“Our genius is topophilia.” – M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding
We are creatures naturally attuned to places. From megacities to wilderness, forests to deserts, these frame our emotions and memories as nothing else can. Our autobiographies—both body and brain—and our common human history have historically been shaped by the interface between us and the many environments we have made our home from the 37 billion acres of the earth’s surface (water makes up 90 billion more). A third of this acreage is desert, a quarter is mountains, with only 1% urban—where half of us have now migrated to live. In addition, tourism is a mainstay economy of much of the world’s states.
“At the heart of successful human navigation is a capacity to record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future—a goal or place that we would like to reach.” In her reflections on our collective ability to move from one place to any other, in Wayfinding: The science and mystery of how humans navigate the world, M. R. O’Connor has explored difficult and remote territory herself: the Arctic, Australia, and Oceania. Her mandate was to observe the way in which traditional cultures have adapted to the challenges of extreme weather and trackless terrain through inherited traditions of living with the land.
Both brain (focused on the hippocampus) and body have amazing coping mechanisms for doing this. Including systems that take over our age-old perception and attention—beyond the intuitive skills of animals—that got us from one location to another and back for millions of years without maps or compasses. The GPS revolution that has taken over the world so quickly has altered forever the way we think about travel and make our way around the world. For one thing, in the name of efficiency GPS orientation has limited the discovery and insight inherent in simply wandering and exploring for their own sake. O’Connor’s exploration into the traditions of the pretechnological age see how they influence “looking at the world and thinking about space, time, memory, and travel.”
The human ability to change environments instantly through jet travel or over thousands of years on our mass migration out of Africa is the background to our love of places, or topophilia, the term of the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan. I had the fortune of studying with him for a semester at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii years ago. Tuan had a keen curiosity about the human/place relationship, including mental maps, memory built up as episodic journey narratives, and nostalgia for times welded to places. These connections are the basis for re-creations in the hyperreality of theme parks. The country’s most famous Main Street is a setting in the Magic Kingdom(s). In the book of the same name, Tuan explains his concept:
As a geographer, I have always been curious about how people live in different parts of the world. But unlike many of my peer, the key words for me are not only “survival” and “adaptation,” which suggest a rather grim and puritanical attitude to life. People everywhere, I believe, also aspire toward contentment and joy. Environment, for them, is not just a resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to, but also sources of assurance and pleasure, objects of profound attachment and love. (1990 ed., xii)
“Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness. It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest. Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.” (O’Connor).
Observing closely and thinking deeply about our many environments, and the ways we navigate them, is a key to self-knowledge, identity, and appreciation of how we interact with the spaces and places that shape us and our individual identity. (Winston Churchill noted that we shape our buildings, then they shape us.) In my own South Philadelphia neighborhood, long called the Italian Market, is changing in its look, feel, and population by the month. It is a different place from the one I moved to in the early 1990s.
The nature of my attachment to this place—my rootedness—is subject to this transformation in economics, taste, generations, and class mobility—the factors that define where we live and why we live there. As pricing, neighbors, politics, schools, and style move far enough away from their origins, moving to another place becomes a real option. “Being at home” in the world connotes comfort, safety, a hopeful future, and a real love of place—or else where our home is must change. The nation is seeing sizeable shifts in mobility coming out of the Covid experience. Shifts in circumstance, even technology, evoke changes in the way we see our values reflected in our home base, the core connection to place.
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