Study Two: “I’m Just Kind of Land”: Finding Self in Place

bettina heinz. Presented at the Canadian Communication Association Convention May 28, 2009, Ottawa, ON.

The author would like to thank Research Assistant Rupinder Mangat for her assistance in interviewing and transcribing interviews.

A version of this paper was accepted by peer review for publication in the first edition of the Canadian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences. CJHSS is no longer published.

Introduction

“All human beings share common perceptions, a common world, by virtue of possessing similar organs.” (Tuan, 1974, p. 5)

“I know that birding has actually changed my sight in the sense that it has made me focus in different ways. I think I actually see more since I’ve been birding because I’m more alert to detail in a certain way.” Barbara DiBernard, Lincoln, Nebraska

This project examines the relationships between human sensory perception, human sense of self and one’s geographical (natural) setting. In other words, it explores the ways we make meaning of our selves and our natural environment via communication.  While reflection and scholarship on the relationship between humans and their natural environment have thousands of years of tradition, this study seeks to make a contribution to an understudied area of inquiry within that general framework: intra- and interpersonal communication about our sensory experiences of space and place, which informs our sense of self.

Theoretical Framework

study-2-01Three of geographer Yi-Fu Tuan’s 19 books provide the theoretical foundation for this study. Two of these books were first published in the 1970s: Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience and Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. These books approached the relationships of humans to their natural environment by drawing from contemporary North American and ancient Chinese philosophy and culture. A more recent book, Place, Art and Self (2004) continues Tuan’s philosophical pursuit via several media. His work is rarely referenced in communication studies, perhaps due to the disciplinary divide between geography and communication. A December 2008 search of Communication & Mass Media Complete yields 13 articles with references to Tuan’s work (Czerny, 2008; Fatona, 2006; Hamera, 2005; Hattenhauer, 1984; Hood, 2005; Jack, 2007; Mazierska, 1999; Meloncon, 2007; Mountford, 2001; Olsson, 2005; Pollio, Fagan, Graves, & Levasseur, 2005; Strate, 1999; Zarefsky, 1998). Of these, one (Zarefsky, 1998) is a Spectra news item about a Tuan lecture, seven articles contain one-sentence references to Tuan’s work (Hattenhauer, 1984; Hood, 2005; Jack, 2007; Mazierska, 1999; Mountford, 2001; Olsson, 2005; Strate, 1999), and four contain two, three to four-sentence references to his work per article (Fatona, 2006; Hamera, 2005; Meloncon, 2007; Pollio, Fagan, Graves, & Levasseur, 2005). Space and Place is the most commonly cited work, followed by Topophilia. The most detailed integration of his work occurs in Czerny’s 2008 article on women writers, who used one extended citation from Space and Place. The recency of these citations might be interpreted as the renewed interest in Tuan’s contributions and their applicability to communication studies, or a general interest in considering human geography perspectives in communication studies. The scarcity of these citations might indicate much room for a detailed integration of his work into communication theory, in particular, environmental communication theory. (It should be noted, however, that environmental communication scholars, such as James Cantrill, have drawn to a greater extent on Tuan’s work, but this work is typically not captured in communication journals.)

     In essence, this study builds on Tuan’s notion that we rarely think about what we know, as opposed to what we know about. The focus lies on finding out how humans know environment, rather than what they know about it. Key underlying assumptions guiding this inquiry are that humans construct a sense of self through their senses and that it is in intrapersonal and interpersonal communication that this emerging self manifests itself. These assumptions are embedded in Tuan’s work. In Place, Art and Self (2004), Tuan explores, verbally and visually, what place, art and self have in common, how firm human attachment to place is and how it varies from person to person. He has been consistently intrigued by the processes by which space becomes place for humans. For Tuan, space is defined by human ability to move, by the spatial location of the human body in relation to other objects. Place, in contrast, is an object in which one can dwell and as such embodied with value. “Consciously or unconsciously, place is felt to have import,” Tuan writes (2004, p. 20), attributing the source of this feeling to nurture and identity. Tuan suggests that the length of immersion determines the depth of such feelings. “Permanent places accumulate more sentiment and play a greater role in our sense of self than do places we merely visit, or pass through,” he writes (2004, p. 16). While a more detailed elaboration is beyond the scope of this paper, the following theoretical assumptions can be distilled from a broad understanding of the philosophy expressed in Tuan’s work:

  1. Our sense of self (identity) is grounded in the sensory perceptions we derive from place.
  2. We are sometimes conscious of this dynamic, sometimes not.
  3. Our sense of self in place, like our sense of self in time, is likely discontinuous and varies from person to person.
  4. The degree of our immersion (length, exclusivity) in place will affect the degree to which a particular place shapes our sense of self.

study-2-02Of course, these assumptions have been widely written about, in disparate areas such as philosophy, literature, environmental activism, policy design, human geography, and, to some degree, communication studies. Sociologist Ziemann (2002) argues that the operation and function of sensory perception can only be observed and expressed as reflected in communication. Specifically, he suggests that sociological systems theories reveal the historical and cultural construction of sensory perception. The tradition of sociological research on sensory perceptions dates back to the 1900s (see Georg Simmel’s work on the sociology of space first published in 1908, for example) and remains popular (e.g. DeNora, 2003; Martin, 1997; Waskul & Vannini, 2008). Environmental communication scholars tend to privilege other approaches to human communication of space and place. The fairly recent subfield of environmental communication has rapidly grown into an academic field of its own. The Environmental Communication Division of the U.S.-based National Communication Association, for example, was only formed in the 1990s. Today, there are scholarly, international networks on environmental communication (such as the Environmental Communication Network), faculty appointments and research centres in environmental communication, degree programs and so forth. In Canada (and at this Congress), the Environmental Studies Association is home to scholars who foreground the environment in their studies of communication and culture.  But most of the widely used textbooks and anthologies within communication studies (Cantrill & Oravec, 1996; Cox, 2006; Corbett, 2006; Herndl & Brown, 1996; Moser & Dilling, 2006; Muir & Veenendall, 1996; Waddell, 1997) tend to fall into two types of content categories: analyses of public discourse and case studies. A review of the literature of environmental communication (Pleasant, Shanahan, Cohen, & Good, 2001) concluded that the phenomenal growth of such literature is likely to continue, that this growth is spread widely across a diverse range of journals, and that articles on media and public environmental discourse tend to dominate. Sense of place, in this scholarly framework, typically refers to the emotional and symbolic identification with an area (Cantrill, 1998). Environmental communication studies exploring the ties between sense of place and human environmental management often seek to recommend strategies for natural resources agencies. The present study locates itself earlier in the process; it seeks to uncover how we get from the experience of space to a sense of place. It is a reflection of the dominant framework that Cantrill and Oravec (1996) suggest in their introduction to The Symbolic Earth: Discourse and Our Creation of the Environment: “Of our environment, what we say is what we see. The environment that we experience and affect is largely a product of how we have come to talk about the world” (p. 1-2). The present study does not take issue with this claim; it is a position the author has also argued elsewhere (Heinz, Cheng, & Inuzuka, 2007; Heinz & Lee, 1998). The present query, however, seeks to privilege the flip side of this equation. While we may see what we say, we also say as we see. Our ways of seeing, and by extension, using our other senses, is at the heart of this investigation. The study thus seeks to provide initial answers to two broad research questions:

RQ1: What do people know about their interaction with their environment?

RQ2: Specifically, how do people experience their sensory interaction with their environment?

Methods

This paper presents the preliminary results of two of four sets of ongoing data collection, which consist of interviews with residents of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado in the United States and with residents in the greater Calgary area in 2008 and 2009. Twenty participants (ranging in age from 22 to 78) were selected via snowball and convenience sampling and asked to speak about the ways in which they perceive and communicate about their everyday environment with a specific focus on each of the senses – touch, taste, smell, hearing, and vision. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and an hour and followed a semi-structured interview guide (see Appendix); in some cases, the participants completed the interview guide in writing on their own and submitted it to the researcher. The face-to-face interviews were conducted by the researcher or a research assistant and audio-taped; interview and field notes were also taken. All participants gave informed consent to participate in accordance with research ethics review processes. All participants gave permission to use their real names and locations; they were given a copy of the transcribed interview to review (if applicable) and consent to use of the material.

