Place vs. Space

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The notion of ‘place’ found in many pacific island cultures is one that I find fascinating, perhaps because it stands so starkly contrasted with the western notion of ‘space.’

In my brief time spent in New Zealand a summer ago on a study abroad, I recall sitting in awe in an ornate Marae, a meeting house of sorts of the Maori, where I looked upon beautiful carvings and depictions of their culture and history. It was explained to us how the Maori derived a sense of pride in where their tribes were from – a negligence of their environment reflected poorly on them as a people. Such as Hawaiians, the Maori structured themselves in ever larger and encompassing territories; from the family they belonged to up to Aotearoa, the native word for the island as a whole (translating to ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’).

Of course, the notion of ‘place’ is found widely throughout the Polynesian-descendent cultures. I feel that this unique quality of theirs not only forced them to learn how best to live off the land (else they end up like Easter Island) but also because they were notoriously skilled navigators of the sea- without any barring of your locale, you were lost to the unforgiving ocean.

While the western civilizations of course required some regard of the land to provide for their societies, the apparent and predominant force of this region of the world was that of ‘space’- a view that land was a thing to be discovered explored and exploited for gain. There simply was little, if any, sacred significance to the land beyond what reasoning Christianity offered for it. 

In today’s age of globalization where people move around easily and rarely invest their entire life into one place, a place-based system such as found in the Pacific Islands is far from possible. Rather, cultivation of a place-sensitive environmental ethic seems to be the next best thing to aim for. For more permeating and deep-rooted changes in the structuring of our worldview, a widespread education of environmental ethic would be needed to instill the values and beliefs of living within our natural bounds. Regardless of or governmental or religious restraints though, people can choose to turn their attentions to their local land, whether they have been there for decades of days, and learn to appreciate their sense of place. Opting to buy foods locally, if not grow them, I feel is a small way to become more attune to what the region can provide and supply along with commuting by simple means such as walking and biking, fully experiencing your surroundings versus speeding around in a car, insulated from the inside with AC and the radio. 

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One response »

  1. I agree with you that it is near impossible to cultivate the same sense of a sacred “place” in modern Western culture. I think that living off of the land and depending on the sea as the Maoris do instills a sense of humility and respect for the earth. Whenever I interacting with such powerful natural forces, I feel a sense of smallness and powerlessness because I realize how insignificant my actions are against the magnitude of it. This feeling is an important reminder about humans place in the world, and I believe it is important in building ones respect for a “place.”

    Your suggestions about buying local food and commuting via bike are definitely the first step in connecting urban environments to nature, but people must take further steps on their own in order to be reminded of their sense of place.

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