Searching for Stories

This past semester (Fall 2009) I was involved in a research project at the University of Illinois alongside PhD student James Barkley.  The research centered around ideas of lived experience, autobiography, place meanings, parks, and wilderness.  The project became known under the title “Searching for Stories: a discussion of place meaning for park planners” with my own contribution being a detailed autobiographical text regarding my own childhood experiences in nature and those experiences’ lasting effect on my life.  The research was presented at a parks and planning conference in Indiana this January, which I was unfortunately unable to attend due to my Spring semester abroad in Sweden.  On this page I have included the research abstract as well as contact information for James Barkley.  If you are interested in the autobiographical piece I produced as part of the research, feel free to contact me for a copy of the text.  Questions regarding the research and presentation itself should be addressed to James Barkley, the first author in this project (also please note that all following text is Barkley’s writing as provided in the presentation abstract, not my own, except where cited).

“Searching for stories: a discussion of place meaning for park planners”

James Barkley, Garrett Traylor & Daniel M. Larson

University of Illinois
Park Planning and Policy Laboratory
Department of Recreation, Sport, and Tourism
104 Huff Hall
1206 S. Fourth Street
Champaign, IL 61820
Ph: (217) 244-4532
Fax: (217) 244-1932

This paper is intended to generate discussion among park planners, professionals, and academics about place meanings and the type(s) of knowledge they represent. There is a body of scholarship that has grown in the direction of place studies (see Relph, 1976; Tuan, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1977) surrounding park and wild land management (see J.O. Farnum & L.E. Kruger Eds. 2008). This paper presents a discussion of place meaning, or sense of place in a way that people can all relate to: the telling of stories. First, this paper appreciates the complexity of place meanings. Second, this paper introduces a basic notion of lived experience and the subsequent role of memory and emotion in coming to know and represent place meanings. This theoretical structure is critical to understanding the type of knowledge that is being produced in place making processes and the relevance of this knowledge to planning dialogue surrounding park and recreation administration.

This unique interdisciplinary project examines the environmental autobiography of a creative writing major at the University of Illinois whose piece focuses on an important, influential, and definitive landscape of his childhood. In framing Traylor’s (2009) writing, this project presents a unique opportunity to understand a process of place making through an autobiographical lens. Traylor’s (2009) project began in the summer of 2009 when he took a course taught by Barkley. The major paper for this class was to write an ‘Environmental Autobiography.’ This paper took shape according to two in-class exercises. In the first assignment the students were asked to think of an important outdoor childhood place and simply write down the name of that place. Later in the semester students identified an important outdoor place, considering their earlier selection, and wrote descriptive accounts of the place and their experience(s) there. As a double major in creative writing and Scandinavian studies, Traylor enjoyed the emphasis this assignment placed on memorable description; the telling of how the place is remembered. This led to discussion of how to explore this paper/topic further. It was decided that an independent study in auto ethnographic writing focused on place meanings was appropriate, with the final paper being Traylor’s (2009) Searching for Stories. Lacking overt politicization, Traylor’s story is more autobiographical than auto ethnographical. In developing the piece, Traylor nonetheless deeply personalizes an important outdoor landscape from his childhood.

Place meaning, or sense of place is approached here according to a basic notion of lived experience and the subsequent role of memory and emotion in coming to know and represent place meanings. Lived experience refers to a series of temporal, spatial organizations that in its most basic form involves our immediate consciousness of life prior to reflection (Dilthey, 1985; Sartre, 1957/1985; Van Manen, 1990). Lived experience – so defined – exists only in its representation and does not exist outside of memory (Denzin, 1992). The act of remembering happens in the present yet is referencing an absent past (Huyssen, 2003). As such, the process of memory construction is imaginative (Denzin, 2001). Condensation, elaboration and invention are common characteristics of ordinary remembering (Bartlett, 1932, p. 205). Subsequently, stories of the lived experience are understood to include emotions and feelings (Denzin, 1985) that are essential to place meanings but are often difficult to formally represent in park planning scenarios (Nie, 2003; Yankelovich, 1991). As Tuan (1977) – a prominent scholar in contemporary place studies – points out:

“A large body of experiential data is consigned to oblivion because we cannot fit the data to concepts that are taken over uncritically from the physical sciences” (Tuan, 1977, p. 201).

