Objective: To further the psychological study of place and understand how eco-connections, the quality and strength of our relations to nature, can influence an individual’s wellbeing and impact their experience of community.
Methods: 145 adult participants from predominantly rural communities in southern Appalachia (71.7% female), ages 21 to 69 years (M=36.23 years; SD=12.08 years) participated in semi-structured qualitative interviews. The sample identified as 75.5% White/European American, 12.6% Black/African American, 4.9% multiracial, 3.5% Asian, 2.1% Latino/a, and 1.4% Pacific Islander. Through semi-structured qualitative interviews, participants described high, low, and turning points, positive and not-so-positive behaviors. They were also asked to describe the context of their early childhood. Recorded and transcribed interviews were coded for mentions of place, nature, or geography using grounded theory analysis.
Results: Participants mentioned several ways their lives were impacted by interactions with their immediate environment. Mentions about place-related memories or interactions were coded into four themes: Formative/educational experiences with nature, stories of interactions with nature that affected their life long term; nostalgia about nature, stories of environmental bonding; rhythms of nature, examples of working in nature; general interactions with nature, recreational activities in nature.
Conclusions: The results of this study show the importance of the natural environment to people’s experience of community, at least for this population from largely rural areas in southeastern Tennessee. Too many existing definitions of community omit the physicality of community spaces. Greater attention to this is a promising avenue to more effective collective action on climate and other issues.