In Place

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When the ideas of outstanding philosophers and novelists converge, we should pay attention. In books like Getting Back into Place and The Fate of Place, the American phi­losopher Edward Casey has written powerfully on the difference between the concept of place and the concept of space. Using a different vocabulary, the Czech novelist Milan Kundera presents essen­tially the same idea in the passage from Immortal­ity quoted by Ingrid Stefanovic at the beginning of her essay in this issue. Kundera meditates on the distinction between a “highway” and a “road.” A highway is a meaningless line between two points. A road overflows with meaning, association, and invitation.

Kundera locates both highway and road in what he calls “space,” which is devalued by the former and brought to life by the latter. But he could have used Casey’s terminology without missing a beat and said that highways are in spaces, while roads are of places. The concept of space is essentially an abstract and geometrical one; it is the zone of pure thought where highways dwell, and the mind has no time to spare for meandering or sightseeing on its journey to some precisely specifiable point. A place, on the other hand, is a tangled bank and a winding path; it is a location of roads and side trips and unexpected turnings.

What is significant about places is not so much their physical dimensions as their imaginative possibilities. They are not occupied, like spaces, as a container of height and width and depth. They are dwelt within by living things; and through memory, myth, and meaning inanimate things can be alive in place as well. Places are the surround­ings of Walden Pond and Tinturn Abbey. They are made such by the perceptions and sensibilities of Thoreau and Wordsworth and you, me, and every­one who lives a life somewhere, as opposed to no­where or anywhere.

Did I just say that living is enough to make a space a place? Or is it a certain quality and kind of living? Does the concept of place have particu­lar values and ideals built into its very meaning perhaps? Like Schrödinger’s cat in a box, which can be dead and alive at the same time, can somewhere be both a space and a place, depending on what happens there and the spirit in which it happens? When people talk about the project of “place making,” how casual or how deep a statement are they making? Those of us who as­pire to transform what now are abstract spaces into more rich­ly indwelt places would do well to attend to the value-laden na­ture of our enterprise and to be as clairvoyant as possible about what those values are.

Here is a story that might nudge us in that direction. On Friday, January 12, 2007, dur­ing the morning rush hour, the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell performed incognito for nearly an hour in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, DC. He played many pieces, some simple and some com­plex, on his instrument, which had been made by Stradivari in 1713 and is named the Gibson ex Huberman. It has a check­ered history: stolen twice in the twentieth century from its pre­vious owner, Bronislaw Huber­man, it has its own tale to tell of disappearance, mystery, and reemergence. Even in the tun­nels of the subway station, the sound quality was excellent. A Bell performance is something that normally countless people pay hundreds of dollars each for a ticket to hear. That day it was free—although, busker that he was, he put his open case on the floor to accept tips.

While Bell played, 1,700 people walked past (observers from the Washington Post were video­taping the scene and counting). They hurried by, on the highway from point A to point B. Only a handful tossed a bill or some coins into his case, and just seven people stopped to listen for a time. There was never a crowd; a place of connectivity never formed (Cf. Gene Weingarten, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” available at http://www.washington­post.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/04/04/AR2007040401721.html).

What shall we make of this? What does it tell us about place? To me it is a reminder that place functions to give us a stability of expectations. This experiment contrived by a writer for the Washing­ton Post is perhaps a little too easy because of the radical contrast and anomaly it presented to the people in the station. On one level anyway, the way people behaved is not surprising, and their sense of place has something to do with that. Bell is not the kind of celebrity who is likely to be recognized out of context; indeed, no classical musician is (maybe Pavarotti, with his signature girth, or Leonard Bernstein in his day are the exceptions that prove the rule). Lady Gaga no doubt would have gotten a different reception, as would maybe even Paul McCartney or Bruce Springsteen (I date my­self, I know). Also, it is not un­usual to encounter musicians playing in the subway corri­dors, and the standard behav­ioral norm is not to attend their performance but to be on one’s way. So the sense in which the Metro is a place—albeit not a very attractive or inviting one— conspired to lead the people to do precisely what they did: to hurry on.

Place in its stability-re­inforcing functions does not immunize us from a condi­tion called “face blindness,” or prosopagnosia. People with this condition, like the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, can­not recognize people they know well if they encounter them out of context, in an unfamiliar set­ting or in the wrong place. A strong sense of place may actu­ally dispose one to a figurative kind of prosopagnosia in that we can become so indwelling in a familiar place that we become quite disoriented when we are thrust into the anomalous situ­ation and the unknown circumstance. I am a Hoosier who moved to New York City, and I know whereof I speak.

On the other hand, the fact that not just face blindness but also aesthetic blindness was displayed that day is harder to fathom. Bell may have blended in, but his music did not. The fact that people were not attentive to what they were actually hearing, that they seemed disabled from hearing what was actu­ally there, is not a manifestation of their residing in a definable place with its settled routines and patterns of conduct. It is surely a manifestation of the way in which surroundings and locations, like a highway or a subway, become abstract spaces of mere transit or some other essentially instrumen­tal and utilitarian preoccupation. This tale then is both about place as settled expectation and the ab­sence of place (place become mere space), which deadens sense and sensibility. It shows the void in our lives that ensues when we close in, turn up our collars, and hurry on, rather than opening out to surprise and joy.

So here are at least two of the many substan­tive values that seem to me to reside in the con­cept of place. One is open familiarity. The other is mobile rootedness. You will notice that these are deliberate paradoxes. But they are not, I think, contradictions.

