Sense of Place: An Essay

The environmental critic Lawrence Buell stresses the subjective dimension of what he terms ‘place-sense’, arguing that a required element in the concept of place is that is it ‘perceived or felt space, space humanized, rather than the material world taken on its own terms’.[1] Certainly, the Gaelic academic, John MacInnes would agree that ‘place’ is subjective: referring to the Gaelic oral tradition for panegyric poetry, MacInnes states:

The native Gael who is instructed in this poetry carries in his imagination not so much a landscape, not a sense of geography alone, nor of history alone, but a formal order of experience in which all these are merged. What is to a stranger an expanse of empty countryside… to the native sensibility can be a dynamic, perhaps even heroic, territory peopled with figures from history and legend.[2]

MacInnes’s ‘formal order of experience’ where geography merges with history and legend lets us see how complex the concept of place can be. Distinct, however, from the subjective nature of place-sense, is another dimension: that place endures regardless of its current human inhabitants, and that human life is a tiny part in the history of time. In this regard, Buell discusses observations made by Henry David Thoreau and Susan Fenimore Cooper. In his diary, Thoreau notes the muskrat nests in his village, which he is convinced have been erected since before the first human inhabitants, and will continue to be so long after the villagers have departed. Similarly, Cooper saw an old pine forest situated above her village to be a silent observer of the valley’s transformation from pre-colonial times to her present day.[3] It is a sentiment I have found mirrored in fiction. There are various references to it in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, my favourite of which is:

…that this marriage of hers was nothing, that it would pass on and forward into days that had long forgotten it, her life and Ewan’s, and they pass also, and the face of the land change and change again in the coming of the seasons and centuries until the last lights sank away from it and the sea came flooding up the Howe, all her love and tears for Ewan not even a ripple on that flood of water far in the times to be.[4]

And in George Gunn’s forthcoming novel The Great Edge the sentiment is expressed by the symbol of two ravens that are ever recurring observers of the happenings at a costal cave, where twelve-hundred years apart early Christian monks wish to inter a holy clarsach and a present day archaeologist wishes to dig it up again.[5]

At times, the subjective dimension of place clashes with the objective, such as with map knowledge: Buell compares the ‘mental maps’ of aboriginal peoples with scientific maps: the latter having ‘opened the way for a “desubjectified” cartography wildly at variance from the perceived reality of the more impressionistic and ethnocentric mapping practices of prescientific cultures.’ He talks about places being ‘bounded’ and says that drawn boundaries can violate the ‘subjectively felt reality’.[6] An interesting example of this is the Gaelic word for the Highlands – Gàidhealtachd – which according to MacInnes is not a place name ‘in the ordinary sense’, being geographically vague. Rather, the name denotes the traditionally Gaelic-speaking area of Scotland, which largely accords with the officially recognized Highland Line. Here, however, sense of place is everything and in fact the boundary is moving, with modern usage of the term often reflecting only those communities where Gaelic is still an everyday language. So in contrast to ‘the Highlands’, Gàidhealtachd is a fluid geography.[7]

So what does having a strong sense of place do for us in practice? To environmentalists like Wendell Berry, it is a fundamental component in conservation. Berry states that ‘without a complex knowledge of one’s place, and without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowledge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly and eventually destroyed’.[8] An example of this supposition in action is shown in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, which details the campaign undertaken by the inhabitants of the Isle of Lewis to save the island’s moorland interior, the Brindled Moor, from a huge wind farm development that would displace 5 million cubic metres or rock and 2.5 million cubic metres of peat. The company proposing the wind farm lacked the complex knowledge of place to which Berry refers, and instead saw the moor merely as a ‘wasteland’. The local community fought the action by educating the planning authorities in the part the moor played in their social histories, including the learned geography of this supposed wasteland, its references within poetry and song, and its language. In this last, a ‘peat glossary’ was complied which contained 126 locally known terms for describing the topology and phenomena of the moor. And it seems that place-sense and language is inextricably linked in this way: language is needed to describe the phenomena, and phenomena continue to be of significance for humankind only so long as words are known that can sustain their verbal communication. Certainly, Lewis’s Brindled Moor would undoubtedly have been destroyed, in the kind of ignorance that Berry describes, had it not been for the campaigners’ careful compiling of place knowledge.[9]

When it comes to a sense of place within prose, Buell suggests that ‘home places’ have a richer place-sense for writers, listing the following as some of the intimacies that fuel such feeling: ‘The extraordinary events in the community’s history, its redundant social rituals, persistent moth-eaten scraps of local gossip, and the infinite series of the intense and painful and joyous relationships of childhood.’ Perhaps it is this richness, this insider knowledge, that informs Raymond Williams’s claim that regional novels are ‘characteristically written by natives’.[10] Conversely, writing about one’s home place can be problematic. Buell again: ‘Whether from laziness or a desire for security, we tend to lapse into comfortable inattentiveness towards the details of our surroundings as we go about our daily business’. And in this he highlights the importance for environmental writers to see things afresh, to ‘continually recalibrate familiar landscapes’.[11]

