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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 3

The Case for Place

Why place? Why should ‘place’ rather than ‘nature’, ‘environment’ or ‘wilderness’ serve as the central idea around which to organise a book on the philosophy and practice of an alternative form of outdoor education? Place, as a way of understanding how humans live, experience and relate to particular locations on the Earth’s surface, has attracted considerable attention in recent decades across a range of disciplines (cultural geography, anthropology, sociology, phenomenological philosophy, architecture, to name a few). We have already attempted to demonstrate that many of the contemporary assumptions, ideals and practices of outdoor and experiential education may actually be silencing or denying the experience of place for participants. In doing so it is possible that local communities and their histories, as well as local ecologies are erased from the educational experience. A shared feature of much of the scholarship and writing about place and sense of place is concern about the cumulative effects of modernity upon our ability to respect and care for the local places we call home and the remote places we encounter when we travel. There is inevitably a sense of loss in much of this writing. The philosopher David Abram (1996a) suggests this loss is profound.

Today we participate almost exclusively with other humans and with our own human-made technologies. It is a precarious situation, given our age-old reciprocity with the many-voiced landscape. We still need that which is other than our own creation and ourselves … we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human. (p. ix)

Much of this more-than-human world (Abram 1996a) is under threat as a result of humans’ deliberate or unwitting actions. Of course, any cultural world we may inhabit is deeply enmeshed with the ecological systems that surround and support us. Within the incessant motion of life in late-capitalist societies, argues the philosopher Edward Casey (1993), we rush from location to location, rarely getting to know the subtleties of local places, their histories, ecologies, economies. ‘We pay a heavy price for capitalizing on our basic animal mobility,’ writes Edward Relph (1976, xiii). The price is a loss of a deep experience of attachment to a place that can sustain our sense of a meaningful life. Relph believes that the experience of place, for many, has been replaced by that of a sense of homogenous ‘placelessness’.

As we move along freeways, railways or between airport terminals, they can all seem much the same. Our experience of these locations becomes one of feeling that we could be everywhere-anywhere-nowhere. We encounter supermarkets, streetscapes, suburbs and even landscapes that appear and feel remarkably similar to the ones we left behind. Our memory of them soon blurs due to lack of a sense of any distinctive, defining qualities. Doreen Massey (1994) has described this loss of sense of place as a universal aspect of modern life and part of the ‘time-space compression’ phenomenon of our times. But placelessness refers not only to our perception of our situation in the world. Adopting a focus on place compels us to consider how the particular qualities within local places may be wiped out by modern development and how that loss may be grieved for by those who once lived there.

The Australian historian Peter Read’s (1996) moving study, Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places, examined the effect upon Australian individuals, families and communities who have had their attachment to the places where they lived, and thus how they lived, obliterated by modern development. Read wanted to know what happened to people when they became displaced. In some cases this involved the erasure of whole communities as dams were built and river valleys were flooded, or the expansion of open cut mines that required towns and their people to be relocated. Hospitals where children were born, the schools they attended, businesses, churches, homes, sporting grounds were all re-located or obliterated. He also studied what happened to people living in urban communities when town planners and engineers proposed and then built a freeway that split an old suburb in half (ironically so that commuters living in the new, sprawling estates on the expanding fringe of the city would have a faster commute to work). Read also examined a case where the declaration of a national park changed intergenerational farming practices and eventually resulted in the family losing its farming land and home. In each of these cases the loss of attachment to place was forced upon the people concerned. The change impacted deeply on where and how they lived and how they felt about life. The impact, for most, was devastating.

‘We mourn places as well as people,’ writes Casey (1993, 198). The rich mosaic of land, people, community and local history that constitutes a place can be swept aside and replaced by homogenised experience, epitomised by the trip to the shopping plaza, the drive down the freeway, the massive dam, the monolithic sporting stadium and the mono-crop. The land and community, and the meaning we attach to them, can shift before our gaze and beneath our feet. The place we had come to believe was stable and gave us an anchor in the world, morphs into something else. Suddenly we feel estranged from the place we had grown to love or, perhaps, had taken for granted. But, equally, change does not need to be quite so devastating. It is possible that planned change can result in a place somehow maintaining a sense of continuity with the past. Things that are crucial and essential to a place might be fought for and celebrated. The integrity of a place may be sustained through times of change. The fate of each place is finely balanced between these futures – obliteration or continuation. The places where we work with our students in outdoor education are no different. The ideals and actions we foster as educators also contribute to what those places are becoming, for better or worse.

The development of scholarship concerning place has arisen around the world in response to concern about how we live and the consequence of our modern lives for the sustainability of places. In Simon Schama’s (1995) monumental study of human interaction with the land, Landscape and Memory, he strove for ‘a way of looking; of rediscovering what we already have, but which somehow eludes our recognition and our appreciation. Instead of being yet another explanation of what we have lost, it is an exploration of what we may yet find’ (Schama 1995, 14). Rather than accepting the now common view that culture and nature are mutually exclusive in Western societies Schama searched instead for what bound them together. This linkage, he argued, is there ‘beneath layers of the commonplace’ (p. 14). We live in place every moment of every day, whether we recognise it or not. Schama is suggesting that we begin our search for the connections that bind nature and culture and people and places together, right here, right now, on the very ground beneath our feet.

In the previous chapter we discussed how key areas of outdoor education theory and practice are based upon myth, dubious claims and false assumptions. In a sense we argued that much of what outdoor educators do has been built on very shaky foundations, and that it may not continue to be defensible in uncertain and changing times. We now begin the process of re-building, or better, renewing those foundations. In this chapter we discuss how scholars from diverse academic fields have established a case for place as a crucial consideration that cannot be avoided when we start to look at how humans relate to the locations where they live, work, learn or recreate. We relate the complex debate about the meaning of place, how place contributes to our sense of identity and how we experience place. These discussions lay an important foundation for the chapters to follow, which focus on pedagogic responses to place.

What do we mean by ‘place’?

