Book Review in Winter 2004 Issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment
Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide. Edited by Steven Marx. San Luis Obispo: The Cal Poly Land Centennial Seminar, 2002. 262pp. Cloth $29.95.
Bioregionalism has alerted many people to the politics and pleasures of "home" and has helped restore a sense of place to previously neglected locales. Yet "home" -- whether Gary Snyder's San Juan Ridge or Wendell Berry's rural Kentucky - has rarely meant the campus itself, despite the fact that for many in the academy, the campus is in fact a home place. As Steven Marx points out in Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide, "many students graduate from the University never having walked up Poly Canyon" (2).
Cal Poly Land considers the university campus as a place of natural and cultural richness, an endeavor particularly suited to the 10,000-acre Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus. The book grew out of an interdisciplinary seminar that encouraged faculty from fifteen departments to use the study of place to cross disciplinary boundaries. As a result, the book covers the ecological territory of a field guide in unexpected ways, and moves in unexpected directions as well. Poems by a professor of soil science punctuate the Geology section, for example, and there are sections on agriculture, technology, history, and the arts. Journal entries from students enrolled in eco-literature classes complement the essays by faculty in the Arts section.
The field guide structure of the book, replete with color photos, illustrations, and maps, reflects the diversity of resources and voices on campus. There is no single organizing voice or "through-narrative," except the place itself, which leads at times to a sense of disjointedness. Part of the problem arises in the geographical nature of the campus itself, which is divided into a 155-acre central campus and several larger parcels, some of which are separated by 180 miles. In our own work with the bioregion surrounding the campus of University of California, Davis, we have arrived at a similar difficulty: how to describe the myriad voices and features of the landscape while creating an engaging narrative. Cal Poly Land reflects the fact that the structure of place involves ongoing processes of negotiation, and the book serves more as a series of snapshots than as a static summary of the place it represents.
Many of us will not be so fortunate as to visit the Cal Poly campus, and the geographic particulars of the place may thus be lost on us. However, as a guide to the process of fostering a sense of place in our own academic community, Cal Poly Land: A Field Guide will be useful indeed.
University of California, Davis