Topophilia — getting to know a place

Topos-philia means love of topos, or place. Yi-Fu Tuan wrote his geography book with the title Topophilia back in the 1990s to explore the ways in which outside visitors and local residents are connected to a given place for a particular moment or for a whole lifetime, aggregating many layers of memories and experiences lived out there. People routinely speak of a “sense of place” or character that can be perceived and that defines it apart from adjacent or from more distant points of comparison. Sometimes it is climate, history, current events, or matters from the past that mark a location. David Lowenthal’s 1985 book, The Past is a Foreign Country, and the revised 2005 edition, goes into great detail to explore how people local to a place, or ones who are visiting, understand the past-present relationship and their own place in those events and stories. For a person who wishes something in-between the long-term relationship of a lifetime resident and the spectator status of someone on a package tour, though, what are the most effective ways actively to embrace a place and purposefully get to know that place?

north of Tokyo, looking south toward Okinawa — NASA source file

Expressed as a set of lenses to look at a place where you have committed to spend time in an effort to get to know many of the same things that are experienced by long-time residents, there are several things to study. Some of this knowledge can be accumulated well before setting foot on site. But other things require the wrap-around sensory experience of physically and mentally being present in the place and, one by one, exploring the individual spaces occupied by the many subjects found there. Such things as ambient smell and sounds and the quality of light early, middle, and late in the day can only be appreciated with one’s own self sitting or riding or walking at the center and around the boundaries of the chosen place.

late October 2018 at the tip of the Kii Peninsula on Japan’s main island: sea farming nets and float cages

By design or by circumstance when you find yourself at a new place with a few days or months or years ahead of you, here are some of the lenses for looking at things around you to build up a relationship with the location and everything that is connected to it. So much else follows from the physical facts that define a place that geology and surrounding geography make a good starting place to lay down a bedrock of fundamental knowledge. On a time scale of millennia, you can ask what forces contributed to the contours and underlying resources there; patterns of water moving under and across the surface and the changes to the seasonal appearance and the produce of the area. Shifting to a time scale of months instead of millennia, the seasonal changes as well as the annual cycles of resident flora and fauna makes a good next step to get acquainted with; some of this is closely tied to the place, while other creatures are passing through and may be seen only seasonally.

Turning from the land and living things other-than-humans, now is the time to inquire about the mark left by people before the time of historical record-keeping and since that time, leading up to the present moment and prospectively into what is foreseeable or may be imagined.

Livelihoods and use of nearby resources as well as trading relationships to bring in things not belonging to the place itself is one facet of the human presence long ago and also today; an economic lens on the place. Close-up views of the cultural history can be gathered by visiting the nearest library or museum to browse old photos (published, on display, or in filed collections) and other visual representations from before the time of cameras. Then there are monuments and markers, as well as buildings arising from each era as silent traces of that milieu. Cemetery can be visited to see some reference to the persons who have appeared in the local history records and pictures. Together these glimpses of things from before one’s own time bring the place into fuller form, not limited to the present, but compounded by the brief scenes recorded long ago, too.

While a tourist of a few hours might see only a few iconic sights, shop for a souvenir, or sample a local food or beverage or performing art, a person who seeks a fuller embrace of the meaning of a place and its people is able to dig more deeply to gain the rudiments of Local Knowledge; those things that local residents take for granted or treat as Common Sense and know collectively. Getting acquainted with the layout of streets and landscape, the prominent buildings and pulse of activity during times in the day or in the yearly cycle is the level of knowledge and experience that locals already own. It allows them to navigate from point to point, to know the stories or memories (personal or collective) tied to various locations, and it gradually inhabits some of the interior geography of a resident’s mind or heart, forming part of who they are.

The time needed to gather a working knowledge of the locations, meanings, and memories of a place, its plants and animals, the weather and cycle of resources of significance in each season does indeed take some time and effort to acquire. To a person born and raised there, these things build up, little by little and often without effort or intention. For someone coming from outside, though, systematically observing, studying, and experiencing the above list of elements comprising the place can accelerate this process of achieving a functional mastery of the pool of meanings.

Depending on the size of the place and the degree of detail desired, an outsider who gains much of this ahead of time from books and other print sources, Internet, talking to others, and so on could possibly be satisfied with a well-rounded sense of a place after only a week or two of diligent exploring and reflection while on site. Returns to the place in other seasons or circumstances would help to triangulate that initial period in residence, adding another standpoint to the first one. And by repeating this cycle of research and brief residence in a variety of host locations the person can add new worlds of experience to the primary ones known best during his or her lifetime. So why wait any longer, select a place you wish to get to know and make a start now so that the time spent on the ground will be the richest possible!

annual lion dance by itinerant troupe, the Ise Dai-kagura, June 27, 2017 at the Daihou-ji temple, Japan 915–0825

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