In his highly influential book Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph (1976, 6) demonstrated how places serve as ‘sources of security and identity’, but also how the homogenising influence of modern practices (particularly in engineering, agriculture and architecture and, perhaps, we might add in education and adventure programming) can result in the experience of displacement or rootlessness. These days it may be a sense of placelessness that we take for granted. Yet we are constantly recreating ourselves, Relph (1976) argues, and learning our place in the world, through recreating our place. There is an unavoidable reciprocity between people and places. ‘The word “place” is best applied’, writes Relph (1992, 37), ‘to those fragments of human environments where meanings, activities and a specific landscape are all implicated and enfolded by each other.’

Geographers have long had an interest in the concept of place. In particular, human geographers like Yi Fu Tuan, Edward Relph and David Seamon have adapted the insights of philosophers Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to reveal the character and quality of the lived-experience of places. They strive to show how people live within subjective lifeworlds that not only influence their experience of life, but which direct much of their actions. These geographers have built their theories on several of Heidegger’s key ideas. These include his depictions of what it means to dwell authentically in place; his conception of ‘sparing’ as a ‘tolerance for places in their own essence’ (Relph 1976, 39); and his descriptions of ‘fields of care’ as a ‘taking responsibility for place’ (see Hay 2002, 161). For Heidegger, ‘man’s [sic] essential relation to places … consists in dwelling … the essential property of human experience’ (cited in Relph 1976, 28). In addition, in applying the work of Merleau-Ponty, David Seamon (1979) has considered the role of perception and the body in experience and how people are irrevocably connected to the places in which they live. Together, the works of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have inspired much of the scholarly development of ‘place’ that followed.

Furthermore, given that human mobility is inevitable, it is important to consider how people become connected, remain connected or become disconnected from particular places. Yi Fu Tuan (1974, 102) suggested that ‘“home” is a meaningless word without “journey”’. Humans have always moved across territorial boundaries and between places, both aware of and subconsciously responding to the similarities and differences they encounter. There are several distinctions to work through here in terms of place. Place can be taken to mean home. Equally, we might experience a sense of place when we travel. Some places we travel to may seem recognisable whilst others seem almost completely foreign. Both of these are important concepts for outdoor educators. Let’s begin by looking at place as home.

Despite its obvious appeal, even place as home is a slippery concept. Heidegger privileged a home-dwelling folk-culture that is hard to imagine survives in late post-industrial societies as anything other than a nostalgic desire. The allure of an authentic sense of place as home might also have negative consequences. For Heidegger at least, it was a dangerously short distance between an authentic idealisation of homeplace and Nazi Germany’s nationalistic vision for the Fatherland (Berthold-Bond 2000; Hay 2002).

‘The search for homeplace’ writes Lucy Lippard (1997) ‘is the mythical search for the axis mundi, for a centre, for some place to stand, for something to hang onto’ (p. 27), but the ‘centre doesn’t hold forever’ (p. 23). Judy Pinn (2003) is also wary of becoming caught up in ‘the “one true place” syndrome by idealising a particular place and its people, and burdening them … with special meaning’ (p. 40). As Lippard (1997) suggests it is unlikely that there can be one ‘true’ centre of meaning for us. We are destined to experience multiple places – multiple centres of significance. The outdoor places that we visit and teach in may become such places, but only if they become important sources of our identity. Hence, the places we care for may be places where we live most of our life (work places and home places), but equally they may be recreational and pedagogical places that we are destined to know through our visits and travels.

These views of place immediately raise interesting questions. Can we experience a state of dwelling and become deeply connected to places in the modern age of high mobility and globalisation? Ironically Peter Read’s stories about the effects of displacement seem to suggest that people can and do form deep attachments to place. Or do we accept, as the geographer Doreen Massey (1994, 121) puts it, that there can be ‘no authenticity of place’? For Massey a place always reflects changing social conditions and she suggests that we should consider places as open, porous and in a state of flux rather than as some kind of fixed entity.

One way of thinking about place is as particular moments in such intersecting social relations, nets of which have over time been constructed, laid down, interacted with one another, decayed and renewed. Some of these relations will be, as it were, contained within the place; others will stretch beyond it, tying any particular locality into wider relations and processes in which other places are implicated as well (Massey 1994, 120).

This is why place remains an elusive conceptual construct. Despite appearances, the meanings and experiences of places to individuals and groups are never stable. In general, place has to do ‘with the relationship between people and their local setting for their experience and activity’ (Cameron 2003b, 3) and is a continually unfolding phenomenon. We need to keep these differing ideas about what place is, and what it may mean to us, open for a time. We need to keep the phenomenon of the experience of place alive as a question we might ask ourselves about our experience of the world. Perhaps a good way to proceed is to consider one of the most fundamental problems that scholars of place have debated about the meaning and significance of place.

Space or place

The relationship between space and place remains one of the most difficult questions facing those interested in studying the human experience of place. The implications for outdoor education are significant. In this section we explore how humans experience space and place, with particular reference to the Australian and New Zealand contexts. On the one hand there are those who consider that a place is made through the accumulation of human experience in a particular setting (see for example, Carter 1988; Meinig 1979; Relph 1976; Schama 1995; Walter 1998; Watson 1990). On the other, there are those who propose that place has its own inherent spirit and meaning, waiting to be discovered by those who open themselves to a place as attentive students (see for example, Norberg-Schulz 1980; Park 1995; Read 2003; Tacey 1995, 2000). Differences between understanding a place as set of human meanings that result from layers of cultural ideas, beliefs and histories, or as a site of intrinsic meaning are important to understand. These philosophical positions influence the ways in which outdoor educators and learners encounter, locate themselves within, move through, and identify themselves in outdoor spaces or places.

The question arises – which comes first, space or place? This question is of more than theoretical interest. As already discussed in the previous chapter, the adventure and experiential education paradigms in outdoor education practice are largely premised on an assumption that outdoor places are empty spaces on which certain desires and ideologies can be projected and enacted. Walter’s (1998) quotation below provides a typical interpretation of the first position, that space precedes place and that place is solely a cultural construction.

