Perceiving Place, Perceiving Self in Space: “The Land Itself Was Calm”

bettina heinz & Michael J. McCarthy (Chees-qualth). Presented at the Canadian Environmental Studies Association, May 28, 2009, Ottawa, ON.

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We start by placing ourselves in the spaces that speak to us:

Michael J. McCarthy, Chees-qualth (Ucluelet): The idea that communication shapes the land is found in many cultures; however I think the land shapes our communication. I think if we listen between the sounds we can hear the environment speaking to us as many of my teachers have said: “Listen with the heart.” We are all connected by land and water; we just have to listen to the voice of the environment. In this line of thinking, and respecting the aspects of nature which can be seen as unlimited, we need to sit down with nature and have a conversation with the land Now-watsa; I strongly believe the land speaks to us in many ways through the wind, water, air, and land. We just have to sit in silence and listen.

bettina heinz:  The sudden sunrise melts the river dark. Between chunks of ice and slowly stirring water, movement occurs. They stir, filling the crisp air with anticipation, then swoop upwards, a giant cloud of ancient birds blocking the light and moving with sound. Watching the cranes rise in the morning when they stop over in the Platte River Valley of central Nebraska is the most spiritual experience in my life. Not because, but in spite of us, they still travel the world. Movement defines their life, much like it defines my own. My sense of belonging belongs to a landscape; my sense of identity stems from being suspended between earth and sky. There is where, and what, I am.

The symbiotic communicative interaction between humans and their natural environment drives this study, which is part of a larger research project. We work from the assumption that the dichotomy implied by the word “between” is a linguistic and cultural artefact rather than an empirical reality. Specifically, this study seeks to describe, analyze, and interpret the ways in which humans experience their interactions with place via sensory perceptions that create a sense of self. As such, it is guided as much by environmental communication studies (e.g., Cantrill, Thompson, Garrett, & Rochester, 2007) as by the ways in which we, the authors, experience our interactions with space and place.

Theoretical Framework

This hermeneutic phenomenological inquiry seeks to determine the essence of sensory experiences. It is situated in the body of theory and philosophy that constitutes phenomenology as much as in the physical bodies of the authors and participants. We seek to make a theoretical contribution to the development of environmental communication theory by bringing the work of two philosophers into dialogue – the work of Yi-Fu Tuan and the work of Martin Heidegger. We build directly on recent work by Kinsella (2007), who examined the potential of Heidegger’s phenomenology as a foundation for environmental communication theory. For Kinsella, the appeal of Heidegger’s work is its implicit belief that “humans and the natural environment share a mutually constitutive relationship” (p. 196), a notion that fails to be reflected in much, if not most, communication theory. We focus here on Heidegger’s (1967) basic conceptualization of human existence, Dasein, often translated as Being-in-the-World, with a particular focus on space. As Arisaka (1995) discusses, Heidegger’s notion of space has not received much scholarly attention despite its fundamental significance to the notion of Being-in-the-World. While Arisaka offers a much more nuanced discussion of Heidegger’s theory of space and his concepts of de-severance, directionality, and regionality, for the purposes of this paper, we focus on the more general idea that “these spatial modes of being are equiprimordial, that is, they are equally fundamental features of our existence as Being-in-the-World” (Arisaka, 1995, p. 458). Critics of Heidegger’s work have pointed to his failure to foreground the significance of physical, corporeal processes, although scholars continue to debate whether this is indeed a shortcoming of his work or perhaps a misunderstanding of his notion of Being-in-the-World (see the forthcoming Heidegger’s Neglect of the Body by Kevin Aho). We enter this conversation by suggesting the value of engaging the work of another philosopher, human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1974, 1977, 2004), with Heidegger’s notion of Being-in-the-World. In Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience and Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, Tuan approached the relationships of humans to their natural environment by drawing from contemporary North American and ancient Chinese philosophy and culture. We build on Tuan’s notion that we rarely think about what we know, as opposed to what we know about, by focusing on finding out how humans know environment, rather than what they know about it. Tuan has been consistently intrigued by the processes by which space becomes place for humans and by which our sensory perception co-creates our sense of identity.  In earlier work (Heinz, Cheng, & Inuzuka, 2007), we’ve argued that both environmental activist discourse and communication theory rarely acknowledge the primary role of perception and sensation in understanding ourselves beyond our corporeal boundaries and noted that the very notion of corporeal boundaries is questionable in itself. However, where theory and discourse may mislead, the basic human way of Being-in-the-World remains anchored in a fundamental materiality (Rogers, 1998) that places us in constant interaction with what we often perceive to be our external natural environment. While Heidegger appears to place Being-in-the-World sequentially as a state of consciousness that follows primordial physical existence, Tuan speaks to the interrelated nature of existence and consciousness with a focus on sensory perception. Kinsella takes this line of argument further by viewing Hanford reservation in Washington through a Heideggerian phenomenological lens; he concludes that one of the most important insights that can be gained from such a viewing is that “nature and human being are inseparable and mutually constitutive” (p. 210).  In this study, we’re describing, analyzing, and interpreting human perceptions of these processes as captured in in-depth interviews, with the goal of capturing aspects of the essence of this mutually constitutive relationship. In phenomenological vocabulary, essence has been defined as “that what [sic] makes a thing what it is (and without which it would not be what it is); that what makes a thing what it is rather than its being or becoming something else” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 177). Accordingly, we formulated two research questions to guide this inquiry: What is the essence of human sensory experience of one’s environment? and  What does this essence reveal about the interplay of space, place, self and identity?


