Thoughts on a 'Sense of Place'
It is fundamental to the human sense of self, sense of community, sense of mortality and sense of destiny. Connection to place is vital to our sense of identity - both personal and communal.
In fact, I suspect that much of the uneasiness, anxiety and moral uncertainty of modern urban societies can be traced to our loss of a strong sense of continuous connection with places that help to define us. Cyberspace, it turns out, is no substitute for the real thing.
So where did we get this weird idea that a relationship to the land is important only in agrarian, nomadic or hunting cultures?
Sport may not be your thing, but you'd have to be either prejudiced or blind not to have noticed the profound, if not spiritual, significance of such places as football grounds. If sport doesn't do it for you, think of War Memorials, or the smaller memorials - parks, plaques, and obelisks scattered across the country and marking the spots where homage is regularly paid to those who made sacrifices on our behalf. Those places matter, their location essential to their role.
Still unconvinced? Revisit your primary school playground or a classroom you once sat in. The powerful sense of that place - the look of it, the feel of it, the smell of it - will stir all kind of emotions in you, positive and negative, not accessible via mere memory. Those emotions spring from deep wells of half-forgotten longing; reservoirs of an aching simplicity; the momentous nothingness of a child's life lived without any real sense of a past and not much connection with the idea of a future that once yawned in our faces, but has already swirled past us. Go to the village or suburb where you grew up and walk the footpaths, the shops where you strolled and loitered as a teenager; the park where you played and maybe where you learned to fly a kite or trained your dog to fetch; or learned to skip, climb, hide or whistle. Not significant? Go and have a look. The rush of recognition when we hear songs that supplied the soundtrack to our adolescence and early adulthood is an evocation of place as much as time, because the places matter.
You can see how much they matter when they're torn down or ripped apart. The cinema where you learned about good and evil, the pub you met your mates in and. The one with a jukebox where you learned to play snooker. They are forever closed down. And whatever happened to that corner where you stood with friends? Why have they widened the road? Where is the ... Hey! Where is the house I grew up in? Where is my neighbor’s house? Shocking stuff, the removal or disruption of place.
The place where you worked at your first job. The lawns where you lay in the sun, scarcely daring to believe he was feeling as you were feeling (and usually finding he wasn't). The river. The lake. The holiday destination with its beaches, or its mountain tracks. The caravan park, year after year. Go back and feel it. Sense it. Tell me it doesn't mean anything.
It doesn't have to be a primitive, unspoiled place. It doesn't have to be grass and rocks and trees and streams. Ask the people who live in Cumbria if those places mean something more than just spaces to work and sleep and eat in. They don't have to be charming, trendy, beautiful or even well defined.
"My street" or “my lane” is magic in every nuance, and sometimes the magic lingers: I have two places like that, where an occasional pilgrimage is both reassuring and gut-churning that tree, that hedge, that fence, that veranda, those ghosts.
What about the places where we stood and heard terrible news: whether personal or on a more global scale. We know where we were when we heard the news of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre because we were rooted to the spot. We remember where our first boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with us.
And there are places we never want to go to again, because they contain demons or ghosts we know will catch us if we venture too close. I know of one man who will never, under any circumstances, visit his old school again; another who refuses even to drive down the street where he grew up in a desperately unhappy family.
Some places contain our personal secrets, but places also create and capture our sense of belonging to a community: indeed, it's arguable if we can hold on to a sense of community without anchoring it to places.
The places where we . . . where the family . . . where our neighbors . . . The places that stood for our emerging sense of ourselves as people who belong somewhere.
The sense, as a child, of even the next street being alien, let alone the next town. The sense of a relative’s house in a distant city being like an oasis of familiarity in a desert of strangeness. Stamping grounds? Of course; what else?
These places are fundamental to the human sense of self, sense of community and sense of destiny.
It's also fundamental to our sense of morality. Only when we feel connected to others do we seem willing to accept some responsibility for their wellbeing.
The greatest test of our moral sensitivity is how we treat our partners, friends and family members. But another aspect of our nmoral sensitivity is related to sense of place and how we treat the people who share the places where we live and work, whether we happen to like them or not. (Funny how we so carefully choose the places where we'll live, but not the people we'll have as neighbors. Did you ever interview the people in the street before you bought a house? No; it was the place that spoke to you.)
Places shape us. Living in a mean little concrete box will take its toll on you, as surely as the design of office buildings will shape the attitudes and behavior of the employees who work in it.
If you're interested in raising the moral tone of a community, look first to the creation of spaces where people can meet, walk, talk, play, eat, drink. (Is the impersonal shopping center really the best we can do? Did any community ever find its soul in such a place?
The places where we discover the magical sense of being connected to a neighbourhood - the pub, the park, the church, the schoolyard, the small corner shops - lodge in our memory.
The "global village", by contrast, is just a hoax perpetrated by the high priests of the IT revolution. Villages, urban or otherwise, need real places to foster the incidental connections - the smiles, the nods - of village life. Falling in love on the net is usually a hoax, too: love needs a place to grow, just as herd animals need a place to graze together. One video screen is much the same as another (a bit like shopping centres and airports), whereas real places are unique. Cyberspace is a clever name, but we must resist the idea that it bears any relation to actual physical space.
Our problem is not that we lack the yearning for a sense of place; that yearning is universal. Our problem, is that we often failed to acknowledge the deep need in ourselves for a sense of place and give no thought to how we can nurture it.