Monday, September 24, 2012

The "Terra Incognitae" of Scale

The following blog is a reaction paper I recently wrote for my Geographic Thought class, but as I am interested in the social and human interactions with the environment, I thought it best to share. I have tried to include links to some of the names and works you may not know.
       With the wealth of knowledge available to us today, including thousands of years of human exploration of the planet, satellite images to fine resolutions of some of the most remote areas, and the availability of a wide-array of information on the internet, the idea of Terra Incognitae seems to note exist. This is merely at first glance, though, as John K. Wright argues, “if we look close enough…the entire earth appears as an immense patchwork of miniature terra incognitae.” Our world has been explored, dissected, explained, and re-explained; yet Wright argues that to the finest scales there are still miniature-unexplored areas in our own back yard. Yes, it is true that when viewed from space there are not many unexplored areas of our world and human settlements have spread out from the initial occupation of Mesopotamia’s Fertile Crescent to dot the landscapes around the globe, but I must agree with Wright’s examination that there are still areas yet to be explored…even if in our own backyards.
            Yi-FuTuan presents another compelling argument to support Wright’s observations as he discusses our sense of place and what constitutes a “place.” He describes place as the “center of meaning constructed by experience,” and that “to know a place full means both to understand it in an abstract way and to know it as one person knows another.” The idea of place is all around us…different areas hold different meanings for nations, cultures, all the way down to the tiniest infant. To a newborn baby, their mother’s arms and their cribs are one of the most important places that exist. Their worldview is so much smaller, yet they know the cradle of her elbows better than anyone else. This is the place that they feel safe, a place that has meaning and can define who they are. In Tuan’s words, this is Home, or a “nurturing shelter.” We see places, unexplored in our own worlds, all around us. While it may seem that we know what is over the next ridge top or around the bend in the highway, we never really can grasp it as place is constantly changing. While we believe that we can quantify all the qualities that describe a place, D.W. Meinig, in their work “Geography as an Art,” counters (and correctly so) that we cannot accurately describe place in a quantifiable way, but we need to look towards to arts to best describe these places. How does science quantify the look and smell of a place but by assigning it to a number, which can be analyzed, while to an individual these convey entirely different meanings and bring about different reactions. We are reminded of Carl Sauer’s call to go “beyond science” and towards a descriptive, qualitative, sense of place.
            As geographers, we tend to write to other geographers and, in this, we lose the meaning of an area. The best descriptions of these terra incognitae can be viewed in the realm of literature. Just because Thoreau described Walden Pond vividly does not mean it is not unknown to us. While we have an image of what New England may look like in the fall, ultimately it does not (in my opinion) become a place until we have experienced it for ourselves, until we have explored the world around us and developed our own meanings and feelings towards the plants, animals, sights, smells, tastes, and feel of each individual square foot of a place. Place cannot be quantified, but only explained in a descriptive manner in an attempt to convey our own meaning, hoping to instill a desire for our listener/reader to visit and form their own sense of place. Each place is different for each person. As a twin, my mother’s arms were a completely different experience to me than they were for my twin, even though we regularly experienced them in the same temporal construct.
            In my mind, it is a simple call (at least for the human branch of geography) to turn from a quantitative style back to our qualitative roots. We need to be able to accurately describe an area and instill a desire to visit before we can begin to qualify and “solve” the issues we believe the area to be facing. Place is unique, place is different, and each place reacts to the same stimuli in different ways. For example, my current research interests are looking at the sociopolitical and human impacts from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, specifically examining agriculture farmsteads. Each community, each farm, and each individual member of the farm family will react to this industry in different ways. It is my hypothesis that this industry has altered the original “sense of place” of the family farm and, in some cases, erased a sense of place. A farm that has been in the family for a century, yet is now riddled with the well-pads, roads, and other drilling infrastructure, may not hold the same intrinsic value to a family (or individual in that family) that it used to. It may have lost its status as a meaningful place to now be viewed as a negative place (such as we would a jail and similar places).
            It was interesting to note Tuan consider the family farmstead in his analysis of “place.”  In his words, “farmsteads are places, centers of meaning to those who live in them. “He states that, “sparsely settled farmlands are somehow more meaningful that cities, and wilderness areas ore meaningful than farmlands.” We fight “place,” a sense of meaning” from these rural areas. He goes so far as to state that, “to people of urban backgrounds, farms…are aesthetic and religious objects.” More commonly, cities hold meaning because of the amount of occupiers, but farms (and even the intrinsic value and ideals placed on these farms from those who may never visit them) hold immense value as well to those who consider a rural existence their lifestyle. Will I ever visit every farm in the state? No. Will I climb every mountaintop in Colorado to examine the splendor of our planet? No. There is, however, the intrinsic value of knowing these places exist, that they are safe and protected, and that they provide a glimpse into “how life was meant to be.” This gets into a whole different argument of conservation lands and the intrinsic values behind them, but simply stated we can put a place value on locales we have never, nor may ever, step foot in.
            There are unexplored areas, terra incognitae, all around us. We can look in our own backyards, re-explore an area, and infer different meaning each time. Each of these areas, whether explored or not, can hold a place value in our society just by knowing they are there and through their continued existence. Sometimes the not knowing what is around the river bend can be more exciting than finding out and being disappointed. As a geographer, I love to explore and know what is out there, but sometimes also revel in the “not knowing.” Terra incognitae can have immense value and relief in sometimes not knowing the unexplored.

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