Buell comments on the ‘sparse’ representations of place that are found to be acceptable even in ‘so-called realistic fiction’, and suggests that this is to be explained by the interpretation of the term setting to mean merely ‘backdrop’; he goes on to state that place ‘is something authors find easier to name and praise than to present’.[12] On the whole, given the complexity involved in a sense of place (see earlier quote from MacInnes), I agree with Buell that the naming of a place is not sufficient to evoke it, but I also think there are times with regard to my own place, when the name goes a little further than Buell would allow. I have been collecting place names of late – from road signs, gravestones, maps. Most of Scotland’s far north has names of Gaelic origin: Gaelic place names in this now wholly-English speaking region. Clashbuie, Achnabat, Clashnastrug: when contained within an English-language story these names carry with them a trace of the ethnic transformation of those communities.

Buell describes writing that vividly evokes place as giving the reader a ‘vicarious insidership’ that activates place-sense.[13] I have found this recently in the writing of Margiad Evans; in the introduction to The Old and the Young, Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan praises the ‘very strong sense of place and atmosphere that pervades all these stories’, attributing this to Evans’s love for Herefordshire – the land that was her ‘spiritual home’. In the following, from ‘The Lost Fisherman’, it is evening and a young woman looks from her window at the down-at-heel neighbourhood where she lives, whilst elsewhere in the town Londoners are seeking refuge from the Blitz:

The shadow of their gable was falling on the road, and the sun was pouring gold over the pale blue sky. A slow, dusty echo tracked each footstep. But down here in the faded part of town where there were no hotels but only poor men’s lodging houses, they escaped the weary rummaging on the hill.

Slum games were scrawled in chalk on the pavements, women looked at their neighbours’ doors, and men in shirt sleeves smoked. The human beings, the trees, bathed in the delight of the evening. Children, grime painting scowls on their faces, sulky mops of hair in their eyes, squealed and squatted akimbo on their games, monkey hands on their knees.[14]

For Evans sense of place is not simply landscape: indeed, this passage incorporates a sense, too, of the people that inhabit the space – and in doing so, it recognizes the human element in the concept of place. In Regions of the Imagination, W. J. Keith puts it thus: ‘But landscape is, of course, only the visible manifestation of a division that is reflected more crucially in the character, customs and manners of the human beings who live within it’. [15] Perhaps in the concept of place, all of these things are inseparable: Annie Proulx tells us that:

Everything comes from landscape… the particular place that affects what food people eat, how they make their livings and so forth – and the story rolls out of landscape.[16]

When story truly comes from the landscape, I believe that it is equally true that the place is to be found within the fiction. This has cultural and historical implications beyond novels and stories; W.J. Keith says of Sir Walter Scott that: ‘He offered his own people a record of their own history and traditions…’[17]

Sadly, Raymond Williams claims that in ‘advanced capitalist societies’ the scope and possibility of regional writing is lessening.[18] Is globalization, and its blurring of communities into replicas of each other in everything but geography and geology, making a sense of place immaterial? It’s an interesting proposition, but to what else do we moor our personal and emotional experiences? Without place, notions of history, culture and society all feel rather empty.

[1] Lawrence Buell, ‘Place’, in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader, ed. David Lodge and Nigel Wood (Oxon: Routledge, 2013), p. 667.

[2] John MacInnes, ‘Gaelic Poetry and Historical Tradition’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 29.

[3] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 674–76.

[4] Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2013), p. 165.

[5] George Gunn, manuscript for The Great Edge, pp. 6, 31, 213, 244.

[6] Buell, ‘Place’, pp. 678, 679.

[7] John MacInnes, ‘The Gaelic Perception of the Lowlands’, in Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, ed. Michael Newton (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006), p. 35–36.

[8] Wendell Berry, ‘The Regional Motive’, in A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: Harcount, 1972), pp. 68–69, quoted in Buell, ‘Place’, p. 667.

[9] Robert Macfarlane, ‘A Counter-Desecration Phrasebook’, in Towards Re-Enchantment: Place and Its Meanings, ed. Gareth Evans and Di Robson (London: Artevents, 2013), pp. 108, 120–24.

[10] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, in Writing in Society (London: Verso, 1983), p. 233.

[11] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[12] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 668–69.

[13] Buell, ‘Place’, p. 673.

[14] Margiad Evans, The Old and the Young (Bridgend: Seren, 1998), p. 77; and Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, ‘Introduction’, in the same publication, pp. 7, 12.

[15] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 26.

[16] Vittitow, ‘More Reader than Writer: A Conversation with Annie Proulx’, p. 7.

[17] W. J. Keith, Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), pp. 39.

[18] Raymond Williams, ‘Region and Class in the Novel’, p. 238.