Discovering Place in Unfamiliar Territory

Alzar School | 03.03.14

For some it was an escape from the pressures of peer expectations or anxieties of homework. For others it was an eye-opening shift in perspective from inward to outward or macro to micro. For some it was a test of character, learning to “read a landscape as a text” in three feet of Idaho winter snow. For each student of the Alzar School Spring 2014 English class, the Querencia unit presented adventure and challenge. A chance to be present. A chance to think, write and feel critically. An opportunity to be honest.


In our first unit in English, students were introduced to the theme for this course – a sense of place. Through Barry Lopez’ “Rediscovery of North America,” students learned about a “querencia” – a  word defining a place where you can both feel comfortable in your own skin, and feel challenged. Students set out on our snowy 100-acre campus along the North Fork of the Payette River and staked claim to their own plot of land. Their querencias. They then visited this place almost daily, completing narratives based on the close observation of these areas in different lenses.

We then connected our experiences to the main ideas in our readings in class Harknesses (a student driven discussion method) and annotations. Students thought about what it means to be “Living Like Weasels” after reading Annie Dillard. They took a microscope to their land and applied figurative language to paint a close-up view of their home like Thoreau observing his ants in “Brute Neighbors.” Then they switched to the panoramic view and considered what Rebecca Solnit calls the “blue of distance.”

Finally, students synthesized these explorations of their new home in Idaho in a Place of Meaning Speech. In just two to three minutes, students expressed how their querencia experience differed from or paralleled any authors we read. They delivered these speeches on location, debating and defining the importance of a sense of place.  Afterwards, we wanted to take them through yet another draft towards perfection, and the results were impressive. Students are learning to support their original ideas with textual evidence, to write introductions that “hook” a reader, and – perhaps most challenging of all – to conclude with greater significance than simple summary. Without further ado, I’ll let them speak for themselves:

[see below for a sample of student Querencia Speeches. Click links for videos and full speech text!]

“Nature seems to have a certain pull towards the wilder and simpler side of life that helps me be.” Click here for full text.

“I learned that losing myself was a lot easier to do than I had expected because the burdens of society became a distant concept when I was under my tree.” Click here for full text.

“By finding a Querencia, more people will realize the importance of nature and protect it from urbanization.  I find it incredible that I can connect so strongly with a man that I have never met, and never will.” Click here for full text.


“I desire an experience that expands wider than the approximate square foot box that seems to contain my fears and restraints. Inside this square before me, my feelings are contained, a squirming desire to be let loose and conquered.” Click here for full text.

“Soon though I can taste the steadiness of the wind on my tongue.  The sweet grass blows flimsily in the wind.  It is so fragile against the strong shoves of the wind that it hugs the snow below it for protection.” Click here for full text.

“I believe we are currently in a transition phase flipping between children and adults, not sure whether to play in the snow or observe the view.” Click here for full text.

“As I stared at an array of white, I noticed the surface of the snow was not smooth or flat; there was a pattern… Although the print was lightly dusted in powdery snow, I could still explore the ridges and valleys of the pattern from the bottom of the shoe. As I stood up to return to reality, I came to the realization that the footprint was in fact mine from the previous time I had visited my querencia.” Click here for full text.


“I see a querencia as an idea, a pledge to observe oneself honestly in an environment that would display their strongest and most basic traits. I believe that the querencia is not one place where we feel most comfortable with ourselves, but rather any place where we find ourselves directly capable of observing our own traits and qualities, and recognizing the strengths of our own character.” Click here for full text.


“I find my own flaws carved into their bark; tattoos unwanted but received. It comforts me to be surrounded by things that can’t cover their imperfections. They can’t sit in front of a mirror for hours, pasting on borrowed layers of false advertisement. The logs do as they must, and in a way, so do I.” Click here for full text.