Losing Our Sense of Place in the Machine Age
Saturday, January 14, 2012
From the masses to the masses
The most Revolutionary consciousness is to be found
Among the most ruthlessly exploited classes:
Animals, trees, water, air, grasses.
— Gary Snyder
As a young boy, I played at the Bolsa Chica wetland in Huntington Beach. At that time, the wetland extended deep into the coastal plateau. I remember seeing bobcats hiding along the way in the shadows of the riparian habitat and the sound of seagulls flying overhead. My first halibut was caught one mile from the sea, from the wetland nursery. I brought the fish home in my little red wagon, with mud between my toes.
By the time I was in high school, the wetlands of my early childhood had been “disappeared.” As urban growth expanded, I was left with mere memories and stories of these special places. In many ways, I think that the pain of lost landscapes of our childhood is one primary motivating force behind the diverse environmentalism that has inspired the past generations of activists. Part painful memory and part romantic inclination, we yearn to recover a sense of place and community. My fear is that without a restored sense of place grounded in a profound local understanding of the terra firma we walk, we are left more vulnerable to the changes that lie ahead.
Ray Dasmann’s book The Destruction of California (1965) was published just three years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and was a pioneering monument in what was soon to be an explosion of books on the environment. Dasmann was a professor in ecology at UC Santa Cruz and was among those academics whose talent for scientific research was matched by his desire to change the world. Dasmann translated his passion for nature into a vision of planet preservation years before the public began to grapple with concepts like conservation and overpopulation. Dasmann’s focus was on the lost California landscapes. His fear was that as we lost landscapes we lost the local knowledge and understanding that connected us to a place or region. He argued that our kindness and compassion, our greatest human qualities, need to be restored before we begin to find a voice or a language that could represent the rare places that we want to protect.
The interconnections between people and places can be represented in what the Ancient Greeks referred to as physis (φύσις) which can be translated as the essential fullness and life-giving aspects of a living earth. A plant, for instance, sprouts from the soil, reaching to the sun, and this is the unfolding quality of life. The notion of physis also includes the withholding of life, and the processes that include the death of the plant. The plant withdraws and returns to the soil. The plant’s organic qualities become part of the natural cycle of growth and regeneration. The plant and soil are reunited. In his writings on nature, Aristotle uses the term physis as a source or cause of being — being born and dying. Aristotle contrasts natural things with the artificial (or what we refer as the mechanical objects of today). Mechanical or human-made artificial things move according to what they are made of, not according to what they are. Artistotle’s view of physis as the origin of life is directly opposed to our contemporary mechanistic conception of the natural world.
Henry David Thoreau was a student of Greek philosophy. In Walden, physis is described by Thoreau in his chapter “Spring” as the transition from darkness to light. This transition to light includes biological, cosmic, cognitive elements that defy the mere mechanization of the world. For the philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, the “laws of nature are identical to those of a machine.” Thoreau feared the rise of the machine in daily life.
We live in a mechanical age, and, with our dependence on machines, the physis of the diverse California landscape and seascape have been transformed. As the urban growth machine transforms the landscapes we inhabit, our sense of place and community has also been transformed. The impact on our local knowledge, intuition, and understanding of nature has changed. Most of us lack an understanding of the linkages between mountains, rivers, or creeks, coastal valleys, and marine systems. We have grown dependent on machines to communicate and share information. We remain detached and alienated from the natural world we depend on.
Precisely at the moment when we have overcome the earth and become unearthly in our modes of dwelling, we need to restore our kinship with the animate world. We suffer these days from a new form of collective anxiety: species loneliness. We are disabled creatures dislocated in a wounded landscape. Species loneliness in a wounded landscape moves us to want to restore our relationship with place and others, or to put it another way, modern humanity yearns to re-establish and restore an ecology of shared identity. Rather than understanding the world through a relationship with earthly entities, our culture emphasizes the human ability to experience nature as a quality (or quantity) that springs from scientific, technological, bureaucratic, and economic understanding. Human beings remain isolated actors in an earthly cage; the world is technologically divided, scientifically categorized and manipulated, and is perceived absent of spiritual and intrinsic worth. Yet, the natural world is something more than the image depicted on the television or computer screen.
Despite our technological intentions, place continues to influence human activities and cultures in countless ways — altering our habits, cities, cuisine, language, values, and expectations. Moreover, the loss of a species or a mountain is not merely a failed experiment. The loss of a species represents the diminishment of our perceptual field of vision; the loss of species diminishes what it means to be a human being.
Recovering the sense of place and community is one key to a more sustainable future. A culture’s intuition and understanding of a particular place is one foundation to adaptation to a changing landscape. Adaptation requires more than scientific information but a change in values and worldview. We must relearn the language of the birds, and cultivate a language and knowledge of place in order to adapt to the changes that lie ahead. In this sense, the knowledge of a local fisher or rancher should matter to us. Knowing where your water comes from, where your waste goes, where your food comes from, and the native species of a particular region are valuable. Without this knowledge, we are left more vulnerable and insecure.
Early on Saturday mornings, when I was a child, my father would take me down to the dory fishers at Newport Beach. The dory fleet was made up of local artisanal fishers who fished nearshore. Across the Pacific Ocean, these local ways of fishing have been lost and replaced by more industrial forms of fishing. With the loss of these local fishers, the fish have also been lost. The dory fisher took to the sea in early twilight of the morning with his panga, a small boat, and would forge ahead across the waves. Under the canopy, the local fishers would sell their morning catch. We would purchase a fish after a long conversation and maybe a drink of coffee or, depending on the spirit of the conversation, whiskey. The fisher talked about where the fish was caught, the bait used, the tackle employed. I listened. It was a lesson from the sea.