Data Analysis

The transcribed interviews were analyzed using standard qualitative research methods (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002; Patton, 2001) in communication studies. Specifically, thematic analysis was conducted (Boyatzis, 1998; Lindlof & Taylor, 2002) in a manner similar to that employed two recent communication studies (Lin & Zhang, 2008; Prentice, 2008). The interview data was read multiple times to identify and interpret significant themes within specific units by individual question and, afterwards, overall across interview questions. Tuan’s theoretical framework, which guided the construction of the interview guide, also provided the thematic units. Interview answers were thus categorized into the following units: vision, touch, smell, hearing, taste and sense of self.

Findings

All but four participants interpreted the intentionally vague invitation to “describe the landscape you live in” as a reference to the natural environment and geographical setting at large; these four participants inquired about the level of specificity of ‘landscape’ and talked mostly about their immediate residential setting (urban neighborhoods). Two participants made a distinction between the landscape at large and their immediate residence, with Deb Hauswald noting that she has designed her residential space in the city to bring in the larger landscape. “I’ve manipulated my home space to feel more natural. I try to bring in native plants and pieces of Nebraska prairie,” she said. Other participants’ descriptions of their landscapes ranged from three to four adjectives (“Expansive. Open. Large. Wide.”) to several minutes of detailed descriptions. Participant Laurel Erickson described her landscape in the following words:

Oh. Depends on how much of the landscape you’d describe. (…) It’s all part of the Central Great Plains part of our country. The landscape at this eastern end where I live now is a landscape that results from significant more moisture in the form of rain, mostly, and sometimes snow, than the western end of the state. So at one time before European civilization this was basically grasslands with trees along rivers and specifically along the Missouri River which is on the eastern edge, and as you go west the grass got much shorter and the ground and climate much drier.  Most people believe Nebraska is flat – and it is flat along the central east-west river, the Platte River – Platte the French word for flat. But in fact away from that river – and particular in this eastern part of the state, there are a lot of rolling hills, now not so much grassland but agricultural  lands, specifically corn and soy beans, for the most part, a lot of beautiful hill sand valleys along the eastern edge of Nebraska, the bluffs along the Missouri river. (…) The most obvious thing when you’re not in the city, the most obvious thing about the landscape is the distance that you can see and the, what appears to be the big sky. The hills are not so big that you can’t see where you’re going which is, I think, my favourite part. I like to see where I’m headed. I like trees. I like mountains. But not too many of either and not too big. And not for too long a period of time. I want some open vision. I think that’s my favourite part. That and the sunsets that we get.

None of the participants hesitated in speaking to their favourite aspects of the landscape they live in. They identified the big sky, the colours, the definitive seasons, the mountains, and the expansive nature of space as favourite aspects. Participant Linda Aden, who identified the sky as her favourite landscape aspect, said: “I grew up on a central Nebraska farm. Some people are mountain people. Some people are water people. I’m just kind of land. I like the expanse, the solid.” Participant Angie Robertson identified the mountains as her favourite aspect of the landscape: “I love the proximity to the mountains that gives you somewhere to play, gives you somewhere to breathe.” Participants on average took a little bit longer to identify their least favourite aspects, which included the wind, feedlots, the scarcity of water, extreme summer heat or winter cold, population density, the scarcity of trees, the scarcity of large public areas of wilderness, mountains, and the winter/spring transition. Notably, the least favourite aspects appeared much more idiosyncratic; similar responses were less frequent. Two participants said they could not think of least favourite aspects. Participants were then primed to the importance of our senses in the way we experience our physical environment and guided through a series of questions focusing on individual senses.

