“Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small, that we can never get away from the sprawl, living in the sprawl. Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains, and there’s no end in sight.”
Throughout the semester, we have read and interpreted a multitude of literary works that deal with how people understand the places and spaces in which they live their lives, as well as examined how we individually experience specific outdoor and indoor locations. Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, as well as an album entitled The Suburbs by the band Arcade Fire prompted me to think about how development and urban sprawl effect the way spaces, places, and landscapes function for people in general and myself personally.
In “My Neighbor’s Field,” Mary Austin is intrigued by the way people’s use of the land effects it, a problem that is frequently talked about yet rarely challenged in today’s society, as urban sprawl occurs at a rapidly relentless pace. Austin speaks of the land’s many owners and criticizes them for damaging it, until she eventually reveals that the current owner, whom she calls Naboth, “expects to make town lots of it” by turning the field into a developed area for people to move to and live off of (Austin 55). So much of this section is dedicated to describing how beautiful the field is, and how it is “one of those places God must have meant for a field” that is experiencing a rebirth now that the owner has enclosed it with a fence. It becomes its own entity through Austin’s personification of the land. The plants in the area seem to have a mind of their own, as the clematis only secretly blooms when no one is “coaxing” it and “the horehound comes through the fence and under it, shouldering the pickets off the railings” on its own terms (Austin 52). This reminded me of Mitchell’s definition of a landscape, which he says is “both an outcome and the medium of social relations, both the result of and an input to specific relations of production and reproduction” (Mitchell 49). While the landscape is literally what is on the land, the trees, plans, and flowers, the arrangement and manipulation of them carries social implications. The landscape was influenced by its owners for a long while, and now as Austin observes, it is in its own state of reproduction. Although Mitchell seems to view the landscape as art created by man, Austin’s personification of the landscape allows his definition to apply.
Furthermore, when it is revealed that the land will soon be developed, Austin explains the land will “hardly be happier. No, certainly not happier” (Austin 55). Because of the growth she witnessed, she has certainly become attached to this land in a way that allows her to feel remorse for its inevitable development. But at the same time, she does admit that the field “may serve a good turn,” or be very useful for the people living nearby if it is transformed into an extension of the town.
I think the struggle Austin seems to feel as she accepts the fate of the field, despite an apparent longing for its perseveration, speaks volumes for the development of our world today. We discussed in class how no one will admit that they are a proponent of urban sprawl, but on the same hand, so many of us who will not speak in its favor take advantage of its conveniences in our day-to-day lives. We can say that we oppose the new Starbucks conveniently located adjacent to a Target Greatland, but when the time comes and these establishments are up and running, it is difficult to not frequent at them on our drive to work or during a busy Saturday afternoon.
The development of land was an issue I thought of when I went back to my outside place essay. My Papa’s six-acre property in Des Moines, Iowa was the heart of this paper, and I discussed the memories associated with the gardens, lush forests, swimming pool, and lake that accompany the beautiful house. I described how because of this, the landscape, or “specific arrangement” of the “pattern of things on the land” definitely played a part in making the house one of the most important places in my life. After turning in this essay, the comments I received brought about thoughts of how designing or constructing a space to become a place, as my grandparents did, could be problematic, because it doesn’t allow for spontaneous connections to the land. I think this ties into Austin’s problems with what was to come for the field. She seemed to think it was at its happiest state when its plants were free to grow independently with little disturbance or control. Clearly, my grandparent’s property was manipulated to be aesthetically pleasing and complimentary to our lives there. Although the changes in the land were made to foster growth and nature, they were done for our benefit. If this is the case, would Austin argue that my family’s attachment and love for this land wasn’t necessarily warranted or “right?”
Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas of topophilia state that places are “created and maintained through the ‘field of care’ that result from people’s emotional attachment” (Hubbard 42). To me, this suggests that my grandparents’ nurturing of the land, although “unnatural,” allowed our emotional attachment to form through our experiences and memories at the house and on the property. However, Edward Relph states that modern planning and architecture has “created placeless urban environments where there is no authentic connection between people and place,” which insinuates that the purposeful arrangement of flower beds, trees, and a swimming pool forbid the land from truly becoming a place for myself and my family (Hubbard 43). With that being said, I think that my personal experiences lead me to disagree. In my outside place essay, I quoted Jane Austin who said, “to sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” In today’s world, I do not think its fair to say that because the vegetation was planted by the hands of man with the purpose of creating an aesthetically pleasing environment, it cannot yield the same refreshment and pleasure as a natural garden or forest. I think this dichotomy is enhanced when looking at larger urban developments, however, my grandparents’ house, though surrounded by forest, is still considered a product of sprawl. It was once an empty plot of six-acre land without a house, driveway, pool, or planted gardens.