A place has no feelings apart from the human experience there. But a place is a location of experience. It evokes and organizes memories, images, feelings, meanings, and the work of imagination. The feelings of a place are indeed the mental projections of individuals, but they come from collective experience and they do not happen anywhere else. They belong to the place. (p. 21)

Many scholars of place share this view. Relph (1976, 12) believes that ‘existential or lived-space is the inner structure of space as it appears to us in our concrete experiences of the world as members of a cultural group’. For Relph, our experience of space is culturally defined. Ian Watson’s (1990) book, Fighting Over the Forests, is a compelling study of the radically different beliefs held by conservation campaigners and forest industry workers for the same tracts of land in northern New South Wales. He suggested that ‘people inhabit cultural worlds’ (p. xix), which are summations of a diverse range of elements (work, family, gender, local environment, entertainment and so on). Tuan (1977) hints at the primordial qualities of space and how, as humans, we fashion a place for ourselves from a meaningless void.

Space is a common symbol of freedom in the Western world. Space lies open; it suggests the future and invites action … Open space has no trodden paths and signposts. It has no fixed pattern of established human meaning; it is a blank sheet on which meaning may be imposed. Enclosed and humanised space is place. (p. 54)

European explorers of the Australian continent filled the blank sheets of their expedition journals with narratives in which we can now ‘discern the process of transforming space into place’ (Carter 1988, xxiii), or so it seems. The preference for a view of land as empty space, as opposed to one which was already occupied and brimful of meanings and significance, made it possible to erase or ignore the original and rewrite it with another set of beliefs and meanings. ‘The left hand creates the tabula rasa upon which the right hand will inscribe its civilisation,’ writes the anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose (2004, 62). We recall Seddon’s question; whose place was it in the first place? Thus the orientation we assume to the relationship between space and place is fundamental for settler societies like Australia and New Zealand, with their mix of indigenous and imported knowledge systems and practices, as they struggle towards reconciliation not just between peoples but also with places.

If there is to be any hope for a reconciliation between traditional and settler peoples, and between settlers and the land in a country like Australia, it becomes crucial to accept that

there is no place where the feet of Aboriginal humanity have not preceded those of the settler. Nor is there any place where the country was not once fashioned and kept productive by Aboriginal people’s land management practices. There is no place without a history; there is no place that has not been imaginatively grasped through song, dance and design, no place where traditional owners cannot see the imprint of sacred creation. (Rose 1996, 18)

From this perspective Australia was never an empty space for the colonisers to fill with meaning. It was always a place fully invested with significance, reaching far back beyond human history and memory. The late ecological historian Geoff Park wrote compellingly about the impact of the European imagination transposed onto New Zealand landscape. Whereas Australia was imagined as a ‘prison-scape’ (Park 1995, 13), New Zealand was seen more as a garden or pasture and an opportunity to rebuild the very best of British society in a remote, ideal community. Yet the consequences for local ecology and native peoples has been every bit as damaging as it has been in Australia.

In Ngā Uruora (The Groves of Life) Park carefully details the damage done to the lowland forests which covered most of New Zealand when Europeans first landed there and which now have all but vanished. Europeans believed that they had a cultural licence and obligation to clear and improve the forest and replace it with productive farming land and ‘civilised’ communities.

The sad fact of New Zealand’s lowlands is that they were found, possessed and gutted by a foreign culture at a point in its history when … the mystique of industry entranced it more than the mystique of nature. (Park 1995, 307)

That many scholars of place continue to write from the perspective that space precedes place and that a place develops only as a result of human experience is curious. Yet this belief is deeply entrenched in the traditions of Western thought. Casey (1996) suggests that it was the abstract physics of Newton and the critical philosophy of Kant that resulted in places becoming ‘the mere apportionings of space, its compartmentalisations’ (p. 14). In his argument for a return to place, Casey (1996) asks us to avoid the ‘the high road of modernism … to reoccupy the lowland of place’ (p. 20). Place can then be considered both premodern and postmodern: ‘it serves to connect these two far sides of modernity’ p. 20).

If we are to find our way back to place we may need to accept that a genius loci, a local spirit-of-place, is already residing there. In Norberg-Schulz’s (1980) classic work Genius Loci: Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture, he reactivates (or re-animates) the ancient Roman belief that every ‘independent’ being has its genius, its guardian spirit: ‘this spirit gives life to people and places, accompanies them from birth to death, and determines their character or essence’ (Norberg-Schulz 1980, 18). As an architect and designer Norberg-Schulz is imploring us to be quiet, to be attentive to the subtle, local elements at work, combining to provide the essential character of a place. The organic or place-responsive architect is expected to become attuned to these qualities about a place and build in sympathy with them. Genius loci is the belief that the land and things within it have inherent meaning; the rock, the tree, the bird each contain a spiritual force that contributes to the totality of the land.

Yet it is difficult to loosen the grip of rationalism. George Seddon (1997) considered that ‘it would be dangerous to assume that there really is a genius loci’ (p. 106). It is a useful concept, he argues, but it remains culture-bound. Relph (1976) seems even less hopeful (for Western cultures at least). He sees an irreconcilable gulf between ‘the existential space of a culture like that of the Aborigines and most technological and industrial cultures – the former is “sacred” and symbolic, while the latter are “geographical” and significant mainly for functional and utilitarian purposes’ (p. 15). It is just such a gulf that David Tacey (1995, 2000) suggests settler Australians must cross if they are to have any hope of reconciliation. Yet, he warns, that the ‘“spirit of place” is by now a cliché of journalism and a cash-cow of tourism, but “spirit place” is altogether different, a powerful visionary claim that smashes almost everything we know’ (Tacey 2003, 243).

Despite the fact that it might be severely diminished, ‘Any stretch of country, no matter how pervasive agriculture’s marks, has an indwelling life force, waning or waxing, which distinguishes it from any other’ (Park 1995, 331). But, can we identify with such a spirit-place or life force in the land? It is on just such a quest, to seek out the ‘inspirited earth’, that Read (2003) embarks and then writes about in Haunted Earth, the third book in his study of relationships between people and places in Australia.1 After conducting many interviews and a great deal of ethnographic fieldwork, Read concludes,

Almost everyone … has pointed me to the indivisible continuum, which starts at superstitious, flows to supernatural, spiritual, unexplainable, intuitive, weird, poetic, strange, odd, coincidental, probably coincidental, fairly explainable, testable, rational, repeatable, verifiable, scientifically exact. (p. 252)

Space or place? Perhaps to consider that we must make a choice between one or the other is to fall into the dualistic trap of forming binary opposites. Perhaps it makes more sense for us to consider that we slide backwards and forwards along a continuum between the two.