Phenomenology, as conceptualized by Ahmed (2006), Heidegger (1967), Killingsworth (2007), Merleau-Ponty (1962), and Van Manen (1990) , constitutes the methodology of this study. This allows us to focus on the primordial experience of being, in this case, everyday being in place. For the larger project, four co-researchers are collecting data by conducting interviews in distinct geographical locations – Vancouver Island, the Temagami Wilderness, Calgary, and the Midwestern United States. The Vancouver Island interviews include participants of Nuu-cha-nulth ancestry living away from traditional territory. Of this ongoing collection, we selected 11 interviews (a purposive sampling of the overall data collection created by random and snowball sampling) on the basis of the richness of the interview. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and an hour and followed a semi-structured interview guide; in some cases, the participants completed the interview guide in writing on their own and submitted it to the researchers. The face-to-face interviews were conducted by the researchers and audio-taped; interview and field notes were also taken. All participants gave informed consent to participate in accordance with institutional 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. Interviews with the following individuals constitute the data set for this particular paper: Vancouver Island — Towagh Behr, Star Weiss Fuoco, Matlahoa’uksa, Alegha van Hanuse, and Jackelyn Williams. Calgary – Uzo Amajor, Patrick Brooks, and Janet Reimer. U.S. Nebraska – Christina Brantner, Barbara DiBernard, and Deb Hauswald.

The goal of hermeneutic phenomenological data analysis is to make explicit the “structure of meaning of the lived experience” (Van Manen, 1990, p. 77) through description, analysis, and interpretation. Each transcript was read three times in search of themes, using a selective highlighting approach which asks the researchers to determine which statements are particularly essential or revealing about the experience being described. We then summarized and labeled the themes emerging, distinguishing between incidental and essential themes. One of the questions asked participants to recall a representative anecdote (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002): “Please tell me about a moment that stands out in your mind that illustrates the importance of your landscape in your life.” Finally, we interpreted our description and analysis of the findings in light of our own presuppositions and the literature we reviewed.


Sensory Ways of Knowing the World

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. The participants’ answers reflected such 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 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.  The dominance of sight and hearing were affirmed in the interviews. Towagh Behr, Victoria, noted that his eyes are always drawn to the vegetation around him, prioritizing the visual nature of interaction with the landscape. Alegha van Hanuse lives in Victoria, BC, in a landscape she describes in the following words: “Where beauty lies – lush green – urban – the traditional territories of the Lekwungen people.” Van Hanuse said visual processing affects her mood, her energy level, and her ability to function. Participants spoke to the meaningfulness of animal sounds (bird song, sea lions, frogs, crickets) and the prominence of urban or human noise (vehicles, traffic, train whistles). For some, the soundscape is essential. Christina Brantner, Lincoln, Neb.,  talked about the train whistle in these words:

Hearing. Sounds. Doesn’t have anything to do with the Midwest but with the part of town that I live in. There are so many train tracks and so I continuously day and night hear the trains’ horns. And I love it. Because to me it represents the possibility I could pick up and leave anytime. So I could just the way I blew into town many moons ago I could just blow out. It’s all these sounds of possibility that are really important to me. I could not move to a part of town where I couldn’t hear them. Over the years I’ve really become attached to those train sounds, so…

Touch, or haptics, offers humans tangible information about the world and is a prime way of  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.  Matlahoa’uksa, who currently resides on the Esquimalt Nation reserve, associates touch with community life:

Touch is more related to recreation for me, contact with members of the reserve; that great feeling of seeing youth run and be active (…) and patting them on the back, the high fives, the consoling in a lost game. So that sense of touch affects me in a great way.

