We have come very far along our life-way in this place and our heart-mind legacy is proud and strong enough for serious questioning. Knowing and loving this place we call Emory, I am confident of our commitment to its sustainability.