April 4, 2014
Space, Place, and Nature: The Farewell Lecture
If I have to name a contribution I made to this department, it is the coffee-hour lecture series [the Yi-Fu Tuan Lecture]. Inspired by graduate students’ Beer-and-Loafing talks, I thought to initiate something similar for the geography faculty, and go from there to talents in the College, the University, and the world. An unforeseen consequence of my effort is that the series’s initiator, me, began to abuse it. Over the years, I must have spoken a dozen times, and each time I intimated that it would be my last, only to renege to the consternation of my long-suffering colleagues. This time, however, would be different. How so? What’s the guarantee? Well, if nothing else, the debilities of age will effectively douse future temptations. But you might ask, why even this time, why not just go “gentle into that good night” as one poet put it? My answer is, given my theatrical bent, I prefer the curtain to come down on my career in front of colleagues and students than to shuffle off, alone, into the shadows. I am therefore grateful to Holly and Stephen, co-chairs of our lecture committee, for giving me a chance to sound off for the last time and so provide me with a sense of closure.
Space and Place
“Space, Place, and Nature” are topics that I have explored for almost a-half century. What follows is one more look at them. As you will see, although in the interest of clarity I speak in declarative sentences and so may sound confident, I do not feel it and least of all in regard to “nature,” which is as elusive to my understanding now as it did when I first encountered it.
A decade ago, I gave a talk on “space and place” to eleven- and twelve-year olds at the Spring Harbor Middle School. I said something like this. “Look out of the window and you will see open space. Open space suggests adventure but it also entails risk: for example, the boat on Lake Mendota where some of your classmates are may sink.” Students nodded in agreement. I continued, “By contrast, a place like this classroom is safe and familiar. However, for that reason it can be boring.” This time they not only nodded but shouted, “Yes, this class is boring!” I was stunned and didn’t have the wit to say, “Maybe so. Yet it is precisely in this familiar, unexciting place that you can engage in adventures of the mind and learn something about ‘space and place.’ Your friends on Lake Mendota, distracted by wind, water, and sun, cannot.”
I stopped at this point, thinking that pre-teen students are not ready to follow me further. With older students, I might go on to say that since the human individual is both body and mind, he can also be said to be both “place” and “space.” His body, tied by his senses to the environment, is place; his mind, freed from such sensory ties, is space. Given his roaming mind, a human being can therefore seldom be fully where he is. Right now, for example, you are in this classroom, which is your place, and you are here to listen to me. But be honest. Is it really so? Your body is indeed here. Your mind, however, may well be elsewhere. I am willing to bet that quite a few students in this room have already left it for pizza or sex in another part of town.
Given this knack of being both here and there, present and absent, what are the consequences? One is a certain detachment from the person one is with and another is a certain detachment from the place one is at. In these respects, humans differ from other animals whose mind, being less able to wander, stays focused on where they happen to be. Animals are, in this sense, bound to their immediate environment. Humans, with their roaming mind, are less so bound. Indeed, this unique power to be imaginatively elsewhere should serve as the necessary backdrop against which are conducted all deliberations on the significance of place in human experience.
The roaming mind aside, distance is of course a barrier—one that both as a fact on the ground and as a state of mind affects human ties and intimacies. Just how this is so requires that something be said first about what the words “distant” and “far away” meant to people who lived in the past; in particular, some two hundred years ago, prior to the development of rapid transportation and communication. In a poem called “The Solitary Reaper,” written in 1805, Wordsworth identifies two places that were thought to be so widely separated that it cannot help but evoke a haunting sense of isolation. The poet depicts a Highland Lass reaping and singing alone such that:
At one pole, the Arabian Sands and at the other pole, the farthest Hebrides, a distance that would have taken weeks for people to cross by carriage or communicate by mail. Imagine two friends heading toward these opposite extremities in the early nineteenth century. As they shook hands to say goodbye, they knew that they were unlikely to meet again for a long time. Now, imagine the situation today. My friend and I say goodbye. We will be separated by a thousand miles, but so what if, in Google-equipped rooms, I in Arabia and my friend in the Hebrides can continue to chat and even see each other, I in my T-shirt, he in his heavy sweater, thanks to our iPads? As distance no longer matters and as the renewal of contact becomes ever easier, friendship is deprived of the occasion to rise to a level of intensity that depends on the likelihood of prolonged absence. Farewells in the past were burdened by a sense of finality that we now know, if at all, only during a friend’s final departure—his death.