Traylor’s piece presents an autobiographical context for understanding the possibility of green space as it has been constructed through a careful and focused place making process.

Place making is a storytelling process. Traylor’s work delves into place meanings and their formation through the representation of [remembered] lived experience:

“Kicked out of the house. Again. Both houses, actually – my friend Daniel’s and mine. And we were supposed to do what now, ‘Contemplate the wonders of nature?’ So said my friend’s father, his words verbatim. My own parents agreed that a little less time playing Fallout and a little more time outdoors might do us some good. Seems they were in cahoots. I whined, ‘But I want to play video games.’” (Traylor, 2009, p. 1)

As Traylor takes the reader along on a harrowing journey in an endless forest landscape, the experience tells of a childhood place whose space – consisting of the physical characteristics of the landscape – is beyond measure (see Relph 1976; Tuan 1975 for basic idea of human place and physical space).

“Even now with those trees right in front of me, I hadn’t thought much of them in any sense other than background. ‘Think we can find the end of it?’ I pulled my gaze up from my feet with a resounding, ‘Huh?’ ‘The ravine,’ Daniel explained. I looked, shook my head. ‘Nah, looks endless.’ A path led down from my patio into the trees, and the trees did seem to go on forever. And so background became foreground.” (Traylor, 2009, p. 1)

The forest comes into focus as Traylor digs into the trees and it is at this point that we begin to see a complex environmental engagement and how the physical space of a backyard becomes a human place of heroism:

“’Daniel?’ ‘Yeah?’ ‘Endless might be too far.’ ‘Too late now, look around.’ We were surrounded by beasts and monsters of every kind. Our only option was to fight our way back, and fight we did. Thousands of the invisible horde fell to the strike of our swords until the blades shattered against the trees themselves. Suddenly all fell quiet. We gasped for breath, standing back to back and holding mere splinters to our defense, but the monsters were gone. The mighty forest had spared us. ‘I think we should get back.’ ‘I think you’re right.’ And we left our adventure in the trees.” (Traylor, 2009, p. 2)

As Traylor takes the reader along on a harrowing journey in an endless forest landscape, the experience tells of a childhood place whose space is immeasurable. Sensing a threat to this childhood haunt in his young adult life, Traylor laments:

“I stepped outside to see what had changed, to perhaps attempt the same journey I had made so many times as a child. … Unlike in my childhood, I found an end to my ravine. At the end of the path, just beyond the first few trees, I stood facing a rock wall that my neighbors had built at the property line. In my memory, the place had been endless, stretching into infinity in a way that blended fantasy with reality, but the wall separated absolutely. Worse yet, on the other side of the wall, my neighbors had been clearing trees. … My back yard had become Hetch Hetchy Valley, but it was not the damming of water that I feared, but that of my memories.” (Traylor, 2009, p. 6)

The reader can understand the importance of this place when Traylor tells his story. There is an empathetic turn that is made possible through the sharing of experiential, emotional knowledge. In this autobiographical context the reader is invited to enter the sphere of experience and emotion that is rooted in Traylor’s important childhood place.

This understanding of place making as told through stories of lived experience is critical to park and wild land managers who are exploring strategies for public involvement that incorporate lived experiences of visitors and stakeholders into their planning processes (Kruger, 2008; Kruger & Jakes, 2003). These strategies are generally connected with collaborative forums for dialogue that nuance meanings of place, encourage emotional expression, and ultimately build trust (Barkley & Stewart, 2008; Cheng & Daniels, 2003; Stedman, Beckley, Wallace, & Ambard, 2004; Stewart, Liebert, & Larkin, 2004; Stewart, Barkley, Kerins, Gladdys, & Glover, 2007; Williams, Patterson, Roggenbuck, & Watson, 1992). At the core of these efforts is an examination of participants lived experience.

Lived experience, as a philosophical orientation toward knowledge and knowing reality, holds central the idea that through the actual experience of something its essence may be felt and understood as reality (Fals-Borda & Rahman, 1991). In championing the sharing of experiential knowledge in place-making processes Stokowski (2008, pp. 31-60) posits a charge to managers-as-stakeholders:

“A manager’s imperative then, should be to understand the emergent qualities of place-making and place meanings in order to respond to patterns of discourse shaped by structured communicators linked across social networks. In this effort managers should err on the side of variety rather than constraint in allowing resource settings to be as open as possible to social and cultural behaviors through which place meanings may be expressed.” (Stokowski, 2008, p. 54)

After presenting a well-developed story written as a place making exercise and developing a basic theoretical sketch, the discussion is intended to further develop a dialogue focused on place meanings and experiential knowledge among park professionals and researchers alike. This project is intended to generate discussion among park professionals and researchers aimed at identifying the proper platform(s) for sharing this sort of experiential knowledge in park and wild land planning with a keen focus on the major limitations of this sort of knowledge as operating outside of a traditional scientific approach to knowledge.

Selected references

Barkley, J., & Stewart, W. (2008). When a landscape is bigger than itself: A stakeholder analysis at Grand Canyon National Park. National Park Service Tech. Rep.

Bartlett, F.C. (1932/1967). A theory of remembering. In F.C. Barton, Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology (pp. 197-214). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cheng, A.S. & Daniels, S.E. (2003). Examining the interaction between geographic scale and ways of knowing in ecosystem management: a case study of place-based collaborative planning. Forest Science, 49, 6, 841-854.

Denzin, N.K. (1985). Emotion as lived experience. Symbolic Interaction, 8, 2, 223-240.

Denzin, N.K. (1992). The many faces of emotionality. In Ellis and Flaherty (eds) Investigating Subjectivity, pp. 17-30, Sage: Newbury Park California.

Denzin, N. (2001). Interpretive Interactionism, Second Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Dilthey, W. (1985). Poetry and experience. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fals-Borda, O., & Rahman, M.A. (Eds.). (1991). Action and knowledge: Breaking the monopoly with participatory action research. New York: Intermediate Technology/Apex.

Farnum, J.O., & Kruger, L.E. (Eds.). (2008). Place-based planning: Innovations and applications from four western forests. Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-741. Portland, OR: U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Huyssen, A. (2003). Present pasts: Urban palimpsest and the politics of memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Kruger, L.E. (2008). An introduction to place-based planning. In J.O. Farnum & L.E. Kruger (Eds.), Place-based planning: Innovations and applications from four western forests (pp. 1-6). Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-741. Portland, OR: U.S. Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Kruger, L.E., & Jakes, P.J. (2003). The importance of place: Advances in science and application. Forest Science, 49, 6, 819-821.

Nie, M. (2003). Drivers of natural resource-based political conflict. Policy Sciences, 36(3/4), 307-341.

Relph, E. (1976). Place and placelessness. London: Pion Limited.

Sartre, J.P. (1985) Existentialism and human emotions. New York: Citadel Press. (Original work published 1957)

Schneekloth, L. H., & Shibley, R. G. (1995). Placemaking: The art and practice of building communities. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Stedman, R., Beckley, T., Wallace, S., & Ambard, M. (2004). A picture and 1000 words: Using resident-employed photography to understand attachment to high amenity places. Journal of Leisure Research, 36, 4, 580-606.

Stewart, W. P., Barkley, J., Kerins, A., Gladdys, K., & Glover, T. D. (2007). Park development on the urban-agricultural fringe. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 25 (4).

Stewart, W., Liebert, D., & Larkin, K. (2004). Community identities as visions for landscape change. Landscape and Urban Planning, 69, 315-334.

Stokowski, P.A. (2008). Creating social senses of place: new directions for sense of place research in natural resource management. In Understanding Concepts of Place in Recreation Research and Management. Kruger, L.E., Hall, T.E., & Stiefel, M.C. (eds.). USDA Forest Service General Technical Report PNW-GTR-744, pp. 31-60.

Traylor, G. (2009). Searching for Stories. Unpublished manuscript.

Tuan, Y.F. (1972). Space and place: The perspective of experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tuan, Y. (1974). Topophilia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Tuan, Y. (1975). Place: an experiential perspective. Geographical Review, 65, 151-165.

Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and Place: the perspective of experience. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience. London, Ontario: Althouse Press.

Williams, D., Patterson, M., Roggenbuck, J., & Watson, A. (1992). Beyond the commodity metaphor: Examining emotional and symbolic attachment to place. Leisure Sciences, 14, 29-46.

Yankelovich, D. (1991). Coming to public judgment: making democracy work in a complex world. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.


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