Vision

According to Tuan, vision is the primary sense of the human animal and the one that provides the most information that is “detailed and specific spatially” (1974, p. 6). The primacy of vision in human sensory perception remains a common claim (e.g., Cole, 2001; Foster, 2008; Gerstel, 2008; Synnott, 1992); indeed, most of the participants spontaneously described vision as their primary sense.  All of the participants but three were immediately able to speak to this sense and recall specific examples. Individual differences, however, clearly emerged, for example in the proximity between the human observer and the objects observed. This is noteworthy because it speaks to the process by which spatial proximity between humans and objects serves to create perceptions of space that may transform into connections with place. Some participants stressed the importance of intentionally focusing sight on “smaller things like wildflowers, birds and butterflies.” Others noted the primacy of color and its significance on their perception of landscape. Like several other participants, Aden observed that sight would be the primary sense because of color perception. “They [colours] tend to be pretty vibrant here. The sky is really, really blue. Corn cobs are brilliant green. Sight is imperative to this landscape. There is nothing in this landscape – the color breaks up the landscape, the browns, the blues, the greens,” she said. Angie Robertson noted “being able to see the mountains, being able to see the prairies gives me a sense of freedom. What I can see gives me a sense of freedom, as odd as that sounds.” Only one participant, Diane Klaver, linked visual processing to a negative impression. “In my neighbourhood … everything is the same, like everything’s cookie cutter, everything’s in pastel colours, the trees are usually withered and dying … it gives me a sense of … of suburbia, typical suburbia, which I hate.”

 

Touch

Touch, or haptics, offers humans tangible information about the world and is a primary wayof  knowing the world in childhood. As Tuan offered: “We are always ‘in touch.’ (…) Touch is the (…) direct experience of the world as a system of resistances and pressures that persuade us of the existence of a reality independent of our imaginings” (1974, p. 8). Participants varied widely, however, in regard to how much meaning they gave to their tactile experiences. Several participants said they found it difficult to answer the question because nothing came to mind. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to this. About the only tactile contract with my surroundings comes when I work in the yard,” Nevell Razak said. For a handful of participants, though, touch emerged as a primary sense. “I touch everything. I’m a touchy feely person. I like to feel the bluegrass … I like to touch the sap and the leaves … go barefoot, and walk in the mud,” Klaver said. A few participants linked touch to the experiences of sitting or lying down. DiBernard said that lying on the earth is one of her favourite things to do. “I feel kind of an energy or a connection to the earth that way.” Robertson contrasted two neighbourhood parks, one with cobblestone and concrete and another with plain grass, which she prefers. “I think I feel better, and I feel more relaxed, even though the park with grass is kind of plain, I feel more relaxed in that one ‘cause I can actually sit on the grass.” Temperature was identified as an important aspect of touch – participants talked about feeling the warmth of the sun, the chill of a breeze, the cold burn of snow on their skin. Most of those who were able to generate an answer to the question, though, referred to their hands touching objects. Hauswald said she thinks her sense of touch has increased over the years. “I love the feel of the soil and I’m constantly aware of the feel of the wind or the breeze.” Christina Brantner contrasted touching in different settings. “I walk through the prairie very different from walking through a forest. With the prairie I have my hands stretched out to my left and to the right so I can touch all these grasses because that’s, that’s a wonderful thing, to touch all these different grasses,” she said.

Smell

According to Tuan, the human sense of smell is neglected and often comes with negative connotation, as in bad odor.  “Odor has the power to evoke vivid, emotionally charged memories of past events and scenes. A whiff of sage may call to mind an entire complex of sensations: the image of great rolling plains covered with grass and specked by clumps of sagebrush, the brightness of the sun, the heat, the bumpiness of the road” (Tuan, 1974, p. 10). Indeed, more than in reference to any other sense, participants generated negative examples of smell. “I think I usually when I’m aware of my sense of smell it’s when there’s something unpleasant like grease from a restaurant or smells out in the country from animal waste,” Judy Gibson observed. Other participants commented on feedlots and air pollution.  Wes Mundy said his sense of smell plays a strong role in his experience of landscape because “the city has a lot of unpleasant smells, and you know, you can smell all the pollution and stuff.” Seven participants noted that smell does not seem an acute sense for them other than perhaps the obvious pleasures of good-smelling flowers or trees. “Man has lost smell. We don’t use it much. We don’t sniff out critters anymore. But you know, decaying Cottonwood leaves and Sicamore trees have a distinct smell that’s really good,” Mark Schryer said. “A big rain gives you a feeling of well-being, you know, like the environment is being taken care of somehow, that things are right.” Other participants also expressed positive associations, such as the smell of the air before or after a rain or thunderstorm. Klaver, who said she likes to close her eyes and “just take in smells of anything like the fresh rain, in the summer, fresh cut grass, even like sawdust, just completely lose yourself. You can almost imagine something totally different, just by smell alone, and it brings back memories of like childhood even though I didn’t grow up here.” Aden recalled the “sweet, dusty scent of the ground mixing with native grasses. Sweet and savory. Corn has a sweet, pungent odor. Nothing else smells like it.”