Space, place and landscape

One of the barriers to a more sensuous and perhaps even spiritual experience of place is the Western concept of landscape and the belief system that it represents. Landscape entered the English vocabulary at the end of the 16th century from the Dutch landschap, making it a younger concept than ‘wilderness’ (in the English language) by at least three centuries. It ‘signified a unit of occupation, indeed a jurisdiction … that might be a pleasing object of depiction’ (Schama 1995, 10). Landscape has become, perhaps, the quintessential appropriation of space by Western culture that stands in the way of knowing the particularities of local places. The American landscape scholar J. B. Jackson (1984) believes that we have come to use the word landscape carelessly. For Jackson, the old-fashioned definition of landscape as ‘a portion of the earth’s surface that can be understood at a glance’ (1984, 8) has begun to change and evolve. The geographer D. W. Meinig (1979) presents a simple exercise worthy of consideration. He writes of getting together a group of people from a similar cultural background and standing with them upon a vantage point in the countryside. All are viewing the same scene. Independently they see, or construct, the same landscape differently as nature, habitat, artefact, system, problem, ideology, wealth, history, aesthetic, and place. Meinig argues that each may construct the same landscape in multiple combinations of these interpretations – often internalising complex and contradictory meanings.

This exercise is a useful starting point with students. It can be done for a place with which they are already familiar or a place that is relatively new to them. Attempting to see a landscape through each of Meinig’s ‘lenses’ begins to bring to the surface their own preferences. It is possible for them to gain some insights into the contradictory sets of values and expectations that we often harbour for the same place. But it is a limited exercise. It is largely an intellectual task and does not have much of an experiential component.

From this perspective we are now more likely to accept Schama’s (1995) suggestion that landscape has more to do with the intellect than it does with the body: ‘Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock’ (pp. 6–7). For Relph (1985), landscapes ‘cannot be embraced, nor touched, nor walked around. As we move, so the landscape moves, always there, in sight but out of reach’ (p. 23). Thus landscape is a dominant and pernicious idea in Western culture. We are fed a constant diet of landscape images through the media, each scene carefully captured and arranged in all its imagined perfection. We then carry this image-bank around with us, struggling to match the reality of what we find – the light not quite right, the crowd of (other) tourists getting in the way – with the scene we had already anticipated. We need to be wary of confusing the assumptions entailed in the viewing of a landscape with the phenomenon of experiencing a place.

The Canadian James Raffan explains (1992) that ‘although land exists, the scape is a projection of the human consciousness … [the] land – the thing you can walk on, measure, map, paint, buy, sell and assay – is transformed in the human mind into landscape, a much broader, far reaching, and illusive entity’ (p. 6). Therefore, the landscape is always shaped and arranged by the viewer, and not by the land itself. The picturesque landscape is ‘seen from a “station”, a raised promontory in which the spectator stands above the earth, looking down over it in an attitude of Enlightenment mastery’ (Bate 2000, 13). In colonial times in Australia forest trees were cleared from chosen vantage points, and platforms built in order that the artist could see the scene ‘properly’ and thus render it onto canvas (Bonyhardy 2000). The equivalent, in contemporary times, is the endless proliferation of viewing platforms built in National Parks and on the carefully selected sites of scenic drives. The landscape designer has already preceded the tourist and selected and arranged the scene before them.

There are several dangers in these definitions of landscape and their uses. Yes, a material Earth is acknowledged as existing, but it always seems to be valued as secondary to human socially constructed projections cast upon it. The problem is exacerbated when the viewing subject interprets the scene and confirms the cultural norm. This leads to the belief that ‘nature’, ‘wilderness’, ‘landscape’, ‘place’ are just more of a vast range of our intellectual inventions that can readily be re-invented, re-imagined and re-projected to fill or modify the space before us.

Experiencing places only as landscapes, as projections of our assumptions and desires, makes them more readily available for our expropriation and consumption. We do not need to look far to be reminded of how places are presented, packaged and consumed in such pervasive, everyday media as tourism marketing, land developers’ billboards and the travel pages of the weekend newspapers. Natural places increasingly seem to be close and attainable but as we reach for them the shimmering image retreats or fades.

In such media and processes the sensing body has become sidelined. Our preference for particular historical-cultural ideas and interpretations seems to precede our experience. Authentic nature, or place, becomes unattainable. Is there a way through this impasse? To grapple with this question we need to turn our attention to the differences in how we relate to places as insider or outsider (Relph 1976).

Insider or outsider

In Place and Placelessness, Edward Relph (1976) was clearly inspired by the writings of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Relph sought to understand not just the identity of a place, ‘but also the identity that a person or group has with that place, in particular whether they are experiencing it as an insider or as an outsider’ (p. 45). To be an insider is to belong to a place. To live in a place is to be safe and secure in the world, to have a centre of meaning and existence. To be an outsider is to be adrift, to be constantly homeless – an alien.

One of Relph’s most pertinent contributions to the discourse of place remains his characterisations of what it means to be an insider or an outsider. When Tuan (1977) writes that modern humans rarely establish roots and that the ‘experience of place is superficial’ (p. 183) he is suggesting that lack of sufficient time in one place, as a result of mobility and lifestyle, ultimately makes it nearly impossible for a member of modern society to experience place authentically. What hope is there then for the outdoor education participant who may visit a place once, or even if they were to begin the process of developing familiarity with a place through repeated short visits?

The outsider is one who has a ‘largely unselfconscious attitude in which places are experienced as little more than a background or setting for activities’ (Relph 1976, 52). Much outdoor recreation and education that uses places as an arena for human development clearly risks this lack of identification with place and results in a short-term raid mentality, as the Australian academic Andrew Brookes (1993) has characterised it, where the experience of the activity is what matters and participants are considered to be self-sufficient, requiring no dependence upon the local community or setting for information or resources.

