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How Do Places Mean? It's All in Your Head.

These columns -- in Departures and elsewhere at KCET.org -- participate (I hope) in a conversation about how places mean, grounded in something that the environmental writer Barry Lopez located in his own sense of place. Lopez said:

Over time, I have come to think of ... three qualities -- paying intimate attention; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place -- as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you're intimate with a place, a place with whose history you're familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you're there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned. As a writer, I want to ask on behalf of the reader: How can a person obtain this? How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? How can you find such reciprocity?

The reciprocity of personality and place that Lopez seeks as a defense against estrangement is framed in sensory terms by Juhani Pallasmaa, who argues in "The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses" that

I confront the city with my body; my legs measure the length of the arcade and the width of the square; my gaze unconsciously projects my body onto the facade of the cathedral, where it roams over the mouldings and contours, sensing the size of recesses and projections; my body weight meets the mass of the cathedral door, and my hand grasps the door pull as I enter the dark void behind. I experience myself in the city, and the city exists through my embodied experience. The city and my body supplement and define each other. I dwell in the city and the city dwells in me.

The indwelling of place that Pallasmaa describes earned a Nobel Prize in medicine for John O'Keefe, Edvard Moser, and May-Britt Moser in 2014. They were recognized for their discovery of brain structures they named "place" and "grid" cells. These cells, they found, cooperate to make a coordinate system -- a "brain space" -- that renders unfamiliar places memorable and familiar places richly associated with collateral sensory effects.

They also found that places in memory are hardly ever static tableaux. The "place" and "grid" cells are supplemented by other neurons that take time into account, giving the experience of a place a sequential dimension. Wayfinding is what the brain does with the perception of time's flow across its grid of places.

The neurological arrow seems to move like the blue dot of Google Maps, but it moves affectively over the brain's interior geography. The arrow links assemblages of memories to build an "affective space" in which location, impression, and recollection are never individually dominate for long. Every encounter with a familiar place -- even if only in remembrance -- repositions both "dweller" and "city" in relationship to each other. From a neurological perspective, it seems, the map is the maker and the maker is the map.

I'm of a turn of mind that takes neurology (the Nobel winners) and phenomenology (Pallasmaa) in a tangential direction. What begins in mapping "brain space" and evolves into "affective space" is (for me) the imaginative apprehension of the immanent in the everyday.

Bear with me for a moment. The vernacular geography that gets you from your front door to your favorite bar can seem remote from Charles Baudelaire's poetic idea of the reverberant reciprocity between sensations and attenuating memory -- his ... longs échos qui de loin se confondent / Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité (... prolonged echoes that mingle distantly into a far and shadowed unison).

But the geography that's "all in your head" is felt as a presence, too.

Van Gogh leaves Paris for Arles in Provence "to paint the South" so that, he wrote his brother, the South might actually be seen. As Dwight Furrow notes at 3quarks Daily, what did Van Gogh see in Arles?

Trees in bloom, distant hills, wheat fields? These are commonplace objects we might superficially admire while on a leisurely walk, but they typically escape our focused attention. Yet, Van Gogh was convinced there is something to see in these objects, which our ordinary modes of perception cannot easily discern and which require an artist ... to make visible.

And Furrow adds, "The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years -- the commonplace is extraordinary."

Places mean -- even the most ordinary places -- because they are remaked, however briefly, in a landscape where place and person seem to merge.

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