Local author discusses environmental awareness

John Hansen Mitchell, a local author and editor of the magazine “Sanctuary,” spoke yesterday afternoon about the importance of geographical history in encouraging environmental action.

The lecture was part of the ongoing Environmental Studies Lunch & Learn series, which features discussions about sustainability and conservation in the Massachusetts area every Thursday in the Lincoln Filene Center Rabb Room.

A group of about 30 students and faculty attended Mitchell’s speech, moderated by Professor of Biology Colin Orians.

Mitchell is known for his interest in the local history and protection of the natural world. He has published five books, each focused on the square-mile of farm and woodland 35 miles west of Boston known as Scratch Flat. During the lunch, Mitchell discussed his book series, the Scratch Flat Chronicles, emphasizing the importance of setting in one’s perception of and concern for the world.

“My theory is if you have more knowledge of your place — the place where you belong — you’re more likely to protect it,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell began by describing his Eastern Shore upbringing and explained how every life event always seems to have a connection with the place where it happened.

“[P]eople really have a sense of where they are, for better or for worse,” he said. “They really identified with their environment in a profound way.”

As Mitchell traveled to Europe, he began to realize that people everywhere feel connected to their environments. He referenced the depth of knowledge that local people possess about a region’s seasons, rivers, crops and even migratory bird patterns.

“There is always a deep association with a singular place,” he said.

Scratch Flat, a valley region of wooded flatland where Mitchell resides, provided the bulk of the lecture as the speaker delved into its rich history of Native American settlement.

“I use [the area] as a metaphor for my interest, how it evolved, when who you are influences where you go and vice versa,” he said.

When Mitchell first settled in the Scratch Flat, however, he said he did not feel the same identification with the land.

“It looked like a haunted land,” he said. “It was deserted. It was undiscovered.”

He said that Scratch Flat was originally buried under a massive, mile-deep sheet of ice. The region was eventually inhabited by a 17th century village of Christianized Indians.

Mitchell discussed the natives’ culture, in which land had no owner and war was halted if natural resources were at stake. If an individual killed a deer or cracked a stone, he had to then “repent and apologize to it, or he wouldn’t be able to catch another.”

These Eastern Woodland Indians suffered mass deaths at the hands of the Puritans, who destroyed 90 percent of the original population and left deserted villages, Mitchell said.

“That was the end of a 10,000 to 15,000 year culture,” he said.

The lecture next shifted to modern times, as Mitchell spoke positively about the current state of Scratch Flat and its inhabitants.

“The two farms there were really struggling, but now, as a result of interest in locally grown food, they are doing really well,” he said. “Farms are expanding.”

He concluded the talk with brief readings from his book, “Ceremonial Time.”

The Lunch & Learn series will continue next week with Executive Director of the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance Julia Blatt, who will present a lecture titled “Water Wars in Massachusetts: Reforming Water Management in a Blue State.”