Acknowledging our topophilia

More geographic confinement during COVID-19 can help remind us of our important attachments to place(s):

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

There is a word for love of a place: topophilia, popularized by the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan in 1974 as all of “the human being’s affective ties with the material environment.” In other words, it is the warm feelings you get from a place. It is a vivid, emotional, and personal experience, and it leads to unexplainable affections. One of my fellow Seattle natives made this point to me when he said he hated the rain in Boston but not Seattle. Why? “Only Seattle rain is nice.”

In his book A Reenchanted World, the sociologist James William Gibson defines topophilia as a spiritual connection, especially with nature. Oladele Ogunseitan, a microbiologist at the University of California at Irvine, demonstrates topophilia by showing that people are attracted to both objective and subjective—even unconscious—criteria. My friend’s affinity for the “Seattle rain” is probably fueled by what Ogunseitan calls “synesthetic tendency,” or the way particular, ordinary sensory perceptions affect our memory and emotions. If the smell of a fresh-cooked pie, the sound of a train whistle at night, or the feeling of a crisp autumn wind evokes a visceral memory of a particular place, you are experiencing a synesthetic tendency.

It is worth reflecting on your strongest positive synesthetic tendencies—and the place they remind you of. They are a good guide to your topophilic ideal, and thus an important factor to be aware of as you design a physical future in line with your happiness. It is notable that one of the world’s most famous happiness experts, Tal Ben-Shahar, left a teaching position at Harvard University several years ago, where he had created the university’s then-most-popular class, to return to his native Israel—because he felt the pull of his homeland…

You probably have your own Barcelona or Minnesota, somewhere that has a highly topophilic place in your heart. Perhaps you sometimes daydream about going back—but then you snap out of it. Moving is a huge commitment, and not one to be made on a synesthetic whim. The cost of a big move is prohibitive for many people who might like to find a new home. Even if work and family circumstances make it possible, the idea of starting a new job, making new friends, changing schools, facing the DMV—it’s too much for many.

This is more than an acknowledgment of the importance of places in our lives; this encompasses all of the senses. One quick example: there is a home near us that has a line of four or five of the same kind of trees along the sidewalk. When I run by there, the smell alone is enough to transport me to a familiar family vacation spot where that smell is more common.

The argument here helps push back against a more recent narrative in human history that suggests people can and should be mobile. While people not too long ago might have been anchored in a relatively small geographic area for a lifetime, people today are more used to moving for jobs and travel across longer distances. Of course, as is noted above, such mobility might lead to loving a new place or an unexpected place. But, if people form these attachments to places, how do they then respond to mobility? Perhaps mobility can reinforce topophilia; you do not know how much you like places until you are away from them.

This also highlights the material world in ways that we sometimes ignore. Our environments matter, even if we are in an age of screens, private spaces, and lots of driving. There can be a lot of focus on this within private spaces – think decluttering trends or an emphasis on layouts and design in homes – but less emphasis on public or community spaces. To put it in the terms of James Howard Kunstler, are our collective environments worth paying attention to?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s