A Sense of Place

February 05, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

A Sense of Place, by Mark Dornblaser

(originally published in the Cape Cod Times, September 15, 1991)

 

            One evening not too long ago I went outside and stared up at the heavens with my binoculars.  I hadn’t done that in quite some time.  But Mars, Venus and Jupiter just happened to be in alignment.  This is an event that hadn’t happened for several hundred years.  It won’t happen again for several hundred more.  “So what,” I could hear a lot of people saying.  “You look up and there are three points of light next to each other, two a little brighter and one a little redder than your average star.  What’s the big deal?”

            On the surface I could see their point.  I looked up at the planets, and even with powerful binoculars I was hard pressed to say anything more than they were bright, or red, and they were relatively close together.  But what I felt was more than that.  I could feel those planets out there.  I could feel myself looking down on the solar system, drawing a line nearly straight through from planet to planet.  It was like one of those T-shirts you see, with the Milky Way galaxy and an arrow that points to an imperceptible spot halfway between the center and the edge.  “You are here,” it says.

            For some reason there is some comfort in that, some comfort in knowing where we are in the grand scheme of things, in the big picture.  Actually, it’s not just the big picture, but the little picture as well.  A few weeks ago I came back from spending two months in Australia and New Zealand.  They were places I’ve always wanted to see.  Spectacular scenery, friendly people.  And something else.  Before I began my adventure I picked up a globe.  I put one index finger on Cape Cod and I put the other as far away on the globe as I could.  When I turned the globe over I discovered my second finger would up in the ocean near Perth, Australia.  On my trip I visited Perth.  And when I got home I was able to say I was as far away from home as I could get while remaining on the planet.  And there was comfort in that.  The world shrunk drastically on that trip.  No longer was Australia a mysterious continent about the size of the United States located somewhere “Down Under.”  I traveled 11.000 miles in Australia, and I feel like I know it.  And I now realize that any place on this earth is just a plane ride away, even if it is 18 hours.

            Earlier that evening, not too long ago, before it was dark enough to see the planets in alignment, I took a walk in my neighborhood.  I have lived here a year now, yet the streets I walked down that night I had never traveled before.  I walked past a farmer’s field, past a small airstrip hidden in the woods.  I walked past a house where a mother was scolding her son.

            You are here.

            Why is it that we need to establish our place on the map?  Map of the heavens, or map of the neighborhood, why do we feel better when we can say “X marks the spot?”  Perhaps it is because we feel insecure, because science has proved to us over the years how immense the universe is and how insignificant we are.

            We need a sense of place.  It shouldn’t matter to us that we’re not the center of the universe, as long as we can attach some sort of coordinates to ourselves and know where we are.  Why must we know?  Because otherwise we’d all be hanging out in the middle of space with nothing to break our fall.  When you wake up in the morning unsure of where you are, you panic (albeit briefly).

            I suppose it is an insecurity, but it is nothing to be worried about.  The aboriginals of Australia have incredibly profound ties to their land.  Way back in the Dreamtime, their ancestors rose out of the earth and created their country.  Every mountain, every tree, every kangaroo was “sung” into existence as the ancestors walked the earth.  It is incredible to realize that an aboriginal today, upon hearing these “songlines,” would be able to navigate his way across the entire country, even though most of the songlines would belong to tribes or clans other than his own.  Road maps of song, and of land.  Truly, the aboriginals have a sense of place.

            While looking through my binoculars that evening I stared at the moon as well as the planets.  It was easy to see the craters and the hills, the light and the dark.  Just think of the sense of place I could get if I could only hitch a ride up there...

 

            


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