Imagine a piece of land set up as an orienteering course to teach navigation skills. The novice walkers are given a map marking the checkpoints. They then spend a few moments plotting an efficient cross-country course to collect the checkpoints. Compass bearings are taken and walked, or run, along and various navigation strategies are employed to minimise the possibility of missing a checkpoint and wasting time. Students learn to interpret subtle features on a topographic map, an implied knoll or re-entrant perhaps. They learn to use a ridgeline as a ‘handrail’ and a creek as a ‘catching feature’. But really, the surrounding land and its rich history and ecology are comp-
letely ignored.

One defence of the above scenario could be that the experience was simply planned around developing some navigational skills so that students could go on a bushwalking or tramping journey in the future. Once there, they would have more time to learn about the place that they were in. However, the difficulty that arises with this approach is that the first experience has set the tone for the next. The student has already learnt how to be in the bush. The next journey becomes an exercise in applying that hard-won new set of ideas and skills, albeit in a more demanding situation. The students spend more time looking at their topographic maps and setting compass bearings than, say, following the remnants of an Aboriginal trade path or an explorer’s trail. They may, for example, locate themselves by deploying technology and techniques rather than contour around a hill-face along a vegetation line. To the learner the place is experienced as devoid of history and ecology. It is simply a surface, with a few obstacles in the way, to move over. This cultural template of the existential outsider is persistent and pervasive. We may tend to replicate it as educators because we ourselves have been schooled in it and have succeeded, without ever realising that we were internalising a set of ideas and values that diminish the potential of local places.

In Relph’s continuum, there are only two levels of insideness that depict a deeper attachment to local place. The first of these is the empathetic insider. According to Relph this requires a willingness to open oneself to the significances of a place. One needs to strive to respect and develop a feeling for local places.

This involves not merely looking at a place, but seeing into and appreciating the essential elements of its identity. Such empathetic insideness is possible for anyone not constricted by rigid patterns of thought and who possesses some awareness of environment … To be inside a place empathetically is to understand that place as rich in meaning, and hence to identity with it, for these meanings are not only linked to the experiences and symbols of those whose place it is, but also stem from one’s own experiences. (Relph 1976, 54–55)

According to Relph (1976), empathetic insideness can be achieved through ‘training ourselves to see and understand places in themselves’ (p. 55). For Relph, the final and most advanced level of emplacement is the existential insider who equates with Heidegger’s inhabitant who dwells and cares for their home-place, possibly without even thinking about it, through the nature of their everyday activity. For the existential insider, place is full of significance which is experienced without the need for conscious reflective effort. It is characterised by an implicit acceptance that you simply belong to, and identify with, this place. Only in these final two levels of identification with place, if we interpret Relph correctly, is an authentic response to place possible.

An authentic attitude to place is thus understood to be a direct and genuine experience of the entire complex of the identity of places – not mediated and distorted through a series of quite arbitrary social and intellectual fashions about how that experience should be, nor following stereotyped conventions. (1976, 64)

The existential insider is an indigene, a long-time or lifetime inhabitant. It is depth or length of time that matters. There is a distinction to be drawn here between two different types of occupancy of a place. David Orr (1992) sees a significant difference between the ‘temporary resident’, who cares little about where they are, and has little desire to put down roots, and the inhabitant.

Canoe resting between trees on a river bank in the wilderness

“For the existential insider, place is full of
significance which is experienced without the need
for conscious reflective effort.”

The inhabitant, in contrast, ‘dwells’, as Illich puts it in an intimate, organic, and mutually nurturing relationship with a place. Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation, and a sense of care. (p. 130)

But Relph also sees possibilities for the empathetic insider who strives to recognise this form of deep attachment to place, even though they can never experience it fully. Ultimately for Relph, it is in these final two categories of insideness that people seek to be ‘at-home’, which becomes ‘an irreplaceable centre of significance’ (p. 39). Such an ‘at-homeness’ represents a sense of ‘absoluteness of place, of ‘time immemorial’ and of a mutual belonging between a place and a people’ (Massey 1995, 51).

Yet it is possible that the empathetic insider has an advantage over the life-long inhabitant when it comes to recognising the unique ensemble of qualities that make up a place. The empathetic visitor to a place is someone who searches for local meanings and seeks to gain a sense of a local place’s unique qualities. They may see and feel things that the inhabitant has become so used to that they are no longer consciously aware of them. They experience and interpret the phenomena of a place in contrast to where they have come from but also by actively opening themselves to possibility of a place.

Relph’s structures of place, although not without problems, remain useful sensitisers. They alert us to likely differences between local and visitor, but do not discount the possibility that the attentive and responsive visitor may see and experience place in great richness and depth in a relatively short passage of time, and even experience some sense of attachment and commitment to that place. The lesson for outdoor educators, it would seem, is to stay alert to the possibility that place experiences for both locals and visitors alike are rich in educative potential, but may require different pedagogic strategies. Intensity of experience may produce its own manifestations of the place experience, particularly as they live on in the memory of participants. The journeys of participants through the outdoors may constitute their own subjectivities of place and time, not considered by Relph and Heidegger, who maintained a focus on residency, inhabitation and dwelling. A crucial aspect of understanding how humans develop levels of attachment to places has to do with identity.

Place and identity

It has been suggested that place(s) can serve as a source of security and identity at both an individual and collective level (Gentry 2006; Nicol and Higgins 1998; Relph 1976). Gentry (2006, 13) has pointed out, ‘We all come from some place, and we all live in some place. Our identity and our very sense of authenticity, it seems, are inextricably bound up with the places we claim as “ours”’.

Clearly the formation of identity does not occur in a social or cultural vacuum (Weigert and Gecas 2005), nor does it occur in an isolated space devoid of the meanings ascribed to, and taken from, lived experiences of the individual or broader social groups’ interactions with their locales. Identity is constructed and reconstructed through interaction; the physical, social, and cultural contexts and discourses enable and constrain the possibilities for identity formation. For as Berzonsky reminds us, we cannot ‘whimsically construct or make up anything we desire’ (2005, 128). What place literature draws our attention to is the importance of the lived experience of place for individual and collective identity.

