Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Connecting to place

2015 has been the year of artificial intelligence, robots and the Internet of Things.  These phenomena all challenge the notion of physicality and locality.  

Having lived in New Zealand for 24 years, I have come to appreciate the Maori concept of ‘whakapapa,’ that is introducing yourself, not by your credentials or achievements, but where you come from.  Where is your mountain.  Where is your river.  Where is the place and who are the people that brought you here and shaped who you are.

I grew up on a farm from which we looked west into West Virginia and north across the Mason Dixon Line to Pennsylvania.  My mountains are the Allegheny Mountains and my river is the Youghegeny River in Western Maryland. In fact, I have only recently come to appreciate the beauty of these Native American place names.  There were others too, like Monongehala and the Susquehanna rivers—beautiful names.  More beautiful than the more general, more common regional name of Appalachia.

My ancestors were once immigrants like me.  Anna Barbara Kolb came from Germany to seek a better life with her two sons in the mid-1800s and the Kolb family is still farming those acres. My Mom's family have Amish roots, who married my Irish grandmother. The county I was born in hasn’t changed very much over the years, and it was a great place to grow up!  We lived off the land in a culture that I came to appreciate when I studied sociology at university.  

The other significant mountain in my life is Denali (‘The Great One’ or Mt McKinley) in Alaska.  Climbing Denali, the highest peak in North America, was a life dream, which gave me the confidence to pursue my other life dream, which was getting my PhD. 

The thing about climbing Denali and running the Grand Canyon and working 20-28 day courses in the Colorado mountains or the Chihuahuan Desert was that I have experienced considerable, unadulterated isolation with minimal or no contact with the outside world.  Such experiences are so rare today.  

Let’s not become dis-placed, disembodied cyborgs.  My experience growing up on a farm and leading people in wilderness environments has taught me the value of keeping our minds and bodies connected. Sociologist Anthony Giddens talks about ‘deterritorialization,’ which refers to mediated and virtual environments lifting us out of our local place.  The danger of losing touch with place and our physical selves is not new, but it is one that is increasing rapidly as more and more of our world becomes increasingly virtual. 

The Maori custom of introductions beginning with a deep sense of place provides important context for human interaction.  Perhaps we all should find ways to 'reterritorialize' ourselves, to the physical places that matter to us.

Have a happy, connected New Year!