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One of the irrefutable constants in my life has been an obsession with place, and obsession is the right word – it’s a persistent idea that dominates my thoughts. Perhaps it’s because I lived the first eighteen years of my life in the same Sydney suburb, spending summer weekends at the same strip of beach, and holidaying at the same Blue Mountains hamlet (the image to the right gives you some idea), not straying much further than any of this, so I had the opportunity to forge a close relationship with a very specific and contained part of the world.
Or perhaps it’s simply because I need places, the security, the comfort, and, yes it’s true, the intimacy. It’s in my DNA, like my sexuality, and my propensity for melancholic music, hell, melancholia in general.
If I didn’t know places, I wouldn’t know myself. That’s the fact of it.
Place: I love how my trusty Oxford dictionary defines it: (1) a particular part of space or of an area on a surface, (2) a particular town, district, building etc, (3) (in names) a short street; a square or the buildings around, (4) a passage or part in a book etc; the point one has reached in reading, (5) a proper space for a thing…
A stack of thinkers and artists have been similarly obsessed with place as me – in one way or another, what art isn’t connected with place? One of the best thinkers on the subject is Edward Relph, the American human geographer. (If I could have my time again I’d like to be that, a human geographer.) Back in the 1970s, Relph wrote what can easily be considered a classic on place, the deliciously titled Place and Placelessness. I wish I bought the book years ago because it’s out of print these days, and it commands ridiculously high prices on the internet. If you happen to see it in a second-hand bookstore, would you buy it for me and pop it in the mail?
Before we get to Relph, here are some of my favourite quotes about place:
‘A good place is accessible to all the senses, makes visible the currents of the air [how good is that!], engages the perceptions of its inhabitants. The direct enjoyment of vivid perceptions is further engaged because sensible, identifiable places are convenient pegs on which to hang personal memories and values. Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am here’ supports ‘I am’.’ (Kevin Lynch, 1981)
‘Places and people are inseparable. Places exist only with reference to people, and meaning of place can be revealing only in terms of human responses to the particular environment used as a framework for daily living.’ (Francis Violich, 1985)
‘Whether in the country, the city, or the suburbs, [we] must be grounded in a place. We must come to know our dwelling place, to care for it, to tend it over the years in such ways that…it will cease to be an ‘it’ and become a ‘thou’, a living present with which we live in an intimate relationship.’ (Sam Keen, 1995)
I first discovered these quotes over twenty years ago and they still spin my nipples. Perhaps I should get out more.
Now, however, without any further ado, here are two of my all-time favourite quotes about place, and they’re both from the master, Mr Edward Relph, from his Place and Placelessness – yes, any excuse to say that title again.
‘A deep relationship with place is as necessary and perhaps as unavoidable as close relationships with people; without such relationships human existence, while possible, is bereft of much of its significance.’ (1976)
‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places. If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelesssness to continue, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.’ (1976)
Do you have a place that you couldn’t live without?
If so, what is it?
And why is it so critical to your life?
Addendum: sometimes us bloggers find ourselves inavertedly repeating or rehashing older posts. Or perhaps it’s old age that does. Regardless, I should point anyone interested to an earlier discussion about place, which includes a longer list of quotes. Just shows that sometimes we really do like talking about the same stuff. Or we’ve become broken records. It’s all just life, I guess.
This summer I’ve had two episodes that have knocked me for a six, particularly the second, because it came out of the blue.
The first episode: driving along country roads when a song began playing: a mash-up of Primal Scream’s paean to partying, ‘Loaded’, with the ridiculously bombastic ‘Epic’ by Faith No More. Neither song usually does it for me, to my mind they haven’t aged well, but the way the DJ, Dunproofin’, had overlaid the two tunes to create something so fresh and joyful – well, there went the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.
The second episode: recently I spent a morning with Australian pop-art guru Martin Sharp at his Sydney home. We talked about his love of Tiny Tim, who Sharp considers a genius in the order of Van Gogh, but then he floored me when he said that Susan Boyle, of Britain’s Got Talent fame, was equally as important.
Back home, I googled my way to a YouTube video of Boyle’s original live performance of ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from Les Miserables. Now, some facts about me: I rarely watch TV, reality programs leave me as cold as a cadaver, and show tunes are invariably so saccharine as to be vacuous. But I forced myself to watch Boyle sing; I needed to know why someone of Martin Sharp’s stature considers her brilliant.
Susan Boyle, who has the physique of a front-row forward, walks out onto the theatre stage. Her hair looks like it’s been cut by meat-axe and somehow she’s squeezed herself into a potato-sack frock. She faces the immediate derision of the judges and the audience. Innocently, but confidently, she says she wants to be like Elaine Paige. She dares to announce that she’ll sing ‘I Dream A Dream’; eyes roll into backs of heads.