As discussed above, places are not simply locations or abstract concepts, rather they are sites of lived experience and meaning making. A number of New Zealand and Australian writers have focused attention on how places, both real and imagined, contribute to discourses of national identity.

George Seddon’s books, A Sense of Place (1972), Searching for the Snowy: An Environmental History (1994), Landprints: Reflections on Place and Landscape (1997), and The Old Country: Australian Landscapes, Plants and People (2005), have made a lasting contribution to place scholarship both in Australia and internationally. Seddon was a polymath who would bring to the study of a place his knowledge of geology, geography, history, literature, and art, not to mention the wearing out of a lot of boot leather walking the land itself. The important point is that in questions relating to a place, Seddon started with the place itself. He believed that the concept ‘sense of place’ should be applied ‘with caution, because it is a form of appropriation’ (1997, 106). Its popularity has made the concept problematic, ‘championed by outsiders’ (Bonyhardy and Griffiths 2002, 9), a catch-all phrase just as likely to be deployed aggressively in tourism promotion and real estate development, and even conservation campaigns. When people become aware of their intense connection to particular places, it is possible that contradictions emerge to directly challenge the basis of those connections.

When the Australian historian Peter Read (2000) refers to ‘proper country’ in his book Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership, he is referring to the Gai-mariagal country, the deep sandstone region just north of Sydney. ‘Proper country’ is formed out of his ‘deep memory and experience’ (p. 7), gathered through growth from childhood to adulthood, and in particular through fresh insights from his friend Dennis Foley, an indigenous (Gai-mariagal) custodian of the region. According to Read (2000), his memory-map of the area would ‘take a day to draw’ (p. 8). For Read there is a significant dilemma with his attachment to this country. The place he loves, and is tempted to call his ‘soul country’, has already been ‘wrested from Indigenous people who loved them, lost them and grieve for them still’ (p. 2). Read (2000, 9) asks: ‘Do I have the right to belong to this soul-country?’. He personifies Seddon’s question: Whose place is it to belong to in the first place? We may feel compelled to reflect and ask, especially when we adopt the perspective of the empathetic insider: Who am I to identify with this place? How can I become reconciled with this place’s past, and the memories that it carries, as I develop my own attachment to it?

The question of how colonising peoples can belong or claim attachment to a place has been the topic for debate and discussion amongst both academics and social commentators. By way of example, the author Witi Ihimaera has suggested that in New Zealand people have a fixation on their identity (Ihimaera 1994). While Ihimaera’s comments are located in a New Zealand context, it could be argued that these sentiments resonate in many countries where indigenous peoples have been affected by large-scale migration from other cultural groupings. For Māori, identity can be rooted in the claim to be tangata whenua, the first people of the land. While for Pākehā (loosely defined as the original settlers or the descendants of British colonisers), and other immigrant groups, it is based on being here as ‘secondary’ inhabitants. Questions about belonging and connection feature in public discourse as non-Māori New Zealanders attempt to make sense of who they are in relation to this place; a place that is their home and has been for their forebears. Park (1995, 320) re-iterates Seddon’s sentiments about whose place it is, when he asks in the New Zealand context, ‘What is this place about? How do we fit into it?’ Again writing from a New Zealand perspective, but with a similarity to Australian settlers of European origin, Claudia Bell (1996) has suggested that for settlers the relationship with the land

became a component of national identity constructs. Settlers did not have the kinship networks and family relationships, or long-term family associations with place, that they had in Britain, or that Māori has here. Identification with the environment gradually became defined not by one’s connections or family location in Britain, but by owning land here. This early influence of the environment on ‘national character’ has been claimed by historians as having an enduring affect on national imagery for New Zealand. (p. 5)

Images of European settlers taming the wilds of the Australian bush, or bringing water to the inland desert, or clearing lowland forests in New Zealand for dairy farming, permeate both countries’ settler stories and they continue to ‘frame’ images of national identity (e.g. Barry Crump’s A Good Keen Man, 1960). Bell suggests that New Zealanders (and possibly Australians?) have adopted two different versions of the romanticised landscape in claiming a distinctiveness in their identity. The landscape is ‘either beautiful but potentially dangerous: sanctified, visited, enjoyed, photographed, then left; a vision to inspire. Or it is beautiful and beautifully cultivated, a tribute to both nature itself and to the efforts of human labour’ (C. Bell 1996, 29).

The following quotation illustrates the connection between place and the collective imagination which finds expression in national identity:

national identity based on physical geography, and on idealisation of lifestyles within nature, is persistently used as our claim to fame … Most [of the population] live in cities, well away from the sublime landscape. We know these cities are much like those of everywhere else while our nature isn’t. Nature persists in the imagery that shows our difference, and is a reality that can be affirmed by a short drive out of town, reinforcing the aptness of these representations over those of city life. Perhaps it is because we feel we have little else to offer that nature gets such high mileage.2

An Australian reader of Bell’s quotation might have conjured images of white sandy beaches, the red sand and vast skies of the outback, the bulk of Uluru, kangaroos, or perhaps the Great Barrier Reef. For New Zealand readers, it might be the jagged Southern Alps, thermal mud pools, the tumbling glaciers on the West Coast, or the kiwi. For readers from other countries different images will have sprung to mind – the point worth emphasising here is that we often associate our ‘uniqueness’ with reference to the distinctiveness of our place (even at a national level). The appeal to the ‘specialness of our place’, as distinct from all others, as a source of identity, is mirrored not only at a national level but is used by local councils and shires to promote the uniqueness and character of their particular location or region.

However, modern society is fragmented by increasing mobility, transient work arrangements and changing family and kinship formations. It has been argued that these changes mean that ‘places are no longer the clear supports of our identity’ (Morley and Robins 1993, 5). As alluded to earlier this point has been extensively explored by the geographer Doreen Massey who has argued that places are open, porous and fluid rather than static and fixed. She argues that just as people have multiple identities so to
do places.

