Environmental & Architectural
A World of Many Places
Million is a Canadian psychologist who lives in Edmonton, Alberta. She has
a private practice that focuses on adult survivors of trauma, especially
aboriginal people. She is also an avid gardener and grandmother. Her
dissertation (see EAP, 3, 3:8-9) drew in part from themes in Edward
Relph's Place and Placelessness. Address: 10707 60 Avenue, Edmonton
Alberta T6H 4S7
I live in Edmonton, Alberta. I am traveling to Toronto on Air Canada flight 126. The pilot announces flying altitude, arrival time, and Toronto's January 24th temperature, considerably warmer than what I am leaving behind. I gaze out the window, reflecting on the experience of being in between places, of being nowhere.
My home is back there while my destination lies somewhere ahead. For the next three hours, my well being rests in the hands of Air Canada pilots and crew. I am suspended, literally and experientially, out of place and its daily habits, routines, and responsibilities of caring for myself and others. For the moment, I can forget about my car, the snow shovelling, the washer and dryer, and the planning for a granddaughter's birthday party.
My pleasure at being temporarily displaced is made possible by three things: the plane is safe and the crew is competent, my home is in good hands, and a friend will collect and deliver both my bags and myself to her place in Chesley, a small town three hours' drive north of Toronto. I am not lost. I know where I have come from and where I am going. I know who will greet my arrival and that we will work together for a week before I return home. I relax and enjoy the freedom of movement‑-of being temporarily out of place.
ON THE MOVE AND PLACELESS?
Modern writers like Roland Barthe and Joan Dideon propose that movement by way of cars and planes defines modern existence. As I understand their thinking, modern life is essentially placeless. Our attachment to a specific part of a geography and, consequently, our care and concern for the specific place we inhabit are no longer essential to our way of life. We are always on the move. Everyone on board Air Canada 126 readily illustrates this point. We are increasingly mobile in ways our grandparents would not have dreamed possible. Does this necessarily mean, however, that we are placeless?
Traditionally, nomadic peoples understood journey as part of being and living in place. Because modern life is increasingly constituted by movement between journey and home, I would have liked Relph, in his Place and Placelessness, to explore in greater depth the relationship between home and journey. Most importantly, I would like to hear his thinking on how we might journey with respectful caring for both the homes we pass through and leave behind.
There is limited value in lamenting the passing of a way of life where places were built over decades, even centuries, by people who inhabited them‑-people with deep "roots." There is a need to understand how places that have meaning and nourish the spirit of individuals, families, and communities were, and can be, built and maintained. Place and Placelessness speaks to such an understanding. I worry, however, that Relph's overlooking the relationship between journey and home contributes to his work's not receiving the attention it deserves.
Fundamental to Relph's thinking is a way of seeing that variously can be called phenomenological, hermeneutical, or interpretive. Drawing a fine distinction on method is an issue for academics more than for those who go about living daily life. For that reason, I am not greatly concerned with method in this commentary. What is important is that all of Relph's work is based on the premise that the "objectification" of both the natural and human sciences has turned everyone and everything into objects that, by definition, are devoid of meaning.
As a graduate student who was interested in understanding how people experience building and living in their home places, I wish to credit Relph as one of those scholars who provided clear and concise guidelines for such a project (Million 1993). His short article, "Seeing, Thinking, and Describing Landscapes" (Relph 1984) encouraged me to get on with looking, listening, recording, describing, and trusting my capacity to intuitively grasp and come to a comprehensible experiential whole called a dissertation. Relph is a methodologist who knows what he is doing and, equally important for students, he is able to speak what he is doing in a concrete and natural way. Sadly, I have not seen this aspect of Relph's contribution recognized by the academic community.
THE MEANING OF PLACE
Air Canada 126 landed and my friend was there to meet me. That was yesterday. This afternoon, I write on Vera's kitchen table, sipping coffee, glancing out the window onto flat fields blanketed in snow, dotted with occasional stands of maple trees, two-story stone houses, and large hip-roofed "bank barns," a phrase I've never heard before. But then, out West barns are seldom built into earthen banks. We have very few stone houses or maple trees where I live either. Our houses are made from lumber. We call them "frame" houses. We also have many poplar and pine forests. As Relph would have us notice and remember, each place‑-in this instance, perhaps more accurately, each region‑-has its own geography, its own natural and built character. Each place, albeit large or small, embodies a different spirit.
Vera and I met out West‑-Edmonton, to be exact. She is an Ojibway woman who married a Canadian of English decent. I am a Canadian woman of French decent who married a Cree man. Professionally, Vera is a "cultural therapist" and I, a "psychologist." Vera and I are friends and working companions.
Several years ago, Vera felt pulled back to Ontario. Today she lives one hour's drive from "Nayaashiinigmiing," her birthplace on the shores of Georgian Bay and known to those of us who speak English as "Cape Croker." Here, in Ojibway country, the names, the weather, the trees, the buildings, the daily routines‑-all are familiar to her. Here, the sights, sounds, and smells hold her safely and comfortably. Here is where she belongs. Vera is home.
And I, who am a visitor, will also be on my way home once our work together is done. Relph's great contribution, and one that I would like to hear his reflections on, is a deep understanding of the meaning of identity, home, and community:
The basic meaning of place, its essence, does not come from locations, nor from trivial functions that places serve, nor from the community that occupies it, nor from the superficial and mundane experiences‑-though these are all common and perhaps necessary aspects of place. The essence of places lie in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines places as profound centers of human existence (Relph 1976, p. 43).
I thank Relph for thinking through the importance of places as centers of human life that give meaning and, in turn, demand involvement from us for their on-going life. The giving of his work has meant that I cannot take for granted the places I live in or pass through. I do not live alongside a collection of objects whose sum is the environment. I live in a world of many places, each unique, each deeply meaningful to those who live within and, consequently, each necessary to us as a community of earthly beings.
M. L. Million, 1992. ‘It Was Home’: A Phenomenology of Place and Involuntary Displacement as Illustrated by the Forced Dislocation of Five Southern Alberta Families in the Oldman River Dam Flood Area. San Francisco: Doctoral thesis, Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center.
E. Relph, 1984. Seeing, Thinking, and Describing Landscapes, in T. Saarinen, D. Seamon, & J. Sell, eds., Environmental Perception and Behavior: Inventory and Prospect. Chicago: University of Chicago: Department of Geography Research Paper No. 209, pp. 209-224.
E. Relph, 1976. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.