Mapping a sense of place

Anthropologist Hugh Brody lived among the Beaver Indians, the Dunne-za and Cree peoples, forest hunters of the Canadian sub-Arctic.[1] He noted how European map-makers had left their territory mostly a blank, yet even without the art of cartography, the indigenous people filled the land with names and stories, knowledge of hunting grounds, distances, migration routes, seasonal changes and much more.

David Lewis notes, ‘When an Aboriginal depicts a stretch of country he generally incorporates its mythical with its physical features, so stressing the inseparable interrelation between the two. Such paintings cannot be interpreted without inside knowledge, yet their emphasis on the spiritual attributes of place make them doubly memorable to the initiated.’ [2] See the poem ‘Groundwork’ from South Australia.

David Turnbull states what is overlooked: “The mapmaker determines what is, and equally important, what is not included in the representation. This is the first important sense in which maps are conventional. What is on the map is determined not simply by what is in the environment, but also by the human agent that produced it.”[3] This is a matter of politics and power, as Turnbull goes on to show: “Documents, texts, diagrams, lists, maps (discourses in general) embody power in a variety of ways. Discourses get the agenda of what kind of questions can be asked, what kind of answers are possible, and equally what kind of questions and answers are impossible within that particular discourse or text.” (Turnbull, 1993: 54)

Doug Aberley takes this further: “If you were entirely cynical, you could view the appropriation of mapping from common understanding as just another police action designed to assist the process of homogenizing 5,000 human cultures into one malleable and docile market. As a collective entity we have lost our languages, have forgotten our songs and legends, and now cannot even conceive of the space that makes up that most fundamental aspect of life – home.”[4]

Many of us never use a map but use GPS, then you lose the ability to quickly scan an overview then focus down on details. We used to navigate by physical landmarks, by natural phenomena and by our bodies.

from    Finding the curve of earth

The Vikings liberated caged birds
then rowed after their flight, afterwards
a cross staff turned back into the shade,
an astrologer’s astrolabe made simple
became the meagre paraphernalia establishing
entrances and exits to the surface of the globe.
Speed was calculated by spitting overboard
into oceans free from turbulence,
longitude imagined.

Puluwats of the Carolines
navigate by sifting stars,
catching their rise and fall,
dredging sun’s space, closely
observing waves, feeling the wind.
Their craft digests all these elements,
there’s no rules to speak of,
their knowledge is impossible to notate.

Do we need maps? Alston Chase is worried that environmentalists lose touch with the ground when they become interested in eco-philosophy, green politics or acid rain. The actual destruction of habitat, the actual defilement of ecological processes is not seen, noticed, or experienced except by knowing place.[5] But let us all be artists and pragmatists, at the same time: “All maps can be related to experience, and instead of rating accuracy or scienticity we should consider their workability – how successful are they in achieving the aims for which they are drawn – and what is their range of application.” (Turbull, 1993:42)

How about good old fashioned (pre-Ptolemy) chorographic map making? Combining a distant cartographical birds-eye view with close ups of mysteries and amazements, miniature narratives, images. Map making as art, just as some paintings in the Papunya tradition (very old & very young) are best seen as maps with cultural, mythic, topographic and narrative elements. William Gilpin worried that one view: “was too extensive for the painter’s use . . . It is certainly an error in landscape-painting, to comprehend too much. It turns a picture into a map.”[6] Now have photography – from satellite imagery to macro focus – from the Hubble to scanning tunneling microscopy (STM) and atomic force microscopy (AFM), but are losing any embodied sense of our location, impoverishing our sense of place.

Maps don’t give access to places. Place is becoming rare, with wars, refugees and millions of economic migrants. Place is precious. Arne Naess, elder statesman of Deep Ecology, founded an ethics of place where we would, “live in such a way that we may gradually become attuned to the place . . . [and] place must be experienced differently.”[7] Places are constructed just by the behaviour of people. Jakob von Uexküll notes people take certain routes which he called ‘familiar paths’. The path begins and ends in place.[8] This occurs consciously and outside awareness of individuals and groups. [9]

Edward Casey emphasises place as process: Human beings – along with other entities on earth – are ineluctably place-bound . . .place, rather than being a mere product or portion of space, is as primary as the perception that gives access to it . . . Rather than being a definite sort of thing – for example, physical, spiritual, cultural, social – a given place takes on the qualities of its occupants, reflecting those qualities in its own constitution and description and expressing them in its occurrence as an event: places not are, they happen.” [10]

In keeping with the complexities Casey alludes to, Edward Relph suggests six components to the concept of place:

  1. location in relation to other things and locations is fundamental;
  2. integrates elements of nature and culture;
  3. a place is unique but interconnected with other places;
  4. place is localised, part of a larger area;
  5. a place is always becoming, changing with historical and cultural change; and
  6. places have meanings, are characterised by beliefs. [11]

John Clare knew place and that intimacy contributed to his madness. A sense of place for Aborigines is a sense of belonging, of home, of having rights and responsibilities. Bioregionalism is a contemporary environmental movement that locates place in natural systems. We moved to the country from the inner city three years ago and are locating our place in a new community, our large garden, the Nature Reserve we live next to, the seasons, the area and the local Gumbaynggirr culture and more.

“The quest for a nature and place-sensitive society, like the quest for a better quality working life and a genuinely communicative democracy, unveils a project that is revolutionary in the sense that it challenges the existing order very deeply and fundamentally at many levels.”  Val Plumwood[12]



[1] Hugh Brody, Maps and Dreams (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1981.

[2] David Lewis ‘The way of the nomad’, in From earlier fleets: Hemisphere – an Aboriginal anthology, 1978 p79

[3] David Turnbull, Maps are Territories, Science is an Atlas, The University of Chicago Press, 1993, p5.

[4] Doug Aberley, Boundaries of Home, Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 1993, p2-3.

[5] Alston Chase, ‘Playing God in Yellowstone: the destruction of America’s first national Park’, Atlantic Monthly, 1986.

[6] Observations relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the year 1772  – 3rd edition, 1792, p153-4) -

[7] Daniel Berthold-Boud, ‘The Ethics of ‘Place’: Reflections of bioregionalism’, Environmental Ethics, V22, Spring 2000, p21.

[8] J. v Uexküll, ‘A stroll through the worlds of animals and man’, in Instinctive Behaviour, ed. C. Schiller, pp. 5-80. New York: International Universities Press, 1957.

[9] Y.F. Tuan, ‘Rootedness versus sense of place’, Landscape 24, 1980, p3-8.

[10] Edward S. Casey, The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History, Uni of California P, 1996, p19, 27.

[11] Based on Lukermann’s analysis of place. F. Luckermann, ‘Geography as a formal intellectual discipline and the way in which it contributes to human knowledge,’ Canadian Geographer 8:4 p167-172. Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, London: Pion Press, 1976, p3.

[12] Val Plumwood, ‘Belonging, naming and decolonisation’, Ecopolitics: Thought and Action vol 1, no 1, 2000, p98.