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Place-based Ecologies: Holding Together the Divide Between Humans and Nature

To be whole. To be complete. Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.” – Terry Tempest Williams

Imagine a rolling, wild landscape – tall, golden-green grasses waving in a soft breeze. Large open-grown oak trees tracing the fence-lines between old farm fields, speaking to past ages when fire was a defining practice.

Imagine… running, climbing, falling, and exploring. Trimming trees, finding arrowheads, riding a tractor planting seeds to transform depleted corn-fields into native grasslands, being entrusted with the drip-torch to lay down fire, celebrating the full moon around hill-top fires, being attentive to the changing seasons, the arc of time, and our place in it.

I know your experiences are different than mine, and I’m sure you can recall moments of wildness, of exploration, of connection – of an awareness of something larger than yourself. My hope is for us to rediscover that sense, to awaken to the creative opportunities right in front of us.

I’m Spencer. I’m a human being – working as an applied researcher – looking at the intersections between humans and nature. I’m interested in crossing conventional disciplinary boundaries to participate in the assembly of a novel type of integrative social-ecological knowledge and practice. Of particular interest is the historical production, ongoing relations, and future resilience of placed-based ecologies, livelihoods, and communities.

By now, most of us have heard how the planet is dying; the ecological collapse is in full swing, as is the relentless asset-stripping and pillaging of local communities. Water polluted, habitats degraded, concrete expanding, livelihoods disappearing, and people fighting. The abyss is well articulated and the road seems to lead right over the edge. Kind of depressing, if you pay attention to it – but there is always another way, a different way of relating. My research looks at these other ways.

Ecology is the study of relationships between and among biologic life and their biophysical surroundings; it is framed as dynamic flows of energy and nutrients and wastes. Questions are outlined in advance and observations are made in relation back to the original question; ecology is problem- or understanding-oriented. Ecology has led to articulation of key principles describing how “nature” works and are of practical use in efforts to protect, maintain, or create biologic ways of being. Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is widely credited with a “value-for-its-own-sake” view of the ecologies of North America (this view certainly pre-dated Leopold). Leopold argued that our ethical framework must include land as a community to which humans belong. A conservation ethic, or a love of nature for its own sake, releases nature from being objectified as a “resource” or a “commodity”. When combined, ecological knowledge and a land ethic provides a well-fortified position to pursue ecological restoration and environmental stewardship goals. But what happens when these objectives encounter social, political, or economic interests? What happens when “nature” runs into “society”? How and why does the encounter happen the way it does?

This is what I’m hoping to uncover. What can we learn when we don’t divide “knowledge” into the “social” and “natural”? I’m researching the interface between humans and environments from a theoretical position that attempts to not be pre-defined by this duality. The practice weaves together subjects and objects, humans and nonhumans, nature and culture, so closely and tightly such that their analytical separation becomes meaningless and nonsensical. I’m interested in tracing networks of connection – living blueprints, if you will – of actual ways and means of changing the path we seem to be on. What works? What are the historical perspectives – ways that people lived in the past – that contributed to creating the ecologies – the prairies, forests, wetlands, and communities we see today? How are people engaged – restoring, stewarding, planting, creating – with ecologies in the present? What are the ideas, values, and concepts holding it all together? What does this mean for the resilience of local human and natural communities into the future?

There is a way of relation that allows for differences to be held together. This holding together is allowance of connection, of acknowledging the humanity in the other, and of slowing the divisiveness so prevalent in our world. Dividing everything up seems to ignore a felt sense of anything greater than oneself – it ignores real feelings of connection and of exploration. My hope is to articulate paths that are bringing the historic into the present in such a way so as to create a future that draws the community of life together.


If any of this speaks to you, please let me know. I’m actively looking for collaborators, coauthors, and community creators. Also, if you’d like to learn more, I’ll be speaking at the Science, Practice, and Art of Restoring Native Ecosystems Conference in East Lansing, Michigan in January. You can learn more about the conference here and by reading my session abstract below:

Place-based Ecologies: Holding Together the Divide Between Humans and Nature
This session outlines an integrative and collaborative bridge-building project; it is primarily focused on highlighting paths across the “Great Divide”. Are humans a part of nature or is nature a part human society? What is diversity and how can we restore, sustain, or create it into the future? Questions abound. In search of answers, we’ll travel through the complex interactions and inter-relationships between people and environments. Ecological restoration looks to the past for clues on how to reestablish biodiversity into the future. Stewardship aims to care for that which is entrusted to one’s management. Join this session to engage with a delicate integrative experiential research project that aims to collaboratively craft a novel type of knowledge that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries. This type of knowledge is rooted in place, crafted with people, and directly relevant to local ecologies and communities. Want to join?


Kohn, Eduardo. 2015. Anthropology of Ontologies. Annual Review of Anthropology 44(1): 311–327.
Latour, Bruno. 1996. On Actor-Network Theory: A Few Clarifications. Soziale Welt 47(May): 369–381.
Leopold, A. 1949. “Thinking Like a Mountain” from A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, 137-141.
Nimmo, Richie. 2012. Animal Cultures, Subjectivity, and Knowledge: Symmetrical Reflections beyond the Great Divide 1. Society & Animals 20(2): 173–192.×631379.

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