I am looking out the window at a green lawn with eight majestic Douglas Fir trees as I write this. I live in a place that is a beautiful mix of green and gray! Cloudy skies and rain is normal for most of the year. In the Pacific Northwest, we have a love/hate relationship with rain, but we know that with rain come green trees and growing plants, as if we live in a greenhouse that gets watered continually!
When my family and I moved to Oregon 12 years ago, we noticed that the rain and trees and way of life of the people are all connected. Clothing, dining, church calendars, house styles, patterns of school life, business and professional relationships – they are all shaped by the physical environment and climate.
To put it simply, the cultural patterns of a people are strongly influenced by the environment where they live. The physical world shapes the patterns of life. Environment impacts culture.
In other seasons of life, I have lived in many different environments: flat plains of the Midwest, the high desert in Mexico, the city environment of urban Philadelphia. The patterns of those people are also shaped by the place. Think with me about patterns of life that are affected by place:
Transportation—Individual cars? Bikes? Bus and mass transit? What is a long commute to workplaces? How far do people travel for entertainment?
Clothing—How people dress is affected by the temperatures and rainfall.
Language—In the Pacific Northwest, the word Willamette (a river) comes easily off of the tongue but we know that outsiders won’t pronounce it right. In Philadelphia you need to know what the Main Line is, and how to pronounce nearby rivers (Schuylkill) and counties (Lancaster).
What about the place where you live? How are patterns of life impacted by the rivers? The roads? The geography of mountains or plains? Are you far north or south so that your summer and winter schedules shift because of day length? What is the normal rainfall or snowfall? What plants and animals are comfortable and native? What are the most common crops?
How does the place impact the patterns of life where you live?
We teach three key ideas to help you be self-directed in deliberately learning how environment affects the cultural patterns of a people.
Walk and Learn through “Three Circles”
1. The place where you will live or work is at the center, your “home base”.
2. Walk around the block. Notice things like street names, construction standards, plants, businesses, sports fields, schools, and parks. Remember details and write them down when you get back home.
3. Walk around the neighborhood. Keep asking the same questions–how are life patterns of the people affected by the place?
Learn the Big Picture
Drive or ride the neighborhoods, city center, neighboring towns, and villages. Can you name the places that are nearby? Where do your neighbors go to work? To play? To worship? To shop?
Study a map–what are the nearby rivers, mountains, lakes, oceans? Where does your weather come from? What is the source of your drinking water? Ask your neighbors to help you be “at home” in your new home!
If you are settling into a new place with other family members, do this as a group, and especially make this a fun learning activity to do with your children! They (and you!) will feel much less “outsider” when you learn to pronounce the names of nearby towns and rivers!
Look for films, novels, poems or songs that are written by people who live there. How do people speak and write about the place you now call home?
What does God say about the place and the people?
Ask God to help you learn the place well, so that you can form better relationships with the people who live there. This is a prayer project!
But it is also more than a prayer project! It is amazing how much the Bible has to say about places on earth. Mountains, seas, rivers, rain, cold, and heat are all woven into the message of the Bible.
In previous posts, we introduced the roots of the culture tree (here and here)—the patterns of values, beliefs, and truths that give stability and nourishment to a people. Moving up from the roots, the first thing we run into is the environment. Why? Because the physical environment has a huge impact, shaping the life patterns of people. If you want to learn the culture, learn the environment!
You will forever be marked by this COVID-19 season. How could you not be? Yet debriefing in-person is expensive and often not available. Whether you left or stayed, you have a lot to unpack. Now you can.
Photo taken by a proud aunt.