Hearing

As Tuan (1974) observed, the sense of hearing in humans is less developed than in many other animals. This does not mean that hearing does not matter; on the contrary, while “the eyes gain far more precise and detailed information about the environment than the ears (…) we are usually more touched by what we hear than by what we see” (p. 8). Tuan contrasts the sensory effect of hearing thunder or cries of pain with visual imagery.

     Larry Zink contrasted man-made environments to natural environments. “I miss the subtle sounds of nature. Because there is so much urban noise, you really miss the nature sounds, when a bird sings is the clearest interjection of that. Sight, sounds, smell is all of the man-made versus natural; sound is the clearest example of that.” Other participants echoed the primacy of urban background noise. “For the most part, my environment is experienced from inside a car so it’s normally radio or something like that,” Kirsten Mundy said. While most participants classified urban noise as a negative distraction, others associated it with creating a comforting sense of communal living (e.g, hearing people go to work, shovelling snow, working in the yard next door). Many participants identified birdsong as a way of experiencing their landscapes, whether in cities or beyond; these participants also spoke to the role of conscious attention to the hearing process. “Rolling thunder. There’s nothing like it. (…) It’s just hard to get to where you don’t hear industrial noises mixed in. To get far enough to hear nothing but nature,” Carol Schryer observed. For Hauswald, the sound of movement in the grass stood out. “Insects in the late fall. They’re like a lullaby. I could listen to them all day long,” she said. Several participants noted the positive impact of silence. Erickson commented on the importance of hearing the things one doesn’t hear. “When you don’t hear people, cars, traffic you do hear insects, birds. The quiet in winter when the sound is dampened so that’s both the sounds of nature and the lack of sound. Sometimes it’s just the wind out there.” Bob Kuzelka noted the value of morning silence.

Taste

Tuan describes taste as a sense that complements experiental perspective. As a non-distancing sense, it does not provide us with spatial information per se, but it enriches “our apprehension of the world’s spatial and geometrical character” (1977, p. 12). Participants found taste the most challenging sense to link to their experience of their natural environment. More than half said they could not think of examples or did not think that taste played much of a role in this regard. Answers such as “I don’t taste anything particularly. I think out of all the senses, it’s probably the one I use least to experience my environment” were representative. “The prairie is kind of a taste- and odourless place,” one participant said. Several participants commented that they found the question surprising. Some made reference to picking berries or chewing on twigs while hiking. “Again, we’re too removed from our roots as far as we don’t forage anymore,” Carol Schryer said. I can look over and know that’s a wild strawberry plant but I don’t trust my instincts enough to eat that berry. So we just don’t know enough about nature anymore to taste it.” For six participants, taste was however directly linked to their experience of their environment via local food. “I used to eat dirt – it was actually quite good,” Aden said. “Biting into an ear of fresh corn, … everything that can be grown here in my part of the world.” Several participants noted that their  sense of taste is becoming more attuned to where they live, as part of a conscious effort to eat locally grown food. These participants typically referenced the slow-food movement or the 100-mile diet.

Simultaneous Sensory Perceptions

Humans, like other animals, perceive the world through all senses simultaneously (Knudson & Morrison, 2002; Tuan, 1974), but use only a fraction of the sensory input and information available to them, depending upon both individual and culture. When participants spoke to liking or disliking a landscape in its entirety, their answers reflected a mix of sensory processing. Differences in sensory perception seem to emerge in early childhood and individual preferences for particular senses became clear in the interviews. The dominance of sight and hearing, however, were affirmed. The interview responses reflected that the participants are aware of the interaction of their senses; although the questions guided them to speak to a distinct sense at a time, their answers often brought in other senses or expressed how the sensory input is related in the overall experience of place. In other words, although sight emerges as a primary sense whose impact is ‘easy’ to recall, the participants are also aware that it’s only part of their sensory experience.