Other than friendship, what about social relations generally? How were they affected by the collapse of distance? Were they also, like friendship, cooler? I believe the answer to be yes, and I offer the following scenario to support it. At Starbucks café on State Street, I saw three young women walk in, chattering as they did so. They went to the counter, bought lattes, and found a table around which they sat. I like to eavesdrop on the young, and I looked forward to overhearing their conversation. But no such luck, for each held an iPhone in her hand and immediately bent over it to text a friend in another part of town. Their kneecaps touched under the small table but, other than this accidental intimacy, they paid not the slightest heed to one another as flesh-and-blood human beings. Why they bothered to be together in the first place was unclear to me. Also unclear to me was what they could talk about when they left the premise, for having just busily texted friends in other parts of town, they lacked a common ground to restart a conversation among themselves.
Social relations in modern society, even if they are not deep, can still be pleasant. The same can be said of our relations with places. Well-to-do people like us willingly hang out at cafés, restaurants, antique shops, art galleries, and museums. Nevertheless, the grip of these places on us is light. Switching allegiance is common. Even our home does not command loyalty. The phenomenon I have just described is a familiar one and we know it to be a consequence of mobility, itself a consequence of economic well-being, backed by a speediness of transportation and communication that has cut down the historic onus of distance. Still, the lightness of our current attachment to place makes us wonder whether it is a serious loss, affecting our mental health and even our moral sense, which calls for strong commitment. Tempting, therefore, it is to think sentimentally of the past when places had a hold on people that was not easily broken. Attachment is, however, a word of ambiguous meaning, whether it is applied to people or place. On the dark side, it is bondage and we are glad to be freed of bondage. On the bright side, it is a mutuality such that people pour affection into a place and that place in turn imparts its qualities to people, making them into the sort of human beings they are.
The notion that place is capable of imparting its qualities to people may sound a little fanciful, so let me say, first, something that is merely commonsense, namely, good soil yields good crops, bad soil poor crops, or the merits of a manufacturing place are reflected in its products. Consider the last assertion. What makes a product such as Wisconsin cheese special? If the cheese is indeed special, the answer is likely to be the excellence of the state’s soil, feed, cows, and processes of manufacturing. Wisconsinites may go a step further and boast that if their cheese is transported to California, there—on the grocer’s counter—will be a hunk of Midwestern wholesomeness. Not only that, they may also find quite acceptable the notion that if a young man born and raised in Wisconsin moves to live in New York, he will be there an oasis of manly virtue in a sea of glitzy sophistication. That place can mold a people’s character is, I believe, widely--if only tacitly--accepted in different parts of the world. Occasionally, the idea is made explicit. An outstanding example is Rupert Brooke’s poem, written during the First World War, called “The Soldier.” It may not be great poetry, but it resonates and is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. Brooke has the soldier say,
I spoke earlier of place as having power and that this is good to the extent that the power is used in caring and bad to the extent that the caring is excessive and so turns into a sort of confinement. In the twenty-first century, however, we hardly need to worry about excess since the immediate threat is one of weakened attachment. Places, not even home, bind us the way they used to. This raises the question, if even home has lost much of its emotional grip, what about home writ large—the nation-state? Has fervor for it also waned? I doubt it has, for there are striking differences between love of home and love of nation-state. The one draws on endearments and celebrations in the privacy of family and close friends. The other is almost the opposite, for it draws on public occasions, ceremonials, and history about which a people can be inordinately proud. But a more important difference is this: whereas love of home draws on good memories, love of nation-state draws on not only good memories but also on bad ones of defeat and humiliation, unhealed wounds that easily metastasize into hatred of the unassimilated inside and aliens outside the borders of homeland.
I now turn to “nature,” a theme that, even more than “space and place,” continues to baffle me perhaps because “nature” is conceptually more complex. For the purpose of this talk, I will reduce the complexity to three sub-themes. The first addresses how knowledge affects the way nature is appraised; the second addresses the way imagination is curtailed or knowledge is suppressed so that nature can seem more accommodating; and the third raises the question of what is real.
