PAYING ATTENTION TO PLACE
Here is a quote which sums up the reason for my art but it also sums up a reason for being alive. It is from Willa Cather’s 1915 book The Song of the Lark: “What is any art but an effort to imprison the shining, elusive element which is life itself - life hurrying past us, too strong to stop and too sweet to lose?”
Most of us go through this wonderful, complex world barely even tuned in, like listening to the radio when it is not on the station. We (me included) miss most sights and sounds. We do not really pay attention. Our ancient ancestors were far better at this. In recent years we have become even less mindful of our sense of place.
Most of us do not really pay attention to life hurrying past us. It is as if we are wearing blinders or blinkers that are put on horses so that they won’t be distracted. However, our self-imposed blinkers are the opposite … they make us focus on distractions and blot out reality. Neil Postman wrote, in Amusing Ourselves to Death,”Because of man’s almost infinite appetite for distraction, electronic media is turning all public life, education, religion, politics and journalism into entertainment.” George Orwell wrote 1984 in 1949 and Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. Orwell feared that truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell said that people would be controlled by the infliction of pain. Huxley believed that people would be controlled by the infliction of pleasure. I think that Huxley really nailed it.
This “entertaining ourselves to death” began in earnest in the 1950s when I was in my 20s. I studied geography, not art, at university. I always knew that I was an artist but I did not feel the need to take art. You are an artist by doing art. I took geology and geography at university so that I could get summer fieldwork in the wilderness in order to paint like the Canadian Group of Seven. Thus, I think like a geographer. I am interested in demographics and patterns and, of course, places. I noticed in the 1950s that television was creating a new species I call Homo sapiens consumerensis. Entertainment was, and is, designed to sell products. By the 1960s an expanding world was implemented. I call it the “Instant Pudding World”. It spread with superhighways, suburbs, shopping malls and TV. It was and still is smooth, slick, quick and convenient. Our world became increasingly designed by corporations that delivered us packages. Those packages become our life. We do not understand the ingredients or implications of the packages but because they are so convenient they are very popular. This “Instant Pudding” is spreading over the planet and wiping out natural heritage and human heritage. I have photos of an “Instant Pudding” commercial strip with all of the usual conveniences of gas stations and fast food outlets taken in 1962 and another one in 2012 and they are almost the same, 50 years apart! We seem to be in a steady state compared to the dramatic changes in the first half of the 20th century
Geography, history, culture and nature have been buried by convenience and shopping. In this Instant Pudding world it doesn’t matter if you are in St. John or San Diego. It is all the same. Through the years I have asked audiences to close their eyes and picture a particular place that has meaning for them, deep in their hearts. In most cases it has something to do with nature. I doubt that it ever has anything to do with Instant Pudding. How can you feel something deep in your heart about a commercial strip or shopping mall?
What kind of world are we making if no-one cares about it in their heart? As a result we fill that emptiness with entertainment and distraction. With no eyes and ears and hearts focusing on reality we can easily drift, as a species, into disaster. Governments and corporations are congenital dispensers of comfort. They don’t want us to pay attention to reality unless it induces us to go shopping. I worry about the effect this loss of a sense of place is having on voting patterns.
This is why the embryonic movement to return to a more human scale and more natural world is so important. I must say that some governments, especially in northern Europe, are part of the movement towards the more human and natural. Jane Jacobs’ action to save and restore neighbourhoods came just in time. Walkable cities are a growing thing and evidently “walkability” is now an important element in “location, location, location” for the real estate market. There are thousands of small non-governmental organizations striving to get children to play outside again. There is even a new field in urban planning to create wildernesses in cities. There used to be a slogan “bigger is better”. We are now seeing an increasing appreciationof “small is beautiful”. The book by that title was written by E. F. Schumacher in 1973. He said that “the real problems facing the planet are not economic or technical, they are philosophical.” He went on to say, “The philosophy of unbridled materialism is now being challenged by events.” His holy trinity is “Health, Beauty and Permanence”. Permanence!! How can you have permanence and progress? During the late 20th century much damage was done under the banner “Well, you can’t stop progress”. At its worst we saw Stalin’s collectivization and Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”. But the capitalist world saw tremendous and pointless destruction of natural and human heritage under the banner of “progress”.