Sense of Self

Almost all participants commented, whether when prompted through the specific question later or spontaneously early on in the interview, on the significance of place to their sense of self. While all participants affirmed a sense of connection, a specific sense of place, to their landscape, some participants spoke of that connection in very literal, physical terms, others in broader mind/body notions. “I guess when I’m outside and walking or riding that’s when I feel connected because then you’re not enclosed in a car. You’re, now you’re feeling the rain or snow or whatever,” Wes Mundy said. In an analogous fashion, Gerise Herndon observed her sense of connection directly with her backyard and garden. “I’ve nurtured the flowers and played with the cats for years in this environment and it’s therapeutic to spend hours and lose track of time just living completely in the present with other living things,” she said. Growing up on a farm nurtured a sense of closeness to the natural world, Zink observed.

     Other participants spoke of a direct relationship between their sense of self and their landscape at large. Erickson said she thinks that her environment has given her that sense of connectedness to the natural world: “I’m a prairie girl. I think it has just become a part of me. I’m very connected to it.” The pull of the native landscape also is strong for Aden: “I do feel connected. I move away and keep coming back here. There is something that draws me here. I don’t feel claustrophobic here.” Kuzelka said that he begins “to feel afraid when in forests, un-level when in mountains and in awe (maybe afraid) when on sea shores.” Most of the participants linked their current sense of connection to a landscape to repeated, continuous experiences of space that grew into a sense of place over time. Many expressed appreciation for childhood experiences that let them become aware of such a connection. “I would say just ‘cause since I’ve lived near the river for quite some time, being close to it I feel just like a real connection to like my past and just a sense of peace,” Klaver said. Gibson spoke of her connection to particular trees near her house: “We’ve chosen to keep some old trees even though people told us not to. I feel personally connected to those old elms that birds can live in even if they aren’t aesthetically pleasing to others. I’m also connecting things that have happened with places here.” DiBernard described her sense of connection in these words: “It’s so profound it’s hard to even say. But there’s something about it. I just need it. I need to be outside. I need to see the trees and birds and plants and I just, don’t feel right otherwise or if I’ve gone without for a while.” Hauswald said that her natural environment is “absolutely essential” to her well-being. “On a philosophical level, I think it’s essential to everyone’s well-being,” she added. Most participants were surprised to encounter a question that asked them whether they believe that their natural surrounding affects the way they communicate. These participants typically responded with noting that they had never thought about that and that it was an interesting question to consider, but one they couldn’t answer on the spot. Several chose to answer the question by referring to landscape-specific terminology or a lessened need to speak loudly. Among those who felt ready to answer the question, the themes of mood and of quality of communication emerged. Being in a pleasant outdoor setting elevates mood and decreases frustration, these participants said. Several expressed self-awareness that the nature of intrapersonal and interpersonal communication changes significantly with such settings. DiBernard recounted that she likes to think about the classes she teaches that day when she goes for a morning walk.” “There’s something about the movement as well as being in a somewhat natural environment– that I kind of get that germ of like, well, this is what that class should be about. And I think that the mornings I don’t do that or that doesn’t happen, somehow I don’t know, the classes aren’t as good. (…) It’s part of the physical movement and being outside and not being overly analytical.” Klaver also noted the clarity of thought:

I definitely have more clear thoughts when I go down to uh .. the green space. I can really organize myself in ways that I can’t when I’m just at home. Ideas and arguments are more clear, and because that, there’s that sense of peace, you don’t feel rushed or aggravated and you really contemplate things before you say them.

Communication in such natural settings (parks, mountaintops, prairie, lakes) is marked by slower speed, greater deliberation, more openness and a sense of intimacy with one’s surroundings, the participants said. Participants noted the appeal of being able to spend time together quietly, in the awareness that the others are also enjoying the setting but without the need to verbally express that. Carol Schryer described time with her husband at the lake in these terms: “We can just sit there and not talk. Just, you know, probably both be thinking the same thing when we’re looking at the sunset, let’s just say, and not have to communicate that that’s awesome, just knowing that we’re both finding it awesome.” Others noted that walking or sitting outdoors makes it easier to discuss painful or difficult topics. “There’s all this space out here, there’s all this place for it to go, to dissipate, kind of negative things, we just say a lot of that stuff and that’s helpful, healing even in some ways,” DiBernard observed. Robertson said she finds people are more open out hiking than sitting in a noisy café.