Massey notes that in the post-modern society there is a line of thought which suggests that ‘in the middle of all this flux, people desperately need a bit of peace and quiet – and that a strong sense of place, of locality, can form one kind of refuge from the hubbub’ (Massey 1994, 151). However, she believes this may be little more than ‘romanticized escapism from the real world’ (p. 151). For Massey (2005) any sense of authentic place will remain elusive, for if modernity has taught us anything, it has taught us that there can be no rules for place. For people, place happens, but in that happening it is already changing into something else.

Massey argues that ‘what gives a place its specificity is not some long internalized history but the fact that it is constructed out of a particular constellation of social relations, meeting and weaving together at a particular locus’ (1994, 154). The passage through, and settlement of, places by different peoples with different purposes illustrates the fluidity of meanings ascribed to places. By way of example, the New Zealand government has recently tabled a discussion document concerning mining in land currently in National Parks. This has sparked strong debate as environmentalists, local residents, economists, miners, and politicians stake their claims as to what these places represent (economic opportunity or environmental disaster?). This provides a good example of Massey’s assertion that places have no singular unique identity. Massey suggests that rather than viewing places as areas with specific boundaries

they can be imagined as articulated moments in networks of social relations and understandings, but where a large proportion of those relations, experiences and understandings are constructed on a far larger scale than what we happen to define for that moment as the place itself, whether it be a street, or a region or even a continent. (pp. 154–155).

Viewing places and sites of contestation and change, within broader social relationships and interactions, problematises simplistic attributions of identity with place. Massey contends that the anti-essentialist concept of place undermines claims that there is an immutable ‘authentic character of any particular place’ (1994, 121).

However appealing it may be, it is difficult to argue, from the position outlined above, that it is possible to construct a coherent and essential sense of personal or social identity by a simple recourse to a place. What Massey draws our attention to is the interconnectedness of social relations and the changing, contested meanings attributed to places. Place, as ‘open and porous networks of social relations’ (Massey 1994, 121) recasts the role that places play in identity formation and creates space for individuals and groups to ‘become’ in a creative rather than prescriptive manner.

The role of place, as a source of identity, is overlooked or only acknowledged tangentially in outdoor education text books, the notable exception being Outdoor and Experiential Learning: Views from the Top. In that text, Brian Wattchow (2005) suggested that in discussing our relationship to place we need to move beyond the simplistic descriptor that outdoor education is about learning relationships in, about or for the environment/nature. He has suggested that, ‘An Outdoor Education in experiencing relationships in place is better, as it signals the fundamental importance of experiencing and the crucial contribution of place in identity formation and sustenance’ (Wattchow 2005, 14).

If, as mentioned earlier, ‘a sense of place is a fundamental human need’ (Park 1995, 320), then we could do well to understand our own and others’ values in relation to places and its meanings for how we construct and understand our identities. To treat outdoor places as merely a venue or vacant space for learning impoverishes their potential for education. Important questions and themes for a more place-responsive outdoor education practice begin to emerge here. Outdoor places, like home places, have a vital role to play in the development and sustenance of identity. These places are always produced via a set of complex human-land interactions that is larger than the individual. Outdoor places need to be approached with a sense of humility: What has happened here? Who has lived here? How have they lived here? What seems to be happening to this place now – how is it changing? What is my role in that change? How we experience a place is shaped through our modes of travel, how long we are prepared to linger in a place, whether we put down roots or explore our origins in a place, and how much effort we are prepared to make to get to know and empathise with locals.

The body in place

In his phenomenology of the place experience, Edward Casey (1993) is prepared to extend a notion of Heideggerian dwelling-as-residing with a dwelling-as-wandering in wild-places. A wild-place has different connotations to a wilderness. Indeed, for Casey, an embodied implacement as a wanderer in the wild is possible if we become attuned to the sensing body and its fundamental significance in the place experience. Such a belief leads us to the consideration of corporeality and the role it plays in the lived experience of outdoor places.

In the previous chapter we discussed how the role of the body in learning is potentially sidelined in outdoor adventure education in two ways. First, in an adventure paradigm the location utilised may be treated as an arena, where human action in a novel terrain is directed towards personal achievement at the expense of sensing where one actually is. Second, the preference given to cognition in experiential learning cycles may discount other more embodied ways of knowing as participants struggle to articulate how they felt about the experience. In this chapter we have already spent some time considering how place results from a complex amalgam of geophysical qualities in the environment, community interaction and cultural beliefs that develop for a place. Now, we must return to the role of the body in the experience of place.

We have suggested that places are, in part, a product of culture. But places, especially how learners begin to sense a place, need to be considered at another level to be a personal, intimate and embodied encounter. Outdoor educators, with their preference for learning about the outdoor world experientially, have a powerful pedagogic advantage over many other subject areas. We believe that the sensing body is a pathway to embodied knowing that is currently under-utilised in outdoor education practice. In addition, when we make ourselves aware of the sensing body in learning, we immediately become aware again of how crucial place is to the educational experience. For body and place are inextricably linked.

In their book Places Through the Body (1998) Nast and Pile argue that a consideration of place immediately implicates the body, and vice versa.

Both bodies and places need to be freed from the logic that says that they are either universal or unique. Instead, it would be better to think of the ways in which bodies and places are understood, how they are made and how they are interrelated, one to the other – because this is how we live our lives – through places, through the body. (p. 1)

The Australian historian William Lines, (2001) recalling his childhood in Western Australia, wrote

My body linked me to the material. I ached fiercely with attachment and love for the wild. I walked barefoot through the swamp and felt water and algae close on my legs and mud ooze through my toes; I walked barefoot through the sandy scrublands of the coastal plain and felt needles and barbs prick the soles of my meet and cut my shins; I walked barefoot through the rocky forest of the Darling Scarp and felt the pressure of the stone underfoot. (p. 14)

Lines (2001) has argued that we develop an everyday metaphysics for what we sense is real through our bodily interactions with the world. ‘I learnt about Australia through my body’ he writes, ‘through what I could sit on, touch, taste, see, breath, smell, and move within. My surroundings gave me my reality. My corporeality incorporated the world’s corporeality’
(p. 65). Lines rejects the postmodern belief that our experiences of the world are only a matter of our enculturation. The corporeal experience of place is not something necessarily lost as the child matures. Rather it becomes suppressed in the adult world of the mind, a process we see promoted by current methods in experiential education.