Calgary resident Uzo Amajor said touch is not really a source of much information to him (?): “Touch. Touch. Touch. I don’t really touch a lot of … You know, I get in my car, I drive where I want to go, I get out, I come back, umm … I touch my mailbox, you know, maybe touch the door to get out … Not a lot, which is kind of weird, when I think about it. Wow!” Behr responded similarly, noting that although he likes to work in the garden without gloves, touch doesn’t come into his experience of landscape very much: “I don’t touch many aspects of the natural environment in my day to day life.” For others, touch constitutes a significant source of connection; for Star Weiss Fuoco, a resident of Metchosin, British Columbia, it’s running her hand along an arbutus branch to remember its smoothness; for Jackelyn Williams, it’s providing memories about her surroundings. Van Hanuse said she likes to touch things: “When I go for a walk, I am always touching trees, plants, etc. Sense of touch affects me emotionally and spiritually. “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” (Tuan, 1974, p. 10). Indeed, more than in reference to any other sense, participants generated negative associations, such as the smell of skunks, the smell of pollution, chemical smells, and so forth. The power of scent to evoke memories was also frequently noted. 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 speak to. Weiss Fuoco commented: “That’s a tough one. We’ve also planted grapevines that swirl over our hot tub, and the rare treat of tasting one of our fresh-off-the-vine grapes is perhaps the closest I get to equating taste and place.” Overall, the interview responses reflected that the participants are aware of the interaction of their senses and of how the sensory input is related in the overall experience of place.

Representative Anecdotes

Deb Hauswald, who grew up in an alcoholic family, remembers a particular moment in her adolescence:

I don’t have a strong religious bent. But I remember one day, when I was young, walking in the woods alone and seeing this little mouse coming close to me – at that particular moment I was exactly who I was and it was okay. That day in that place I found a kind of faith that has carried me on. That unconditional acceptance. It’s magic.

Her anecdote reveals layers of awareness and takes for granted that place has the ability to communicate to and with the humans temporarily located in it; Hauswald felt the place accepting her, and thus enabling her to accept herself. Her experience appears similar to that of Williams, who grew up in Itattsoo/Ucluelet East on Vancouver Island: “When things weren’t going very well, the land itself was calm (good weather or bad). It is what it is and in a way it supported me through the bad times?” Amajor compared listening to water to the practice of meditation:

It’s actually a form of meditation, if while you’re trying to listen to the water, you know, you start listening to yourself and you don’t get things like that, you try to do that on the train home, you know, you don’t get it. You decide to go out for coffee with friends, you might talk to a certain degree but you don’t really take the time to really talk about our thoughts entirely, you don’t take time out (…).  And I’m personally seeking out new ways that I can do that on my own. You know, get away by myself.

The participants’ references to faith and magic connote a theme of spirituality that arises from nature, that pre-exists human consciousness, and that is to be felt rather than reasoned. Weiss Fuoco, author of Havens in a Hectic World:  Finding Sacred Places, elaborated on the process of researching and writing her book:

I’ve spent the better part of three years of my life examining how others equate their sense of the sacred with their sense of place. And my findings lead me to believe that a healthy and deeply developed recognition of the power of place is crucial for many of us for our healing, for our feelings of connectedness, for our health.

 One particular moment that stands out in Weiss Fuoco’s memory is the time when she and her husband were waiting for her breast cancer test results. The peacefulness they felt at her writer’s hut on the wooded hillside of their property “was remarkable and an example of the healing and nurturing power of place.” For Matlahoa’uksa, the “spiritual connection” to the land “begins with the area we live in.” Violation and degradation of landscape have the reciprocal potential to unsettle one’s mind and put one at dis-ease, the participants noted. For van Hanuse, a moment that stands out in her memory is when the ooligans and sockeye stopped running through her village of Oweekeno. “That devastated me. I felt as though a part of me had died,” she said. Lincoln, Neb., resident Barbara DiBernard also senses the destructive potential of harming one’s landscape:

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. When I’m on the bike path here that I walk on a lot they once in a while will come and, they, whoever, will cut down a bunch of trees or branches because they’re starting to meet and I just think ‘What are we afraid of? What is the danger here?’ Actually I sometimes have to avoid those places for a while because it feels painful, physically, it’s as if I was just seeing or feeling the violence in that, to just wantonly kill something.

Behr noted that his sense of personal connection to the landscape is “strong enough” to “feel personally offended” when he hears “of damage being done to these places.”

For several participants, the significance of landscape arose from encountering another landscape, and from the changes in one’s relationship to landscape over time.  Branter emigrated from Germany’s Black Forest region to the United States in the 1980s. She first spent time in Missouri and Massachusetts but then moved to Nebraska in 1987. The lack of a forested landscape jolted her at first but later, she noticed that her perceptions and her physical responses had shifted:

I moved here in 1987, uhm, and I came originally from the Black Forest but I came via St. Louis and then Massachusetts so when I came to the prairie for the first time and immediately saw the lack of trees – I thought I would be here for a year. Max. And I’m still here. And you don’t realize it at first – it probably took a few years but this big sky country kind of works on you, your subconscious. And I realized this for the first time a few years after I had moved here and I flew back to Europe. And as I was landing in Frankfurt and getting off the plane, I could sense some tension in my shoulders. And I was crouching, crouching myself together, folding myself up like a handkerchief and couldn’t really breathe too well and I could see, all that smog, over Frankfurt. And I didn’t stop breathing weirdly until I got back here. So this big country place is a very liberating place for me. And I only realized that quite a few years after I moved here. It was not an immediate thing. It’s always say, easy to fall in love with a mountain, always easy to fall in love with the ocean but the prairie, the prairie that is an acquired love, you have to work on that at first and then all of a sudden you realize it does you good.

