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The avenue, Mount Wilson, Blue Mountains, New South Wales (photo by Scott Moorhen)

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)

And:

‘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.

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

***

‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

There is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.  A village high on a mountain, an extinct volcano.  A village so tiny it doesn’t have shops.  Decades ago there were tearooms that sold just tea and apple cider, the cake cabinets empty but for blow flies – alive in summer, dead in winter.  The village had a post-office, too, where his parents would collect the cottage keys.  The shop and the post-office didn’t last forever.  But the mountain has.

Up there, his days would alternate.

One day he’d be with his mother.  Somehow she’d wrangle invitations to visit grand sandstone mansions, those buildings so different from the humble weatherboard place they rented.  The mansions looked as if they’d been teleported from the other side of the world.  Together they’d explore the sprawling gardens that grew in the rich, volcanic soil: perfect lawns, banks of azaleas and rhododendrons, bulbs in spring; all of it dripping and drooping when the late-afternoon mist rolled in.

The next day he’d be with his father, trekking into the blue wilderness, exploring ancient places where decades later botanists would discover an ancient tree that had somehow survived for longer than he could comprehend.  Together they’d drop into freezing canyons.  Hoping snakes would leave them be, they’d clamber up to rocky plateaus that were covered in stiff, prickly heath.

On the third day he’d be alone.  He’d walk to Wynne’s Rocks, officially the greatest lookout in the world, and he’d fast-forward ten, twenty, thirty years to see how life might become.  It was out at Wynne’s, with just eighteen birthdays notched into his belt, that he promised to visit the mountain every year.

And he’s stuck to that promise.

He visits often – he makes the quickest of trips.

He even visits when he can’t sleep.  When he needs to remind himself of being a boy and a big decision was choosing between climbing one of the skyscraper-sized pine trees or hunting for extinct dinosaurs.  To be reminded of being a teenager and having a mate from school in the adjacent bed and knowing it was done – he’d finally offered his mate some words, three words, three syllables.  To be reminded of wild, wild Australia and those bits of imported England.  And being in between.

Sometimes, however, he has nightmares: shopping malls smothering village streets; old mansions (and a certain cottage) demolished to make way for gaudy, two-storey weekenders owned by Sydney stock brokers; a rabid bushfire that’s come to claim the whole bloody lot of it.

Visiting right now, he’s reminded of one of his favourite books (with one of his favourite titles).  No, not George’s My Side of the Mountain but Relph’s Place and Placelessness.  ‘A deep relationship with places 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.’  How good is that!

Yes, there is somewhere he goes, a secret somewhere.

He’d promised to visit every year and he does, in fact he visits all the time – it may be a five-hour drive from where he now lives but he can be there in a second.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 11 2007)

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