Topophilia

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
–T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

The word “topophilia” is a neologism, useful in that it can be defined broadly to include all of the human being’s affective ties with the material environment. These differ greatly in intensity, subtlety, and mode of expression. The response to the environment may be primarily aesthetic: it may then vary from the fleeting pleasure one gets from a view to the equally fleeting but far more intense sense of beauty that is suddenly revealed. The response may be tactile, a delight in the feel of air, water, earth. More permanent and less easy to express are feelings that one has toward a place because it is home, the locus of memories, and the means of gaining a livelihood. –Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia

The very idea of a sense of place is an abstraction, a sort of intellectual creation like sex or climate or fashion, which is impossible except in a world of ideas whose survival depends on the city. The dilemma is that those who yearn for the warm garment of landscape security are already deflowered. They can only go back so far. They can regain the hunter’s, pastoralist’s, farmer’s nonverbal responses, limited to an extent by their self-consciousness; but the yearning is thrust upon them in any case, for they were all children once and they had wild ancestors and they dream and to some degree all have premonitions of special places.
–Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape

At present our society is almost entirely nomadic . . . and it is moving about on the face of this continent with a mindless destructiveness, of substance and of meaning and of value, that makes Sherman’s march to the sea look like a prank.
Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed. Without such knowledge and faithfulness, moreover, the culture of a country will be superficial and decorative, functional only insofar as it may be a symbol of prestige, the affectation of an elite or “in” group. . . .
With the urbanization of the country so nearly complete, it may seem futile to the point of madness to pursue an ethic and a way of life based upon devotion to a place and devotion to the land. And yet I do pursue such an ethic and such a way of life, for I believe they hold the only possibility, not just for a decent life, but for survival.–Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony

The features we have molded into the Earth’s surface tell a story about our culture. These features constitute the landscape–the interface between Earth and people; between what we were given and what we have done with it. . . . As receptacles, landscapes hold the essence of who we are and were, and yield, for the perceptive, hints of what we might become. . . . Our relationship with the Earth is ancient, figuratively as old as the hills. It is the wellspring from which legends and cultures grow. By examining the landscapes we have created, we develop a deeper knowledge of our relationship toward each other and this planet.
–Susan Erkel Ryan, ed, Whole Earth Review issue on Places (Spring 1988)

The major role of the territory is prepetuation of a reproductive unit. . . . Love of one another is linked to love of place. –Paul Shepard, Man in the Landscape

 

No Sense of Place

There is no there there.
–Gertrude Stein, after seeing Oakland, California

Traditionally, neighborhoods, buildings, and rooms have confined people, not only physically, but emotionally and psychologically as well. Now, physically bounded spaces are less significant as information is able to flow through walls and rush across great distances. As a result, where one is has less and less to do with what one knows and experiences. Electronic media have altered the significance of time and space for social interaction. . . . Electronic media have increasingly encroached on the situations that take place in physically defined settings. . . . More and more, media make us “direct” audiences to performances that happen in other places and give us access to audiences that are not physically present. . . . Many Americans may no longer seem to “know their place” because the traditionally interlocking components of “place” have been split apart by electronic media. Wherever one is now–at home, at work, or in a car–one may be in touch and tuned in. . . . Our world may suddenly seems senseless to many people because, for the first time in modern history, it is relatively placeless.–Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place

Over the years, I have wondered about the apparently strong appeal of space travel and development to the public mind. . . . I finally realized that space travel is not new; it is only the final stage of a departure process that actually began long ago. Our society really “left home” when we placed boundaries between ourselves and the earth, when we moved en masse inside totally artificial, reconstructed, “mediated” worlds–huge concrete cities and suburbs–and we aggressively ripped up and redesigned the natural world. By now, nature has literally receded from our view and diminished in size. We have lost contact with our roots. As a culture, we don’t know where we came from; we’re not aware we are part of something larger than ourselves. Nor can we easily finds places that reveal natural processes at work.
This is exacerbated for Americans in particular, since our country is made up almost entirely of immigrants whose original connections with a homeland were severed, and who have no special attachments to the soil we live on. . . . Corporate culture has also contributed mightily to the process, since it asks its retainers to care more about an abstract corporation than about the communities where they live and work. . . .
Such disconnection from the places where we live and work obviously diminishes any sense of stewardship, which is a very important break with the past. As a corporate culture, we have begun to feel that one place is as good as the next; that it’s okay to sacrifice this place for than one, even when the new place is not even on Earth. In the end, this leaves us all in a position similar to the millions of homeless people on our streets. In truth, we are all homeless, though we long to return.–Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred

One reason that rootlessness is so seldom addressed as an important issue in modern life may be that many institutions–from multinational corporations to totalitarian dictatorships–have acquired greater power as more people have been uprooted. Individuals who have lost their ties to homelands, families, and communities are more inclined to adopt new loyalties to new institutions. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Pepsi Generation or Marxist-Leninism. People cut off from their own sense of themselves make better consumers and better subjects. People’s sense of roots stands in the way of the great machine of “progress” that has shaped 20th century life. Yet even after decades of assault, the basic human need for a place to call home still beats steadily inside our hearts.–Utne Reader, special issue on “Roots”

The Genius Loci

Man dwells when he can orientate himself within and identify himself with an en-vironment, or, in short, when he experiences the environment as meaningful. Dwelling therefore implies something more than “shelter.” It implies that the spaces where life occurs are places, in the true sense of the word. A place is a space which has a distinct character. Since ancient times the genius loci, or “spirit of place,” has been recognized as the concrete reality man has to face and come to terms with in his daily life. Architecture means to visualize the genius loci, and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.–Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture

Abuilding or a town will only be alive to the extent that it is governed by the timeless way. It is a process which brings order out of nothing but ourselves; it cannot be attained, but it will happen of its own accord, if we will only let it. To seek the timeless way we must first know the quality without a name. There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of any person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive. In order to define this quality in buildings and in towns, we must begin by understanding that every place is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there. . . . The specific patterns out of which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free; but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict.–Christopher Alexander, The Timeless Way of Building

Religious man wills to take his stand at the very heart of the real, at the Center of the World–that is, exactly where the cosmos came into existence and began to spread out toward the four horizons. . . . [Hence] every existential decision to situate himself in space in fact constitutes a religious decision. . . . Religious man’s profound nostalgia is to inhabit a ‘divine world,’ is his desire that his house shall be like the house of the gods. . . . In short, this religious nostalgia expresses the desire to live in a pure and holy cosmos as it was in the beginning, when it came fresh from the Creator’s hands.. . . .
A modern psychologist would be tempted to interpret such an attitude as anxiety before the danger of the new, refusal to assume responsibility for a genuine historical existence, nostalgia for a situation that is paradisal precisely because it is embryonic, insufficiently detached from nature. . . . [But] it would be wrong to believe that the religious man of primitive and archaic societies refuses to assume the responsibility for a genuine existence. . . . It is a responsibility on the cosmic plane, in contradistinction to the moral, social, or historical responsibilities that are alone regarded as valid in modern civilizations. From the point of view of profane existence, man feels no responsibility except to himself and to society. For him, the universe does not properly constitute a cosmos–that is, a living and articulated unity; it is simply the sum of the material reserves and physical energies of the planet, and the great concern of modern man is to avoid stupidly exhausting the economic resources of the globe. But, existentially, the primitive always put himself in a cosmic context. His personal experience lacks neither genuineness nor depth; but the fact that it is expressed in a language unfamiliar to us makes it appear spurious or infantile to modern eyes. . . . –Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane

Home and Hearth

The heart of a place is the home, and the heart of the home is the firepit, the hearth. All tentative explorations go outward from there, and it back to the fireside that elders return. You grow up speaking a home language, a local vernacular. . . . As you grow bolder you explore your world outward from the firepit (which is the center of each universe) in little trips. The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind–trails and pathways and groves–the mean dog, the cranky old man’s house, the pasture with a bull in it–going out wide and farther. All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned roughly between the ages of six and nine. . . . You can almost totally recall the place you walked, played, biked, swam. Revisualizing that place with its smells and textures, walking through it again in your imagination, has a grounding and settling effect. As a contemporary thought we might also wonder how it is for those whose childhood landscape was being ripped up by bulldozers, or whose family moving about made it all a blur. . . . Our place is part of what we are. . . . –Gary Snyder, “The Place, the Region, and the Commons”

We may imagine a time when, in the infancy of the human race, some enterprising mortal crept into a hollow in a rock for shelter. Every child begins the world again, to some extent, and loves to stay out doors, even in wet and cold. It plays house, as well as horse, having an instinct for it. Who does not remember the interest with which when young he looked at shelving rocks, or any approach to a cave? It was the natural yearning of the portion of our most primitive ancestor which still survived in us. From the cave we have advanced to roofs of palm leaves, of bark and bough, of linen woven and stretched, of grass and straw, of boards and shingles, of stones and tiles. At last, we know not what it is to live in the open air, and our lives are domestic in more senses than we think. From the hearth to the field is a great distance. It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots.–Henry David Thoreau, Walden

If I were asked to name the chief benefit of the house, I should say: the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace. . . . The places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain in us all the time. . . .
Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our daydreams. A psychoanalyst should, therefore, turn his attention to this simple localization of our memories. I should like to give the name of topoanalysis to this auxiliary of psychoanalysis. Topoanalysis, then, would be the systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives.–Gaston Bachelard,The Poetics of Space

We build the world we suppose [appearances] by expressing or suppressing specific features of experience. . . . We build not only to shelter the body but also to support a structure of consciousness. . . . And as we rebuild the world, we rebuild ourselves.–E. F. Walters, Placeways

Our human landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears.–Peirce F. Lewis, in D. W. Meinig, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes

The Very Place

Socrates: But while we were talking, my friend, haven’t we reached the tree that you were making for?
Phaedrus: This is the very place.
Socrates: It is indeed a lovely spot for a rest. This plane is very tall and spreading, and the agnus-cactus splendidly high and shady, in full bloom too, filling the neighborhood with the finest possible fragrance. And the spring which runs under the plane; how beautifully cool its water is to the feet. . . . But the most exquisite thing of all is the way the grass slopes gently upward to provide perfect comfort for the head as one lies at length. Really, my dear Phaedrus, a visitor could not possible have found a better guide than you.
Phaedrus: What a strange person you are, Socrates. So far from being like a native, you resemble, in our own phrase, a visitor being shown the sights by a guide. This comes of your never going abroad beyond the frontiers of Attica or even, as far as I can see, outside the actual walls of the city.
Socrates: Forgive me, my dear friend. I am, you see, a lover of learning. Now the people in the city have something to teach me, but the fields and trees won’t teach me anything.
–Plato, Phaedrus

Space has a spiritual equivalent and can heal what is divided and burdensome in us. My grandchildren will probably use space shuttles for a honeymoon trip or to recover from heart attacks, but closer to home we might also learn how to carry space inside ourselves in the effortless way we carry our skins. Space represents sanity, not a life purified, dull, or “spaced out” but one that might accommodate intelligently any idea or situation.
From the clayey soil of northern Wyoming is mined bentonite, which is used as a filler in candy, gum, and lipstick. We Americans are great on fillers, as if what we have, what we are, is not enough. We have a cultural tendency toward denial, but, being affluent, we strangle ourselves with what we can buy. We have only to look at the houses we build to see how we build against space, the way we drink against pain and loneliness. We fill up space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.–Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces

Human life swings between two poles: movement and settlement. . . . At every level of life one trades mobility for security, or in reverse, immobility for adventure. –Lewis Mumford, The City in History

On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail. The capacity to make such dubious gifts is a mysterious quality of New York. It can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck. No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.
–E. B. White, Here Is New York

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