For one of the Calgary residents, the importance of landscape crystallized in urban moments of securing or protecting access to particular spaces. Patrick Brooks recalled the significance of installing a fence on his property:

I would say putting that fence across the driveway… has made a considerable difference in our peace of mind… because we did see evidence that people were kinda scoping out the property. And… you know all of that went away when we put up that fence, and… if we hadn’t done that, being… in the inner city, you know you do have people wandering up and down, and you know, unfortunately, there are a lot of homeless that go up and down the back alley looking for bottles and what not. But there’s enough criminal activity or criminal tendencies that… you wanna protect yourself as much as you can (…).  But yes, putting up that single fence completely restricted the opportunity (….)  we don’t worry nearly as much as we used to when it was open access. You’re always wondering, well who… who paid us a visit today when we weren’t at home, right? Well, now we don’t have to worry about it.

Childhood associations and memories also came into play for the participants. Janet Reimer recalled being happy when her family went to spend time in the mountains and continues to ascribe happiness to the fact that she lives near the mountains today. Behr says returning to the beaches where he grew up “always makes me pause and breathe more deeply. These are places that make me feel at ease and have a nostalgic warmth.”

Essence of Being-in-the-World

Other than providing specific references to plants or animals and contemporary or traditional descriptions of geography, the participants answered the questions based on their ways of knowing the world. In other words, they did not spontaneously provide facts or figures; they did not actively engage their knowledge about their environment. While they were primed to focus on their individual experiences, the fact that they were able to do so is significant. Tuan defines topophilia as “the affective bond between people and place or setting” (1974, p. 4); we suggest here that this affective bond is, in Heideggerian terms, a condition of our primordial being in the world. In Nuu-cha-nulth knowledge, this notion lives as Haooth miss, an interdependence of nature, land, and human interaction; the way the land speaks to the inhabitants in the creation of sustainability, culture, language, song, and dance. However, we humans have built and continuously encounter barriers to fully experiencing such topophilia, be it in the forms of fences, noise or visual clutter, or ideas and theories about the world we tend to take for granted. The interview guide, for example, asked participants to reflect about their interactions with their environment and by doing so invariably enacted dichotomies (nature vs. human, culture vs. nature) that we, as the authors, may reject as inadequate understandings of the world but nevertheless activate. This, of course, is the confine of working in a linguistic system (Cantrill & Oravec, 1996; Killingsworth, 2007). Some of the participants took notice of this, either by asking for clarifications (which we intentionally did not provide) or by pointing to such embedded dichotomies. Behr questioned the false dichotomy of culture vs. nature that he saw as the premise of the questions: “All of our ‘natural’ environments are cultural and have for thousands of years been shaped by human and animal use and a multitude of interaction in ecosystems that are cultural as well as ‘natural.’” The research questions guiding this inquiry sought to capture the essence of human sensory experience of our environment and to describe the interplay of space, place, self and identity. We believe that the interviews we’ve conducted help answer these questions and that this essence of human experience is reflected in the words of one of the participants, Jackelyn Williams, who noted that “the land itself was calm” regardless of the actual weather conditions at the time. Embodied in her statement is the idea that the land “is what it is” and thereby offers a tangible support that goes much deeper than the aesthetic appeal of a “pretty landscape”; this idea is reflected in other participants’ contributions, whether they talk of the unconditional acceptance of one’s self communicated by a place or the ability to draw healing and focused internal communication from specific spaces. We hope that by offering these spontaneously generated linguistic expressions, we can activate some of the positive potential of linguistic systems and thereby “restore” language’s organic “connection to the lifeworld” (Killingsworth, p. 60).  This finding supports a key idea put forth by Carbaugh (2007), who stresses that environmental communication studies need to explore ways by which we can study ways of “listening to what the environment says to us” (p. 64). They also contribute to the growing body of scholarship that was identified by Depoe (2007) as an area meriting further attention:

To what extent is any act of human communication “environmental”? In our communicating, how do people attempt to locate or situate themselves within a geographic space or cultural scene – a place – that has meaning or significance for their identities and relationships, for the communicative act, and for the actions that follow? (p. 3).

The essence of human sensory experience of our environment emerging from these interviews manifests itself as an interactive, interdependent process in which human bodies are sensing entities that process communication with their natural environment.  The significance of this communication process is reflected in the importance human cultures assign to the notions of space, place, self and identity.