Skip to content Skip to navigation

Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Panel 2: A Western Sense of Place: Definitions, Relationships, and Expressions

« Panel 1: Issues in the Rural West

Keynote: Gov. Steve Bullock »


This panel weighed whether there is a definitively western relationship to place, and what this relationship constitutes, by exploring the many ways a “sense of place” is defined and expressed in the rural American West.

Held March 18, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT

Speakers Click to cue video

Panel Recap

Kathryn Young (video), a Bill Lane Center postdoctoral fellow and moderator of the second panel, opened the discussion with a Wendell Berry quote from the beginning of Wallace Stegner’s essay, “A Sense of Place.” In Berry’s words,  “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

Jon Lauck (video), of the Midwestern History Association, noted his appreciation of the quote. Figuring out one’s sense of place, he posited, is vital in order to gain a bearing in the larger world.  To begin his discussion of “place,” Lauck observed that Montanans tend to have a strong sense of it. He shared that in decades past, the inability to forget your home–what we now might deem nostalgia–was considered a medical condition. Though the possibility of this diagnosis no longer exists, the rapid fluidity of technological and societal change in the 21st century is leading to an eroding sense of place for many. A lingering fear of “generic homogenization” brought on by technology, Lauck said, may translate into a desire for increased control at the local level and wariness towards change and development in rural areas and small communities.

Conference attendees were not only able to purchase Jen Corrinne Brown’s (video), book Trout Culture at the event, they were also able to listen as Brown gave an introduction to fly-fishing and its role in defining a sense of place in the Rocky Mountain West. An environmental historian and avid fly fisherman, Brown is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M Corpus Christi. Angling, Brown noted, has a history the stretches back far beyond the frontier days and far from the shores of the United States. Why then, she wondered, is it now considered so ‘western?’ Much in the same way that newcomers to many parts of the West brought their own traditions and reshaped the region, the introduction and assimilation of trout to cold mountain streams paved the way for fly-fishing to take on a distinctly western flair. The strong association with angling and the West, Brown maintained, is rooted in how people have historically “constructed” the region and perpetuated this practice long enough for it to become a symbol of Western recreation.

Dan Reineman (video), a postdoctoral fellow at the Bill Lane Center, presented research from a location he defined as “west of the West.” (slides) To begin, he described to the audience how scholars study the concept of “place.” It’s helpful to understand “place” by looking at the dichotomy of ‘space’ versus ‘place’, he said, explaining that where ‘spaces’ can be any number of different areas we pass through, ‘places’ are locations we have a definable relationship with. Reineman, who conducts research along the California coast, has interviewed surfers about their preferred “surf spots” and then catalogued and measured the strength of their ties to those spots. He found that place attachment to surf spots was often highest for surfers along rural parts of the California coast.

Elizabeth Zach (video) presented the final talk for the panel. Zach currently works for the Sacramento-based nonprofit Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), but her talk focused on the project she completed during her yearlong media fellowship with the Bill Lane Center. Called the “Femme Farmer Project,” Zach work has explored the growth of women-owned farms and ranches in the West. The impetus for this project was a USDA report focusing on the demographics of farm and ranch operators. Around 220,000 women fall into this classification, said Zach, a demographic that has been on the rise. Aside from this specific segment, many more work in agriculture as a spouse or partner of the principal operator.

With the goal of finding out exactly who these women were, Zach traveled across the West to interview female farmers and ranchers, collecting their stories and putting faces to the statistics. Her final product is a collection of rich narratives from women farmers and ranchers across the Western states, some of which have been printed in publications such as The Washington Postand High Country News, among others.

Back to top

« Panel 1: Issues in the Rural West

Keynote: Gov. Steve Bullock »




Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.