Without the structure of the familiar at all lev­els—from the sensory to the social, cultural, and religious—our world would be, as William James put it, “one great blooming, buzzing, confusion.” We need to assimilate the novelty, the otherness we encounter to that which is comprehensible to us. We do need to encounter the outsider—the stranger who is displaced or placed elsewhere— on our own terms. But these terms must not be static and frozen, for then they will not truly be­speak a place of living. We must be rooted. Like Antaeus, our strength comes from our connection to the earth. But we must also use our rootedness to move, to create in ourselves the capacity to in­crease our terms by embracing the terms of others.

The essays and images in this issue of Minding Nature exemplify a mobile rootedness and put us on the road to places of right relationship between humans and nature.

We begin with the Center for Humans and Na­ture’s Manifesto, a short docu­ment that emerged from long discussions among members of the staff and board of direc­tors. In a sense, Strachan Don­nelley (1942–2008) was the Center’s living manifesto. After his death, we came to feel that we needed to put something in written form, a statement that would attempt to capture his legacy and the forward-facing nature of our ethical commit­ment to the human and the natural world.

Each one inevitably inad­equate, all statements of this kind are important, I believe, because they provide different ways of articulating a vision and a warning that in our soci­ety and in the current state of the planet simply must be giv­en a voice. We were pleased to offer to our readers “The Blue River Declaration” in Mind­ing Nature 4.3 (December 2011). With an introduction by Brooke Hecht and Ceara Don­nelley, we now offer our state­ment of values, a diagnosis of current problems, an analysis of what needs to be done, and some ways in which the Cen­ter for Humans and Nature is striving toward achieving a bet­ter future.

This year the Center is be­ginning a new research project on Frontiers of Ethics: Care and Place, under the auspices of its Ideas of Humans and Na­ture Program. In moral philos­ophy, an ethic of care has be­come a well-developed alternative to other ethical approaches based on utilitarianism, the concept of rights, and distributive justice principles. These latter frameworks seem abstract, formal, and indi­vidualistic, whereas an ethic centering on the ideal and the lived experience of caring can express the concreteness of people as mortal, vulnerable, and embodied selves. However, this ethical framework and its characteristic perspective have not been brought fully to bear on questions of ethical responsibilities toward non-human life and ecosys­tems.

Place is another concept that currently lies at the frontiers of ethical thought. As I alluded to above, its orientation is an emphasis on specific relationships in particular places and landscapes, both natural and social. Most work in moral phi­losophy and Western ethics is abstract in the sense that it seeks to discover standards of right and wrong that are universally valid and applicable. Paradoxically, moral psychology tells us that ethi­cal thinking and our sense of value are rooted in specificity, not universality—that is to say, in the lived experience of place, with specific natural and social characteristics, landscapes, and cultures.

The core of this issue is two essays by Ingrid Leman Stefanovic and Nina-Marie Lister, who are Senior Fellows of the Center in 2012. In these es­says the perspectives of care and place take shape in the context of landscape design and transpor­tation planning. In January they contributed to a new Center publication entitled, “To Build or Not to Build a Road . . . How Do We Honor the Land­scape?” (available at http://www.humansandna­ture.org/roads). Their longer discussions here ex­plore these issues in greater depth.

Stefanovic focuses on what the National Re­search Council has referred to as “the elements of a responsible and competent decision-making pro­cess.” She highlights six essential elements of good planning and decision-making and shows the piv­otal role that values and imperfect knowledge play throughout, from the initial identification of objec­tives to the eventual evaluation and adjustment of an ongoing project. She illus­trates her analysis with a num­ber of telling examples, from the perspective of First Na­tions communities in Canadi­an land-use planning, through the split-second decisions of pilots and military personnel in combat, to the tragic story of the death of a large number of smoke-jumpers in the Mann Gulch fire of 1949.

In an integrated analytic and photographic essay, Lister focuses directly on the planning and design challenge of what she aptly calls reconciling mo­bility with landscape. She gives special attention to the issue of preventing deadly encounters between wildlife and motor ve­hicles. Animals are mobile, and they need “roads,” too—that is, connectivity in their landscape and habitats. Intelligent design of human roads can accommo­date these respective mobility needs and can relate humans and nature properly and cre­atively. She indicates that we should not fragment our plan­ning imagination as we of­ten do: efficiency here, safety there, aesthetics over there. Instead, we can integrate ele­ments. Roadway access, design elements, and materials can incorporate wildlife mitigation structures in ways that fit and increase the interest of the pre-existing landscape. Lister indi­cates how this can be done with reference to finalist entries in the 2010 International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition.

Rounding out this issue, David Seamon dis­cusses the work of British architectural theorist David Hillier, and the ways in which the physical arrangement and design of pathways (roads, side­walks, even building corridors) have significant so­cial effects. Julie DeVries reviews Doreen Massey’s important book on the concept of place, World City. Chris Sherman has the Last Word with a wonderfully care-sensitive and place-oriented re­flection on democracy and civic life.

Highway versus road, space as distinct from place. Here’s another: the poet Edgar Guest’s dis­tinction between house and home. Once you grasp the basic idea, a large number of such discern­ments arise when you begin to think about it. The different words don’t matter much, the forms of life behind them do.

  • Bruce Jennings

    Bruce Jennings is Senior Fellow at the Center for Humans and Nature where he engages in research, writing, public speaking, and consulting. He is the editor of the Center’s journal, Minding Nature.
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