The first sub-theme--how knowledge affects the way nature is appraised—has become rather stale by being written about too often, so I will try to give it a fresher look by launching it with a personal experience, namely, my visit to Beijing’s Summer Palace in 2005. The visit being my first, I needed a guide. The one I had was very loquacious and regaled me, non-stop, with information. Surprisingly for a tourist guide, her information was not directed at the garden’s charms; rather, she depicted a landscape of fear in which just about everything built was designed to deflect or appease nature’s malignant spirits. Even the smallest misjudgment could offend—a door opening at the wrong angle, a misplaced bronze lion, a color of the wrong shade, a missing arch in the multi-arched bridge, and so on. But as I looked about me I detected no anxiety or fear, no sign of any awareness that nature might be hostile. To the contrary, everywhere I saw men, women, and children, smiling, chatting, and laughing. They were clearly having a good time and they were having it in a place at which every natural and manmade feature promoted pleasure and well-being.
What happened in China also happened elsewhere, and indeed earlier in the Western world. It can be put simply as knowledge dispelling superstitious fear, a trend that has lasted long enough so that by now much of the world sees nature favorably. There is even the likelihood that nature is losing some of its appeal through familiarity. If this should happen, knowledge—deeper knowledge—can come to the rescue. Take Lake Mendota in Madison, Wisconsin, as an example. It is a popular amenity that is at risk of being too much taken for granted. Students flock to the Memorial Union terrace less to admire the lake than to use it as a pleasing backdrop for beer drinking and social chitchat. To rekindle their appreciation, I suggest that they recall a fact they learned in physical geography, which is that the lake is not just a sparkling surface but also a murky depth, and that an ice sheet 1,000 feet thick once covered it. When students are able to meld in their minds the dissonant images of surface and depth, sun-lit terrace and glacial ice, their aesthetic sensibility will revive and not only revive but reach a level that is beyond the picturesque to the sublime.
Can knowledge also have a negative effect? Can it make us anxious rather than reassured, fearful rather than appreciative? The answer is yes, and the best known example is the way the consoling images of religion have been corroded by the harsh images of science. But within science itself, this happens when a system that is appealing to human emotion and aesthetic taste is displaced by one that is far less appealing. Astronomy is a case in point. From antiquity to the early modern period, outer space was believed to be a cathedral-like, soaring space of vast size and beauty, one, moreover, filled with music produced by transparent orbs rotating at various distances from one another.
Modern astronomy shattered this attractive model, although a couple more centuries had to pass before it was totally erased even as a backdrop for human romance. Yet we who have inherited the new astronomy are, for the most part, quite unfazed, the reason being that what we see with our eyes trumps what we are taught and know, the image of stars glittering at night so near as to seem almost within reach prevails over our knowledge of mind-boggling distance. What is true of space is even more true of nature’s other major axis—time.
Time introduces the second sub-theme, which addresses the way imagination is curtailed or knowledge suppressed so that nature can seem more accommodating. Time, however, is a special case in that suppressed is not knowledge of time’s span, which is given as artifacts chronologically arranged in museums and as large numbers in learned articles and books; deficient rather is the imagination exercised over that time span. Consider artifacts on display in a museum. From ancient Egyptian mummies to modern Danish furniture, they all fall under the sweep of the eye and so give the viewer a false sense of control. Failing to give is a sense of threat, an awareness of time as a yawning abyss. As for the large numbers that stand for the ages of the various geologic periods, they numb rather than stimulate the imagination. Still, even the dull of mind can come to life when the circumstances are right, as they were for me one day at the El Morro National Monument in northwestern New Mexico.
Northwestern New Mexico is a plateau, capped by a hard sandstone layer that protects the softer rock underneath. A number of streams have cut into the hard layer and into the softer beds to produce canyons, whose retreating slopes resulted in a landscape of table-lands or mesas. During the seventeenth century, Spanish explorers passed by this place on their march north. They rested at the foot of one mesa and carved their names on the sandstone. These names are now protected by a glass plate. At the National Monument, I could see visitors having a good time, picnicking and throwing Frisbees. They no doubt looked at the names etched on the mesa’s flank, but these did not in any way upset them. I was more than upset—I was shaken by a glimpse into time’s bottomless pit.
I said to myself, “Three hundred years represent a substantial time span in American history, yet during that period, pelting rain and sheet-wash have not caused the slopes to weather back by the quarter inch that would have wiped out the signatures.” Dizziness came with the recognition that the slope has indeed retreated and that it retreated by at least several hundred feet from the position it originally occupied a-half million years ago. Abstract knowledge of geologic time would not have turned my stomach. What did turn my stomach was to feel time in all its terrifying vastness. I could feel this way because the mesas, serving as a chronometer, raised my imagination well above its usual pedestrian level.
Was this elevation of my imagination a gain for me? Hardly, for ever since, geologic landscapes have lost their simple, visual appeal. My eyes can still delight in mountains and valleys, but my mind’s eye sees in the twisted and folded rock beds time that has “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end,” words that James Hutton used in 1795 when he first recognized and announced Earth’s great age.
If physical science can make us feel small and ill at ease, biological science can do so even more effectively. An outstanding example is biology’s teaching that we are descended from the apes. Many people have tried to suppress this knowledge. But it doesn’t take a theory of biological evolution to make us uncomfortable. Even the simplest biological facts can do that if only we make the connection. Consider sexual organs. Ours are unobtrusive compared with those of our nearest relative, the chimpanzee. Aroused, the male chimpanzee’s penis and scrotum grow impressively pendulous and the female’s organ swells to a large pink mound. These are not pictures we want displayed in our home. Now, what about flowers in bright red, pink, or yellow? Aren’t they the sexual organs of plants? Knowing them to be such should make us pause before plunging our nose into them, yet this is not at all the case. We don’t hesitate to smell flowers, indeed we consider whiffing them with eyes closed in ecstasy as a sign of our refined taste. This is possible because we unthinkingly disconnect sex in one form of life from sex in another form.
Whence this need to see not only intelligence, but high intelligence, in other animals? Can it be because we humans dread the idea of being utterly alone in the universe, with no other creature that is our intellectual equal or superior? When unsentimental science taught us to eschew anthropomorphism, we turned to other planets for signs of sophisticated life. But when, in the 1950s, improved observations showed that Mars did not have canals and that advanced culture did not exist on other planets, we had no choice but to turn our capacity for fantasy back to Earth and there some scientists took to finding high intelligence in such animals as dolphins and chimpanzees. Differences between them and us, however obvious, are underplayed or suppressed, a procedure made all the easier in that animals, no matter how smart they are in solving the problems we give them, never disconcert us, as our fellow humans all too often do, by saying cuttingly, “We disagree” or “On the contrary…”
My last example of suppression is of society imposing its values on us when we from our own experience could easily have arrived at other values. This is not simply a case of power play on the part of society; rather it is our readiness to conform with whatever is in the air and has society’s tacit support. Put more abstractly, I am saying that indirect experience—that is to say, what we learn from books and teachers--easily overrides direct experience—that is to say, what we learn in the field through the senses and mind.
My third and last sub-theme raises the question of what is real. Not being a philosopher, I don’t ordinarily question what is real. When in doubt, I kick a stone as did Dr. Johnson. No, my problem is with realities organized by the human mind such as landscape. Even then I don’t feel perplexed when, from the top of a hill, I gaze at the scene before me. My difficulties arise when I am asked to look at landscapes of the pre-human past. These difficulties first appeared when, as a child, I walked down the corridor of a natural history museum and paused at a diorama that showed dinosaurs sunning themselves by the sea. One lifted up its leg and was about to step into the water. I assumed that museum scientists made sure that all the details were correct and that, to enhance the realism, they added color—white sand, blue sea, and a brilliant sunset.
Suddenly, I found myself asking, “A landscape for whom?” For me, as I stood in front of the diorama? For other visitors? But we humans didn’t exist during the Cretaceous Age. Was the landscape, then, real for the dinosaurs? Was that what they saw? No, that couldn’t be right, for they lacked color vision, and their eyes were incapable of perspectival composition. Was it real for God? Maybe God stood there, contemplated the dinosaurs in darkening twilight and liked what he saw. But why would God, a hundred million years ago, want to see a landscape through human eyes? In college, I continued to be baffled, for geologic pasts, like those in the museum, were also shown in my textbook as landscapes, which could exist only if humans were present. But, then, why knowing this I still see movies such as “Jurassic Park” and “Walking with Dinosaurs” not as cartoon fantasies but as actual worlds that drew on the best that science has to offer?
What I have sought to provide in this talk are vignettes concerning space, place, and nature. Though disparate in thematic content, they nevertheless have a common social message and it is to this that, by way of summary, I would like to draw your attention. In the vignettes on “space and place,” I pointed to a decline in the intensity of human relationships and in the bond to place, a trend that is not necessarily regrettable. After all, passionate drama of the kind written by Sophocles or Shakespeare, which draws on deep roots in particular localities and on unbreakable human ties, may be enthralling to watch in the theater but is hell to live through. Of passionate attachments to place, nationalism still remains, but perhaps it too will decline. Should it do so, rousing words such as “motherland” and “fatherland” will drop out of use, for what can they mean if Rupert Brooke’s English soldier—“A dust whom England bore, shaped, and made aware”—becomes a rarity, and there remains only the British soldier of no profound loyalty to any particular place? If the word “mother” or “motherhood” survives as an emotive word for a place that truly nurtures, we can hope that it will be at two ends of the scale--one’s college (alma mater) and the planet Earth.
As with human relations, so with nature, a loosening of bond has occurred. Such loosening is desirable in that nature is no longer feared for its malice, but undesirable in that it is no longer loved for its ability to console and inspire to the degree it could in the past. If the decline of human passion means that the bloodier Shakespearean plays can no longer be written, the decline in the awe of nature means that certain kinds of nature poetry is also no longer possible. We can hardly speak of the tiger as William Blake did, when tiger is for us no longer a creature of awesome power but is rather a pathetic animal in need of our protection. Even in the early twentieth century, a different attitude prevailed. Bertrand Russell as a young man was struck with awe when in the narrow staircase of the college dorm, he heard a fellow undergraduate declaim,
I speak of the world of affection—affection being the glue that binds society as its best. So I may also be said to have touched on the social world. What, then, about the intellectual world—the life of the mind and imagination that we here at the university are committed to foster? To judge by what we do, the life of the mind and imagination at the university is of secondary importance. Overwhelmingly, our energies and talents are geared to improving technology, society, and the natural habitat. Of course, to be effective in these areas, the mind has to be sharp, but it does not necessarily have to be imaginative, least of all when being imaginative threatens to cast a shadow over the good life. As a geography professor, I teach students to understand and appreciate nature. I tell them that if their taste for Lake Mendota has dulled through familiarity, they can revive it with what they have learned in glaciology. But should I stop there, or should I press on and ruin their appreciation of nature—say, mountains--by telling them that if they fully used their imagination they might feel sickeningly dizzy as they see in the twisted rock formations time that has “no vestige of a beginning—no prospect of an end,” a vast, bottomless hole that will swallow everything—all the darling creatures they seek to preserve--and eventually even the mountains themselves.
Since this is my last talk, I’d like to end on a didactic note, with students in mind. Our department has a tradition of welcoming newcomers at the beginning of the academic year with pizza and Pepsi. But perhaps the best part of the reception is when young and old introduce themselves. One by one, they say who they are and what their specialty is. After giving one’s name, a student will say, “I am a first-year people-environment student,” another will say, “I am a second-year GIS student,” and so on. When it is my turn, I’d say something like I am a fifty-seventh year human geography student. When I say this, I see smiles in the audience, but much as I appreciate the approbation it misses the point, which is that I am simply stating a fact. And what is the fact? It is that I, an octogenarian, feel no wiser now than I did when I was a graduate student. Such awareness used to depress me, but no longer because I have come to realize that immaturity is a defining characteristic of the human species. A wise old dog or chimpanzee, that I can accept, though not a wise old man or woman. The image of a guru sitting cross-legged on a mountain ledge or of a professor corseted in thick layers of arcane knowledge is to me not only distasteful but comic. Why? Because both self-satisfied figures seem to take pride in having lassoed their roaming mind long before their bodily death.
What, then, is my self-image? Naturally it is a flattering one —yet one that is not wholly delusory, for it is backed by a surprising incident. One day, as I walked down State Street, I heard the voice of a child behind me saying repeatedly, “Are you a student? Are you a student?” I ignored the question, for it could hardly be addressed to me. But I got curious, turned around, and asked the child, “Now, look here, do I look like a student?” His reply, “Yes, you have a backpack.” Well, that made my day! I have a backpack, which means that I am a student still open to life.
To young people in the audience, I wish you the same destiny—that in the remote future when your spectacles slide down your nose and your voice, like mine, turns to childish treble, you will carry, figuratively speaking, a backpack such that children will see you as a student still open to life.