Meaning and purpose in life seems to be decreasing. Automation and sending jobs offshore have all but destroyed meaningful work. The resultant soul-less world has left people turning to entertainment for meaning. It has become like a steady diet of fast food for the soul. Now we have a large number of young people spending 7 hours a day, 7 days a week looking at a screen. This is not just fast food for the soul, it is too often junk food for the soul. Electronics may be useful, but too often it sinks to a cacophony of narcissism, or violent video games where a sense of place is irrelevant. Fast action and fantasy have more sizzle, especially for the young but they are addictive and empty compared to the joys and challenges of the real world.Author and film-maker John Huston has said that life is “gathering fond memories”. Will future grandfathers talk of the good old days of Grand Theft Auto?
Becoming engaged with one’s place not only has personal benefits for body and mind, it has important benefits for the future of the place. The great landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander quoted Gombrich, the famous art historian, “We have to educate people to learn to see.” When I was a teacher I tried to do this. In fact, I am continually trying to teach myself to see. During my 20 years of high school teaching one of my most successful attempts was with grade eleven students. We
spent some time looking at traditional Japanese culture. This is a very subtle and conscious culture. The small is beautiful, particularly of Haiku poetry, would be a good example.
Returning from moon viewing
I followed my shadow home.
I scooped up the moon in my bucket
and dashed it to a thousand moons on the grass.
Both take you to a small but intense and pleasurable time and place and for a moment it stops “life hurrying past us too sweet to lose”.
I then took the class to a conservation area on the Niagara Escarpment. Each student was instructed to become alone and isolated in a little piece of nature, first in a meadow, then in the forest. This runs counter to teenage instincts. They usually want to be surrounded by peers. Then each one became intimately acquainted with their tiny, natural world through drawing and writing. The drawing style was “contour drawing” which anyone can do. The aim is to really, really look and to draw very, very slowly. We might ask, “Do those goldenrod leaves attach to the stem in an opposite way or an alternate way?” Each pebble on the ground has its own personality. The drawings will, of course, not be finished. I did not want the whole truth but I wanted nothing but the truth, no “cooking up”. The writing also gives details of colours, textures, sounds, insects and atmosphere … everything to capture that time and that place. Each student becomes the world’s expert on that little piece of the planet. That tiny world is honoured and becomes precious and is quite likely remembered. Of course we cannot be that intensely engaged most of the time or we would go into overload and become immobilized. But we would benefit from moving in that direction and so would all of the places which, combined, make up our world.
Places that are short on Instant Pudding and long on natural and human heritage all have their own personality. Of my university courses in geography, the most memorable was a study of the “pays” in the Paris basin. “Pays” means a piece of
countryside. One was called Beance, another was called Brie and so on. The people of the area knew when they crossed from one to the other. Just like human beings,many different factors came together to make unique personalities. In the case of those landscapes, geology, microclimate, vegetation, agriculture, settlement patterns and traditions combined to give each its special character. Because the locals paid attention they became guardians of the land. There was a sense of cohesion and belonging and security. “Instant Pudding” seems to give instant gratification but belonging and security seem to be suffering.
Since I live near Victoria, BC, I could use it as an example of a place. It has a lot of things going for it. Perhaps the most congenial climate in Canada is a good place to start. Many people retire there because of the pleasant weather. However, how many people realize that it is therefore in a very special ecological region? Much of Victoria was built in a Garry Oak savannah. This can be clearly seen in the tree shaded streets of the older parts of town. Savannahs are where Homo sapiensevolved in Africa. Comfort and joy found in that park-like landscape may be in our genes. Those woodlands are inhabited by many bird species including one of the largest urban populations of Cooper’s hawks, a fast bird-hunting raptor. How many people living in Victoria know that? Luckily there are scientists and hobby birders paying attention. In fact the world would undoubtedly be a better place if everyone was a birder. Birds are literally the “canaries in the coal mine” telling us of environmental trouble. Not only would this paying attention pay off in environmental protection it would bring a lifetime of pleasure to those involved. I have never met a bored birder.
Victoria is blessed by being almost surrounded by the sea. There are, of course, the usual recreational activities on the water but there is also significant birding, the observing of the sea birds. I have seen frightening diminishing in the numbers of sea birds wintering in these waters since we moved here in 1985. If everyone was paying attention to this we might have the political and economic power to get to the bottom of the reasons for this and then we could do something about it thatwould help humans as well as the birds.
On the historical level Victoria is also blessed. The original burgeoning of the city happened in Victorian times in the late 19th century. Luckily whole districts have maintained the integrity of that heritage. The “you can’t stop progress” attitude of the 50s, 60s and 70s saw some destruction but now we seem to have smartened up to the precious heritage and human scale that we have in the city.I will close where I began with paying attention to our place, knowing it well and feeling for it deep in our hearts. We can recognize our places as “too sweet to lose” and with any luck we can make them even sweeter.