Then, however, Susan Boyle opens her mouth, she starts to sing. Her singing is heartfelt and precise, it’s passionate without being histrionic, she knows exactly what she’s doing (Sharp is right). Within seconds the audience is standing, applauding and hollering. From contempt they’re now in love, rapturous even. The three judges can’t stop smiling; two of them begin crying. And then, as Boyle carries on with the song, hitting the sustained upward notes, there it goes, the tingling of my skin, the blood-rush to my spine.
Goosebumps: it’s a sure sign of life.
And, perhaps, genius.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 12 February 2011.)
Right now I feel alive to trees. Yes, alive. And, yes, to trees. Because I’ve just finished reading The Tree in Changing Light (2001) by Australian novelist Roger McDonald. The book, which was a gift from the writer (I interviewed him for the Canberra Times late last year), is a deeply thoughtful, poetic, even Biblical exploration of the tree.
We’re lucky in Australia to be surrounded by trees. As I write this a countless number of eucalypts live on the other side of the river on the other side of the window. Sometimes, like earlier this week when a cyclone called Yasi (named after a Fijian tree, apparently) smashed its way across tropical Queensland, we can be unlucky in the company of trees, too.
McDonald’s book has me thinking about some of the trees that I’ve known.
The gigantic old Smooth-barked Apple (botanical name Angophora costata, which sounds like something an orchestra might play) in the tiny front yard of my family’s Sydney home. How my mother, wanting to rescue it from the reality of its old age, and needing to save my brothers and me from branches that would fall in summer, got in a tree surgeon, who lopped the dangerous limbs and, following the crown’s drop-line, injected the soil with Poplar Special, which I was told was like giving the tree a massive dose of vitamins. I remember how, some years later, a sugar glider launched itself out of the tree only to land on the handle-bar of the lawnmower I was pushing – how indignant, how downright embarrassed I felt when I tried to pick up the delicate animal and it bit me violently on the end of one of my fingers.
The windbreak of radiata pines (Pinus radiata, which sounds exactly like what a forester would call them) that protected the little green weatherboard Blue Mountains cottage my family rented each year when I was a child and then a teenager. Climbing as high as I could until it felt dangerous, perched up there for hours, looking out over the sparsely populated village, feeling the ocean-like sway as the tree shifted in the national-park wind, holding me up. The smell – the stink? – of pine needles in my nose and mouth, watching as unsuspecting family members went out in the rambling, wild-in-parts garden to do something or other that was meant to be private and unseen. Turning away from them down there, I got lost in the miniature canyons of the bark, hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep and let go. I seem to remember that once or twice I did fall asleep, but I didn’t let go, I mustn’t have.
The exotic trees in the front yard of the first house I bought, a 1960s ‘ex-government’ joint – they died suddenly one summer. Two English oaks, two liquidambars, a cherry tree, a fig: together, in one week, they just extinguished themselves, the way dolphins can do on an isolated sandy beach. How devastated I felt, and devastated is the word: shocked, distressed, distraught. So I got in a tree surgeon, just like my mother got in the same to save her Smooth-barked Apple, and, not being someone who under-does things, I also got in a man who advised the local government about how to care for the city’s urban forest, and I got in the caretaker of the prime minister’s grounds, and tests were done, soil samples sent away to Sydney. As advised, I had the ground injected, not with Poplar Special but chemicals, because the technology had moved on.
Still the trees died, although a beloved magnolia survived, despite having lost its sheltering over-storey. I cared for this tree, kept the water up to it during the extended hot and dry periods, especially when the winds came from further inland, I pruned the greying branches, year after year amazed that it flowered for me, and flowered for the neighbours who praised me for the display as if I’d given birth to the tree myself.
How, only this morning, I’ve noticed that the dinosaur-esque fig tree tucked away in the corner of the back yard of the 1890s house in a country town I now call home has suddenly turned yellow. It has dropped half its leaves, it’s unwell. It won’t, it seems, survive the recent days of heat.
Trees may well be protection, or decoration, or entertainment. Perhaps they can even be symbols of status. But what are they really? A sign of a slower life than our own, or a greater simplicity, or a greater serenity? Or is it the stength? Or the (mostly) silence?
McDonald has the answers, as most novelists do.
In the final chapter of his book, entitled ‘Into the Light’, he notes, in the Biblical – or apocalyptic – past tense:
We wrote philosophies, built faiths, and took every kind of comfort from trees. They gave language to our existence as we put down roots, stretched our limbs, budded in infancy and were felled in old age. They were mute companions to our lives and worshipped beyond ourselves as the better part of balance and aspiration. They offered steadiness and long patience even as we failed in those. They were meeting points and sites of rough justice. They gave the idea and supplied the material for shelter. They offered an image of completion, which was an illusion, but it was enough. Theirs was a whisper in the wind to the human ear both tragic and hopeful. Civilisation grew from exploiting, destroying, venerating and looking back on them. Trees led us to ourselves and we stood against them trunk to trunk, arms upon branches, our thoughts tangled in the stars.
Companions that I wouldn’t ever want to be without.