Casey’s (1993) notion of embodied implacement is a vital addition to Heidegger and Relph’s theories of place. It gives a clearer notion of how we are always indebted to the experiential qualities of life. Together they provide a valuable insight into our potential work as educators in the outdoors. It is learners’ bodies that remain the ultimate centre of their learning. Learning cannot be considered separate from their embodied interactions and connections with place. Thus there is the possibility of a mutualism of embodied and reflective/interpretive learning which establishes the pedagogical boundaries of an educational practice that occurs within a place. We might think of this as a pedagogical meeting ground between body, mind and place. It is important that, as educators, we develop a good understanding of this phenomenon.

The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggested that there is a rich vein of experience that may be tapped that exists beneath all of our social and cultural layers of interpretation. There can be no individualistic, disembodied, detachable consciousness from either the body or the world. This does not deny that we also exist in social and cultural worlds, and ‘our perspective is determined not only by space and time, but by history and culture’ (Matthews 2002, 21). The influence of society upon our perspective places a limitation on us, but this limitation does not extend to the world itself. Merleau-Ponty did not argue that we should dismiss science, geography, philosophy or any other knowledgeable system humans have developed in order to know about the world. Rather he asserted that we should consider the world of experience prior to our worlds of abstract meanings. Matthews (2002) summarised Merleau-Ponty’s views on this point.

Because we are active within the world, that world must present itself to us as meaningful; but because we are also finite and within the world, those meanings must always also be ambiguous and the world must transcend our capacity to know and understand it. Reality is ‘inexhaustible’, and there can be no possibility of the philosopher, or any other human being, arriving at a final ‘system’ that will make ultimate sense of it all. (pp. 20–21)

Outdoor education practice exits, then, in the fine balance between the pre-discursive and pre-conceptual sensual experience of the learner, the ability to reflect rationally upon their experiences, and in the acts of representation of those experiences and reflections. This sounds similar to the action-reflection divide that we critiqued in the last chapter. The difference is in stressing the interdependency of each.

Rather than promote a mind-body separation, a mutualism of body-mind is celebrated. And the learner’s body-mind becomes deeply enmeshed with the place that is experienced. As outdoor educators it is at once both sobering and liberating to realise that we cannot teach embodied implacement. We can only shape the opportunity and guide learners towards the possibility of this kind of experiential encounter. How then should we consider the phenomenon of the body in a way that will assist in developing new approaches to practice in outdoor education?

More than any other of the phenomenological philosophers Merleau-Ponty (2002) established that the essence of our experiences in the world is one of an embodied-relatedness.

We witness every minute the miracle of related experience, and yet nobody knows better than we do how this miracle is worked, for we are ourselves this network of relationships. (p. xxiii)

As Seamon (1979, 47) suggested, ‘movements are learned when the body has understood them, and this understanding can be described as a set of invisible threads which run out between the body and the world with which the body is familiar’. In other words, an important aspect of embodied emplacement has to do with a person’s ability to live and move in ways that are harmonious with their place. Without the ability of the body to learn to live and move in this way, we would not be able to function in day-to-day life. Merleau-Ponty’s conceptualised this notion as the ‘body-subject’. This raises concerns about outdoor education practice when participants are continually taken to novel terrains, or are given increasingly challenging tasks to complete. In this scenario learners never become comfortable with their situation. Instead, they feel like they are living, or rather clinging, to a risky edge. A sensation of being on the uncertain frontier is felt rather than being at ease. What are the consequences of taking learners to novel terrain, and how do they adapt? How do we sustain ourselves in familiar and unfamiliar places? These are important questions for outdoor educators.

What is most important here from an educational standpoint is a renewed belief in the value of embodied ways of knowing. This is an important element that could give outdoor education an alternative and distinctive pedagogical advantage. Rather than become increasingly like other subjects that strive to prescribe, abstract, objectify and evaluate learning (cognitive learning at least) within an inherently conservative education system, outdoor education could be renewed around a set of beliefs and practices immersed in the significance of outdoor places and how learners experience them. Rather than persist with an adherence to some rather time-worn ideas about adventure, novelty and risk, outdoor educators might actively seek collaborations with other educators who also resist the disembodiment and decontextualisation of knowledge from the learner’s knowing and experience.

Outdoor educators may then find strong allies in the creative arts (such as dance, drama, art), which also rely very much upon the body as a medium of expression and learning. Strong similarities could also be drawn with the humanities where, as we have seen with cultural geography, historical fieldwork and creative writing for example, it is possible to commit to exploring and experiencing the richness and potential of a topic and/or place as much as is humanly possible.


In this chapter we have discussed the foundations of place scholarship and attempted to consider them in relation to the challenges facing outdoor educators, guides and participants. At the most fundamental level we have made a case for place as a central and crucial component of living, including young people’s experiences within education. People and places always exist in mutual bonds of interdependence. Both people and places have a physical reality, but it is the identities of both people and places that are continually emerging as an unfolding, interdependent phenomenon – always evolving, always becoming. As the future of places is inherently linked with how humans experience them, there is tremendous potential for outdoor education to make a significant contribution to the wellbeing of both people and places.

In the introductory chapter we mentioned the significance of educating for a changing world and how learners need to be able to critique, and contribute to, the community of which they are a part. We have not written about the forces, such as global climate change or political and economic instability, which will impact and perhaps even accelerate learners’ experiences of their world changing. Regardless of whether the forces that bring change are global, national or regional, they will always be experienced by people locally. That is the central argument we are making in this chapter. People, local places and the experience of change are indivisible.

For this reason we turn in the next chapter to current accounts of place-based practices in education and to recent research conducted in outdoor education that has considered the significance of place in learners’ experiences. This sharpens the focus considerably on the likely issues and challenges facing outdoor education as it moves from contemporary approaches towards an alternative philosophical foundation and renewed forms of practice.

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘The Case for Place’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 51–76.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown