Landscape architects tend to use the term “sense of place” to describe the aspects of a place that set it apart from other places. In a rapidly homogenizing world, noticing and honoring these differences is important.
But another component of “sense of place” lies in a place’s connections outward, and its place within a larger world: A town on a trunk railroad line, for example, will have a different sense of itself than a town on a one-track commuter line. Knowing that the same sun you see setting is simultaneously at high noon somewhere far to the west can give you a sense of your situation on the globe. A cold front coming in from Canada reminds you that even though you may never see the arctic, it’s not really that far away.
This “sense of situation” can gain some support from the electronic media that are often seen as the enemy of place:
- On the eve of New Year’s Day, 2000, we could sit in your living rooms watching TV and see, hourly, the celebration of the New Year approaching across Asia, Europe, the Atlantic islands, and the Eastern Provinces before it reached the US. We could picture a front sweeping the globe, or the earth gradually rolling into the new millenium.
- On facebook, we can listen in as our friends in different regions announce their weather. It’s snowing in North Carolina … in Washington … in Pennsylvania …
- And now we can use our phones to connect the bird that is (or isn’t) in our back yard to its species’ seasonal migration, reported and mapped in real time.
We are becoming more like John McPhee’s basketball players, whose “sense of where they are” combines alertness to their immediate surroundings with a constantly updated awareness of the court as a whole.
(Thanks to Mary Oliver for the title of the post.)