A Sense of Place En Route

By Adena Schutzberg

I read Yi Fu Tuan's work about the sense of place as part of my undergraduate geography training. It taught me how we humans give meaning to places. In retrospect, when I was learning about those ideas, I nearly always thought of point or area locations. I thought about the corner where I'd meet my friend to walk to school or the town common where each Christmas Eve high school band members played carols. These days many of the places I frequent are more linear - routes to and from events, or looped courses used to train on foot or bike.

These routes and the ways we give them meaning are quite different from the point and areas places. The point and area places tend to have meaning because we "stay there." I stood on that corner for three years, just about every day that school was in session. I played my clarinet on the common every year and enjoyed the feeling of the town coming together. In contrast, I spend just seconds on each part of the routes I travel, fewer if in my car, more if on foot.

The routes, however, grow to have a different kind of meaning because I treat them differently. I name places and segments along the way. I grow to have a sense of belonging, a "right" to be there. I sometimes run in the Concord Town Forest, a small patch of land not far from Walden Pond and Walden Woods. It's not heavily used and has perhaps four miles of trails. I've named all the trails. One was under construction when I first visited, tagged with pink survey flags. Now, there's a sign with an arrow to "The Ramble," but to me it retains its old name, "Pinky." "Camp" is where the local scouts build Indian-style shelters, which are taken down after about a week. Then there are "High Road" and "Low Road," the former with some challenging hills, the latter relatively flat. Those woods are "mine," though I do now and again share them with someone fishing or walking a dog.

I've grown to have the same feeling about the Minuteman Bikeway, one of the most-used Rails to Trails multi-use paths in the United States. The bikeway runs through a very dense area, so there's a significant number of people who can and do travel the wide, paved and well-shaded 11 miles (each way) during the summer. I sometimes take for granted that everyone feels the same sense of belonging that I do, and that they know the "rules of the road."

Because I drive a car in the United States, my instinct and training keep me to the right, except to pass. Attempting, on my bike, to pass a helmeted youngster on a push scooter on the bikeway, I called "on your left." The young man moved to the left, into my path; luckily my stopping and unclipping instincts were up to the task and no harm was done. I'm not sure if he didn't know his left from his right, or didn't understand what I was saying, or simply felt, at least for a moment, that he didn't belong where he was. I really hope it was not the latter; he had every right to be where he was and make that path his own.

While cyclists often complain about traffic on the bike path from walkers, runners, dog walkers, llama walkers (I kid you not!), moms and dads with strollers, little ones on training wheels, roller bladers, roller skiers, cross country skiers, etc., I love that so many have made the path their own. I like to think they've named their favorite parts and have their favorite benches to watch the traffic go by. I hope they feel they "belong" in this linear geography.

There's another linear geography where I fear many don't feel they belong, even if they should: on the outdoor track. My running club practices there every Tuesday night in spring, summer and fall. We join students from the school that owns it, the community, and sometimes soldiers in training. Our coach gives the "track etiquette" lecture just about every week: You run your "fast parts" on the inside most lane; if you want to pass you move to the next lane, pass and tuck back into the first lane. It's always the obligation of the faster folks to pass the slower ones. The "rest" portions of the workout are done in the outside lanes.

We run counterclockwise, meaning unlike on the road, we actually keep left. When I first started running on the track, I had a hard time getting used to the idea that I was not to "get out of the way" of the faster runners. In time, I began to feel I did belong there, that it was "my" track, too. I'm not sure what changed exactly, that I got more confident, that I was treated differently after showing up regularly, or that I got faster. It was probably a combination. I wish I could find a way to speed up that process; I think we lose new runners simply because they are intimidated by the geography of the track, and can't make it their own.

This very personal way in which we give meaning to places is in stark contrast to today's push to share local information. I'd hate to even hear "other people's" names for the trails in the Concord Town Forest or the key points along the Minuteman Bikeway. I fear those locations would have less meaning for me. I also think I'd be more likely, especially in the woods, to get lost. I never get lost in areas where I name the landmarks and trails. I look forward to keeping these personal senses of place personal.

Published Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Written by Adena Schutzberg

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