Although Thoreau’s Week bears large differences from Austin’s book, I think his commentary on white men can help explain the acceptance of development. He says they are “strong in community,” with a “yielding obedience to authority.” This could speak for society’s apparent need for community centers, shopping malls, and playgrounds, as they serve as a way for people to connect and interact. Thoreau also explains that white people are “dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humor but genuine; a laboring man … building a house that endures, a framed house” (Thoreau 43). His descriptions conjure up images of the average, hard-working, Midwestern American, with little personality and no appreciate for the arts, but a nine-to-five life lacking passion and excitement. When looking at this passage again, I instantly connected it to the Arcade Fire lyrics, in which the band describes the people living in the sprawl, saying, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop. Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It may seem strange to connect the words of a transcendentalist writer from the nineteenth century to the lyrics of a contemporary indie band, but I think their ideas are the same. Though Thoreau’s book obviously explores many other ideas, in this passage I think he is commenting on the void in the average person’s desire to explore and their overall lackluster passion for life. Arcade Fire seems to agree, as they describe being told to stop singing in the presence of the victims of the sprawl, and the fact that they would prefer the singer just “punch the clock” insinuates they see a dull profession that doesn’t call for intelligence or creativity as more important.
I kept these ideas in mind when reexamining my inside place essay. Bachelard describes our house as “our corner of the world,” and I expanded on this idea with my personal experience in my dormitory my freshman year at MU. This room was important to me in ways that a room had never been, and it was the first place that was entirely mine. While I agreed with Bachelard’s idea that “real houses of memory … do not readily lend themselves to description,” I was able to capture the emotions I felt in that room, specifically on a snowy day when I curled up in bed with some lovely music and a good book. I struggled with the idea that the dorm room was a home for so many other people throughout the years, and knew I was certainly not the last to cast “absorbing values of intimacy” within the room’s four tiny, white walls (Bachelard 9). I questioned what happens when a group of students who have created a home for themselves must dismantle their posters, empty their closets full of shoes and party dresses, and stack up the books they have carried throughout the semester, so that another wide-eyed freshman can move in and repeat the cycle. It would be so easy to characterize the room as a space, instead of a place, but I finally decided that it is the memories we create in interior spaces that make them places and that the memories can never be taken away from us. Therefore, I determined a place will always be a place and my dorm room will always render nostalgia for a year full of parties and a snowy day of solitude.
However, when relating this experience to Thoreau’s ideas of civilization, I couldn’t help but entertain the idea that my dorm was simply another aspect of development and sprawl, and my experience there, although unique to me, was just like anyone else’s. I understand this is a completely different idea that what I had previously explored, but I think it is one that most of us struggle with when creating places and memories in locations that might simply be considered spaces due to their average qualities and purposes. Jack Keroauc once said, “Colleges are nothing but grooming schools for the middle class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same time and thinking the same thing.” While I clearly buy in to the concept of college and spend thousands of dollars to attend this university, it is hard to ignore the fact that this campus could be a space that breeds unoriginality and instills the same predictable life plan for each of its inhabitants. Many will go through the motions of getting a job after graduation, finding someone to marry, having children, and buying the perfect house. I’m not sure whose to say there’s anything wrong with this, but it is an idea that is frequently discussed in our society. Thoreau also said that the degeneration of man is a result of civilization’s lack of the “heroic spirit,” and because of this, I think he would probably agree with Keroauc’s view of the college experience.
Hubbard explored the idea that “a place is often equated with security and enclosure, whereas space is associated with freedom and mobility” (Hubbard 43). I found this interesting, because if someone asked me if I would rather have “security and enclosure” or “freedom and mobility,” without further explanation, I would hands down reply with, “freedom and mobility.” However, in both of my essays this semester, I wrote about a location that I deemed a place because of the comfort and happiness I felt in these two separate, enclosed places. I have frequently put spaces within a negative context during this course. Now, while thinking of them in terms of freedom and mobility, I believe the only way to look at the two concepts (spaces and places) is to understand that both are necessary for a balance in life. Not every location can be a place, and sometimes spaces are quite necessary to get where we are going. Furthermore, I do not think we can allow definitions to bind our experiences within a particular location. As we discussed on one of the first days of class, an airport (which is a clear-cut product of development and sprawl) is most obviously a space. However, if a person proposed to the love of their life when picking them up from the East terminal, it would clearly be transformed into a place that houses a life-changing memory for the couple. They would not say that because of the multiple definitions of a space, that the location isn’t important to them. They would draw on what happened there to define it for themselves. While Bachelard said, “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality of those in the home,” Thoreau would probably disagree and say that experiences in nature could never be matched by those indoors. Therefore, the creation of places must be done on an individual basis, as a result of specific experiences and ideals.
I also believe we have to accept that we live in a world where Wal-Mart super stores, cookie-cutter houses on hillsides, and college educations are inevitable and far easier to come by than week-long river adventures and West Coast wilderness escapades. If Thoreau had access to an airplane, a GPS, and an iPod, would he have experienced his trip the same way as he did in the nineteenth century?
I feel the pain and confusion of Arcade Fire when they question if we can ever get away from sprawl in our small world, but I think the only way to maintain passion and purpose in life is to accept it and make the best of creating places in our lives that foster happiness, creativity, and love. At the same time, we must not be afraid of the freedom and mobility of spaces. I disagree with the idea that “spaces are not places, but neither can places be spaces” (Hubbard 43). In today’s world, I think life could be seen as the constant transformation of spaces to places, as we experience its joys, sorrows, and excitements in each geographic location we visit.