Stories, Learning & Place

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Place and narratable moments
   Longing for a sense of place

If you land at JFK airport and come through Terminal 8 or 9 you may notice that the 60 or so shops – food courts, kiosks, newsstands, duty-free stores, etc., etc. – aren’t quite the same as those in, say, New Orleans or San Francisco. You see, these shops are “visually related? to each other through design elements inspired by the 1930s New York streetscape.

This provides a “sense of place,? the designer said. So between the taxi lanes and the portable tunnels to climb aboard planes, this corridor is given the atmosphere of a recognizable time and place. Though the terminal as a whole is designed to sort us and move us like so many widgets past uniforms and signs through some total administrative state of loudspeakers and no smoking, the murals, signs and plastic cutouts give us a feeling of ease as we negotiate the minimum security nowhere in which we have locked ourselves. This noisy chute to anywhere offers the charm of a custom retail environment without sacrificing the comfort of familiar brands.

The plan worked. The decor increased per passenger spending by fifty percent, the designer said. This, the designer said, was because it gave passengers a sense of place.

A sense of place. Not the real thing, I suppose, but a sense of it like the after image of a blown out candle. A sense of place haunts the Pizza Hut, evoked by wallpaper images of nineteenth century London.

With such thoughts in my mind, I hesitated when an editor called and asked me to write a piece on “teaching and a sense of place.?

“Let me think about it.”

In most ways I don’t mind the designer thinking about how to make more people spend more money. That certainly doesn’t make her worse than me or my friends and family. Most of the time I don’t do anything more ennobling than turning my time and skill to what pays. And really, the New York streetscape is an improvement over those old Soviet cafeterias designed by political appointees who didn’t care what sort of feelings a space gives us.

Still, I suspected that an editor asking for a piece on “sense of place? was expecting something more profound than marketing. Her audience was no doubt hankering after something more authentic than moods evoked by plastic signage. We use “authentic? much as the optimists before World War I used “progressive,? as an all-purpose term of praise, part accolade and part prayer.

No doubt the editor thought I was a natural to write about a sense of place since I still live in the western Montana town where I grew up – a little place of about a thousand people nestled at bottom of the west slope of the Mission Range in the Northern Rockies. Surely one who has stayed in place could write authentically about place.

As I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the orchard I had planted and thinking about such things, or maybe just gazing out the window, my 21-month old grandson, toddled up and pulled on my sleeve. I looked down at him. He fully understood that people his size only need to be adorable, and he turned his begging eyes full on me.

“Campin?? he asked, reaching up with both hands.

It took me a moment. Then I made the connection. The week before he had come with us on a three-family camping trip. We stayed up late talking around the fire while he wandered from person to person, lap to lap, waving a willow sticky with marshmellow. He had associated the “camping? he heard us talk about with what was most memorable about the experience: being surrounded by people who loved him.

“Campin? had become his word for sitting on laps and getting hugs. He liked it.

The “place? we had camped was an unmarked patch of grass along Wounded Buck Creek not far from Glacier Park, just above the little town of Hungry Horse. I had gone there with my parents when I was not much older than my grandson. His mother had gone there with my wife and me. We usually went there to pick huckleberries in late July. Sometimes we camped there and spent the days in the park. It was a short drive and we avoided the hassles of camping inside the park: full campgrounds and surly grizzlies.

Most people would pass by that little place on Wounded Buck Creek without considering it a place at all. It was just a spot along the road.

But it had become a place because we knew good times there. The places we have in mind when we talk about our sense of place are those intersections of landscape and memory we know as narratable moments. If I had taken my grandson back to that place it wouldn’t have satisfied him. It wasn’t the place but what had happened there that he wanted.

In a word, it was story that mattered. Not a story we have told but the story we have lived.

There are significant dangers in misunderstanding what it is that one wants. I worry that sometimes people who are pursuing a sense of place are not clear about what they want. All our airports and shopping districts might get prettier and we might be just as lonely, just as full of longing.

What we want are stories and hugs.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 12/26 at 09:09 PM
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©2004 Michael L. Umphrey
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