Sustainability and Sense of Place in the Sonoran Desert
Developing a Sense of Place[edit| edit source]
The term “sense of place” has been used in many ways. Probably its main usage over the past century has been in the field of literature, as a judgement of how central the geographical location of a work is to the meaning of that work, or of how strongly the artist’s sensory descriptions render an emotional response to the setting.
A rapidly growing usage, however, is in the contemporary environmental movement – as a reference to the degree of one’s connection to or one’s appreciation for one’s immediate natural surroundings. This sentiment is expressed in as many different ways as there are believers – “love of the Earth,” “oneness with Nature,” “healthy ecosystems,” and so on and on. But the basic idea is that, if we can come to see ourselves as part of our environment rather than separate from it, we might have a chance to find a sustainable balance for backing away from global environmental collapse.
Probably, achieving such an outlook would mean turning away from the Western Industrial model of civilization that now thoroughly dominates the planet and toward a more holistic, relationship with nature, perhaps even recapturing some of the insights of primitive and indigenous peoples.
Education has the role of offering us access to information and of preparing us for future activities in society. Extending over those specific uses, however, is developing the essential habits of mind – creativity and critical thinking – as well as the sacred responsibility of finding our true place in universe. That is where a Sense of Place comes in.
Arizona Western College’s Honors Colloquium, 2020 & 2021:[edit| edit source]
For two consecutive years, this special-topics course at Arizona Western College has sought to access knowledge from all relevant fields of study, focused primarily on the Sonoran Desert bioregion – of which Yuma and the nearby mouth of the Colorado River are located very neat the epicenter. The intention has been for the resulting comprehensive awareness to serve as a microcosm for understanding the complex interrelationship between human culture and its natural surroundings, with an eye toward finding a workable paradigm for addressing a growing environmental crisis. In the process, it has critiqued the traditional stratification of academic disciplines as an obstacle to an integrated understanding of the place of humans, individually and as a species, within the broadest systems of the biosphere.
The course has included components in the biological and physical sciences, beginning with a survey of the role of geography and climate in the continual reshaping of the landscape. It also has included an examination of the symbiotic and dynamic relationship among the species of fauna and flora in this exceptionally diverse bioregion.
The course also has studied the impact of human habitation in the region and analyzed the evolving perception of the region in popular culture – art, literature, cinema, folklore, and so on. It also has considered the role of cultural institutions – political, legal, economic, religious – in determining decisions related to such issues as land use, water allocation, and environmental regulations. And it has investigated the origins of human attitudes toward the physical environment, wilderness landscapes, the American West, and the Sonoran Desert in particular.
Course activities have rotated among guided class discussion, guest appearances by disciplinary and professional experts, direct sensory experience of local locations, and student-driven projects. This book is the story of the journey undertaken together by the students and the instructors – a journey that was suddenly reoriented from the traditional classroom to an all-online (Zoom & Canvas) format by the Coronavirus pandemic.
Like the college course upon which it is based, this Wikibook is organized essentially in two parts. The first, theoretical, portion – labeled INTERACTIONS – is broken down by the academic components (Biodiversity, Geology, Water Use, Public Policy, and so on). For this portion, the students “interacted” with two types of sources – established authors through excerpts from their seminal writings, and local professionals who have devoted their lives to sharing their knowledge of some aspect of the Sonoran Desert. Some of these guest lecturers visited us in the virtual classroom while others led a field trip off site.
The second major section of the Book – labeled LOCATIONS – represents the actual application of the more theoretical background supplied earlier. For this portion of the course, the students created a collaborative Project that included this Wikibook. The other part of the Project was to break into three teams, each creating a Google Tour/Voyage based on the subregions of the Sonoran Desert:
INTERACTIONS - Key Readings & Local Luminaries[edit| edit source]
For the readings, students interacted in a robust online Discussion Board, each beginning a new thread that addressed a series of prompts about the material, then reading and responding to each other’s postings over the course of a week. For the guest lecturers, they kept a Journal describing the activity and offering reflections upon their significance.
This section of our Book contains a page for each of the seven major course Components, with subsections for each of the related readings and guest lecturers. The Discussion prompts are reproduced at the top of their respective subsections, followed by selected passages from among the students’ postings. For the classroom visits / field trips, the ensuing selections from the students’ Journals are divided between objective observations (Description) and critical analysis (Reflections).
Component One - Sense of Place
Component Two - Biodiversity
Component Three - Geology/Climate
Component Four - Water
Component Five - Human Ecology & Conservation
Component Six - Resource Use & Policy
Component Seven - History & Culture
LOCATIONS - Subregions of the Sonoran Desert[edit| edit source]
For two consecutive years, the Honors Colloquium group at Arizona Western College conducted an examination of selected locations across the 6 commonly accepted subregions of the Sonoran Desert. The overall goal of the two groups was similar, but the varying results reflect the unique personalities of the contributors. In addition, there were significant differences in methodology, with the 2020 group emphasizing breadth and the 2021 group emphasizing depth. Also, the 2021 group results distinguish between all 6 subregions while 2020 group collapsed some subregions under broader headings.
2021[edit| edit source]
Each location was chosen as an exemplum of one of 4 broad areas of inquiry – Biodiversity, Geology/Climate, Land & Water Use, and History/Culture. The overall question that runs through all 4 of these themes, however, concerns the human impact upon the natural environment, and the consistent attempt is made to identify imminent threats as well as opportunities for addressing those threats.
Each of the 6 pages begins with an overview of the subregion, including a mention of what factors distinguish that subregion from the others within the Sonoran Desert.
2020[edit| edit source]
Each subregion contains an overview of the biodiversity, geology, climate, water, and land use that is unique to the respective subregion. To begin, each student chose one animal species and one plant species to guide an investigation between biodiversity and ecosystem services. The species was selected based on ecological and/or cultural significance. The relationship between the sustainability of human populations and the conservation status of the plant species and of the animal species is explored. The exploration focuses on the overlap between the habitat requirements of the plant and animal species, and the ecosystem services that those habitats provide.
Each subregion contains a description of the geologic origin and character of the area and the cultural use of minerals (such as mining). An overview of the climate is provided with respect to the geological landforms, which together result in the biotic zones (life zones) that occur in the area. Within this landscape setting we examine the link between water use and land use.
Through all of this emerges some common themes uniting the sustainability of human societies and the conservation of biodiversity. The unique characteristics of the biogregion impart unique opportunities for the sustainability of human societies in the area. They also impart unique threats. We close each subregion with an overview of these opportunities and threats.
Each of these tours identified roughly 20 locations within their third of the larger bioregion and researched those locations according to the broad categories of Biodiversity, Geology/Climate, Land & Water Use, and Threats & Opportunities. They loaded this information into the application along with effective multimedia components.