Conclusion

Cantrill and Senecah (2001) defined sense of place as “the perception of what is most salient in a specific location, which may be reflected in value preferences or show that specific place figures in discourse” (p. 187). Several years later, Cantrill, Thompson, Garrett and Rochester (2007) studied the perceptual dimensions underlying choices driving urban sprawl. Drawing on data from two separate studies, they examined how homeowners’ senses of “selves-in-place are constructed, communicated, and related” (p. 125) to urban sprawl. They drew from two theoretical constructs, the psychological construct of “sense of self-in-place” and the notion of “environmental self.” The authors defined “environmental self” as the notion that humans “form an enduring internal self of who we are through our ongoing relationship with things in our world” (p. 126). This study complements work in this area by exploring the sensory aspects and the sense-making processes (perception) that mark human experiences of their environments; it examines communication between humans and their environment as manifested in interpersonal communication between the interviewer and the participant. The division, of course, is not a neat one; like all studies exploring human consciousness it can at most foreground particular processes. While some of Tuan’s observations offered in his 1974 work Topophilia would need to be revised based on more recent scientific understandings, his basic discussion of the human senses and their role in human environmental perception, attitudes and values stands the test of time. Tuan defines topophilia as “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (1974, p. 4). The present study shows how this affective bond is created by a confluence of sensory perceptions. Regardless of the disparity of human experiences based on culture and individual factors, the commonality of the human experience constrains us to experience our physical environments in particular ways.

     The themes emerging from the interviews confirmed each of the four theoretical assumptions drawn from Tuan’s work. The participants were aware of the ways in which sensory perceptions shape their experience of space, but to varying degrees between individuals, and to varying degrees in terms of the primacy of some senses. The participants’ answers reflected different levels of self-consciousness or awareness of their connection to a particular space or its emergence as a place grounding them. Many participants expressed an interest to further think about the questions later on. “It does make you think why you choose to live in a city. (…) You know, if you had a way to live out of town and still make a living, it’s, you know, maybe it’s something I should think about more,” Wes Mundy concluded. Participants noted how their sense of connection to a particular landscape changed (or remained continuous) over time; they spoke of acquired comfort with new landscapes over time; they noted the significance of childhood experiences and repeated exposure. On a theoretical level, the interviews provide support for the theoretical assumptions that guide Tuan’s work; a next step might be the formulation of a particular environmental communication theory out of this framework. A critical look at the limitations of Tuan’s notion of topophilia is likely also warranted. Vannini (2009) noted the significance of sense of self emerging through constant dialectics of places and sensations, as opposed to Tuan’s more static notion of deeply planted roots and the significance of home as the locus of memories. Indeed, several participants spoke in depth about their experiences living in different landscapes and the differences in affective bonds to place over time. Most importantly, the interviews bring to light what people know about their senses, their selves, and their natural setting. They know that these interactions exist, that they are dynamic, that they are real and significant. As the interview process itself brought out, talking about these experiences and the way we make meaning of them constitutes a meaningful experience in itself that can help solidify and bring to consciousness some of these processes. Why would this matter?

     The significance arises from the urgent need to protect and take care of our environment and the landscapes we’ve settled into. Creating explicit consciousness about our sensory embeddedness may help build a solid foundation for this work (Louv, 2006; Weiss, 2004). Orr (2004) posed the question “How are minds to be made safe for a planet with a biosphere?” (p. 212). His answer was that while there’s value in educating with facts and data, “part of the truth cannot be told; it must be felt. It is within us. (…) We are of the earth; our flesh is grass. Call it biophilia (Wilson, 1984) or the ecological unconscious (Roszak, 1992), the earth is inscribed in us” (p. 212). According to Orr, we tend to live in denial of this. The data generated from this small-scale study reflects the potential value of the process of manifesting such felt truths by telling them. Communication about our sensory processing can bring such knowledge into awareness. The difficulty many participants had in identifying tactile and taste experiences is relevant in this context. If one can help bring about a consciously felt linkage between the taste of one’s food and one’s sense of self-in-place, the likelihood of humans valuing local produce would appear stronger.

This is how humans make meaning of sense, of space, and of themselves. The fact that people can, in the span of a one-hour conversation, tap into sensory processes and speak to their ways of knowing place and self in place, gives us hope that the recovery of biophilia (Wilson, 1984) is feasible and confirmation that communication is essential in this process.