I currently live in the territory of the Southern Pomo, also called Sonoma County. I am here by way of Berkeley, San Francisco, Southern Oregon, Brooklyn NY, North Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, Long Island – and many transient stops in between. I name each of these unique places because they were all integral to my development and life experiences while I was a resident. The geography, the style of architecture, the mood of the seasons, the sociocultural demographics and the more-than-human world became a part of my life story. My coming of age couldn’t have happened anywhere but New York City, just as winter hibernation was made complete by the scent of dampened cedar and wry branches of the manzanita trees in Oregon.
Perhaps you can relate to this idea if you reflect on the places where you’ve spent your time: memorable vacations, your local grocery store, a haunted house, even the construction site that’s become a landmark on your daily commute. These places aren’t just spots on a map. They are alive, and a part of us – through direct sensory experience, our memories, and the stories of others. And through our relationship with each place, we become a part of them. We feed the birds, we eat the fish, we pick flowers, we drink the water, we pollute the water, we swim, we build, we paint murals.
The characteristics of an environment impact our experiences just as much as our experiences impact the characteristics of an environment. The places we shape, shape us.
Philosopher and environmental educator Michael Thomashow calls this relationship to place one’s Ecological Identity. He writes that to have a sense of Ecological Identity is “to merge our personal geography with the ecological landscape, and incorporate maps of memory with how we dwell in a bioregion.”
The Pomo legend of Frog Woman Rock speaks of Frog Woman, a supernatural being, who is the wife of Coyote and mother of Obsidian Man. She lives inside a large rock formation on the bank of the Russian River, about an 60 miles north of my house. I know the landmark, but without being a part of the culture that identifies with this story, my understanding of it is very limited. Based on what I can gather as an outsider: Frog Woman Rock is a sacred site, and Coyote and Obsidian are important to the livelihood of the Pomo. While they were living on their ancestral lands, the Ecological Identity of the Pomo was richly explored through narrative, interweaving geography and their cultural worldview. This story is a map of their homeland. The age-old stories from various cultures are not only set in actual places, but the environment and ecology are characters in the stories.
With all of this in mind, I began to map the stories of my world. I discovered that this process isn’t just about making a map – this is a practice of wayfinding. I developed a step-by-step process for collecting the data of my experience and translating it into a map. My goal is that this method can be repeated by others, with therapeutic and recreational intent.