A Sensitivity to Places: Regeneration, Organisms,Technology and Environments. (2014).painting by inniss

   Joseph Vincent Siry



"We live in a daily marketplace of electrons, with trades measured in millionths of seconds." 

p. 27. Neil Shubin, The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body, 2013. 


"The twilight of the beginning of our history was the nightfall of some previous history, which will never be written."     

p. 51. D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places, London: Martin Secker, 1932.


1) George Inness, Evening Landscape, oil on canvas, 1863. Depicts a farm worker and fields at twilight.    


The disclosure of "the complexity of the land organism" Aldo Leopold insisted was "the outstanding scientific discovery of the twentieth century" just before DNA's structure was unraveled in 1953. This deliberate contrast between the functionality of land and the form of the double helix is a conscious effort to overdraw a distinct contrast between environment and inheritance in order to point out and resolve several obstacles that dull our sensibilities when understanding the character of places. Worse, these impediments can generate pernicious myths about places. Because ambivalent sentiments arise from human experience of geography these perverse dichotomies allow us to distinguish one place from all other places, but generate disagreement about clearly articulating the qualities of value in any place. We distinctly separate terrains as to how well they do or do not exhibit a sense of place. The ambivalence about the qualities of place creates lingering problems. To see the values in any land as terrain – as opposed to land as an organism – it is necessary to overcome this confusion. We must disengage from these dichotomies in order to comprehend how the renewability of land sustains life and civilization. Confusion generated by these prevalent dichotomies can blind observers to the complexity inherent in how thoroughly technology is entwined in sustaining cultural landscapes. By looking at ten artists and twenty authors we can comprehend how tensions arising from these ambivalent attitudes have prompted disagreement over how well we convey the meaning of place. 

Such confusion arises because we are in a field where biology, geography and history meet upon uneasy boundaries. Evolution dictates a fusion of these disciplines when describing an inherent complexity in topography, terrains and settings. We are now –as in the past– called upon to create a reliable method of accounting for the way intrusions alter these surroundings in which we the public and specialists may or may not perceive landscapes as fungible. Ignoring the gulf between the public that invests in real estate and the specialists who describe environmental conditions of places, it is difficult for many to see that technology is intimately related to how we perceive what has been done and what we are doing to geographical settings that may disturb, damage, or destroy terrains and thus our definitions of place.       

Rose Bonheur, 1889, plowed fields

Rose Bonheur, Plowing in Nivernai, oil on canvas, 1850.


In recognizing how technology both shapes and is shaped by circumstances we may associate identifiable architectural qualities with a sense of place and get beyond a set of blinders I call perverse dichotomies. Some of the problems these "either – or" dichotomies perpetuate include our fondness for special terrains or landscapes over other places within those same countryside or over other allegedly less attractive settings.

There are at least three perverse dichotomies that we should identify and try to reconcile because the emotions associated with each inhibits our capacity to keep pace with factual data about topographical changes and the re-creation or restoration of cultural landscapes. Specialists have identified three significant opposing arguments that hamper what we observe and preserve. 

1.    Static vs. fluid landscapes or (architecture) vs. (automotive) influenced alterations, that Jackson has said is the current challenge.

2.    Nature vs. nurture

a.    Plato's second nature humans impose on "unfinished" original nature.[1] 

b.    Spacetime in the sense that Einstein unified the concepts, such that       Jackson insists a sense of time is intrinsic to any sense of place.    

3.    Ethnic identity vs. technological imperatives have led writers like Paul Tillich and Arnold Pacey to warn about the power of these twin influences.           

Before the Second World War the popularity of rooting ethnic identity into the particular soil of the landscapes from which a people were believed to have sprung was widespread. In that sense technology is entwined with creating identifiable cultural landscapes.  

"The power of space is great, and it is always active for creation and destruction. It is the basis of the desire of any group of human beings to have a place of their own, a place which gives them reality, presence, power of living, which feeds them, body and soul. This is the reason for the adoration of the earth and soil, not soil generally but of this special soil, and not of earth generally but of the divine powers connected with this special section of earth. . . . "[2] 

D. H. Lawrence and Lawrence George Durrell are just two of the many writers, who before the genetic revolution sought to define the evocative, original, and cultural environments in which past and current civilizations found some sense of belonging and identity or even a sacred trust to ensure their survival.  Perverse dichotomies allow us to comprehend how a sensibility for natural places could displace people. Simon Schama has shown both the roots of this romantic allure and preference for particular landscapes as leading to diabolical consequences of the Third Reich in preserving Białowieża Forest in Poland as a special hunting preserve because the forest biome was considered sacred. This preference for place persisted despite its residents who also possessed a sensitivity for place were nonetheless destroyed by Hermann Goring in the process of protecting the trees and the rare animals. Schama writes "Between June and mid-August 1941 thousands of farmers and foresters from the old timbered villages on the edge of the forest were deported out of the area . . . . At least nine hundred villagers were murdered . . ." [3]

Since that war our fondness for removing settlers from certain landscapes has been reduced but this has not necessarily diminished our desire to protect terrains that have peculiar appeal for the larger mass of people. Alan Gussow wrote that "We are homesick for places, we are reminded of places, it is the sounds and smells and sights of places which haunt us and against which we often measure our present."[4]


A loss of proportion as familiar landscapes are altered has made defining place a critically significant effort. The importance of defining place has mostly drawn critical attention of geographers in the UK who note that "In geography the concept of place is fundamental." The poet Richard Wilbur has suggested, "a place being a fusion of human and natural order, and a peculiar window on the whole." A loss of proportion as familiar landscapes are altered has made defining place a critically significant effort. The importance of defining place has mostly drawn critical attention of geographers in the UK who note that "In geography the concept of place is fundamental." The poet Richard Wilbur has suggested, "a place being a fusion of human and natural order, and a peculiar window on the whole."


Richard Wilbur further observed that words for landscape features are being lost such as coppice, coombe, dale and dell – as well as identifiable landmarks.[5]

 "The countryside tends to be seen as humans wish it to be. Anthropocentrics all, we see the landscape from our point of view, and even the entity we call the beauty of the wilderness is simply a happy arrangement of high ground and valley, glacier and river, forest and sky, that fits the unconscious frame of reference that we have for beauty: nature builds the structures, but we provide the composition."  [6]


As Donald Meinig reminded us: "Life must be lived amidst that which was made before. Every landscape is an accumulation. The past endures."[7] He found that "place" is one of ten versions of the same scene that coexist in observed landscapes. So basic is identifying place that Clarence Glacken, historical geographer, some five decades ago posed three questions concerning the ancient origins of the concept of a habitable earth:  

One, Finding Order and purpose in nature or a designed terrain is a human trait.

Two, the influence of the conditions of life on humans, he has related to the concept of plenitude. 

And three, results of the human modification of their surroundings are paramount in determining the good or harm in transforming places.



Washerwomen, or The Marsh, Constant Troyon, oil on canvas, 1840. Art Institute of Chicago. The artists' rendering of the how rural people utilize a m[8]      

"The problem is not whether man will or will not alter natural systems, but only how he will do it. . . . Practically all aspects of life are artificial in the sense that they depend on profound modifications of the natural order of things. The life of the peasant is as artificial as that of the city dweller. . . . The reason we are now desecrating nature is not because we use it to our ends, but because we commonly manipulate it without respect for the spirit of place."  [9]


But in addition to this tension between good uses and bad means of preserving a place that some authority believes possesses a "sense of place," there is another troublesome dichotomy. This unresolved separation arises when we try to define what precisely a sense of place entails. This tension relates to the deeper argument often called "nature versus nurture." This anxiety is accentuated by the way in which techniques and tools are used to transform space and the pace by which the familiar landscape is altered. By misunderstanding technology – a word with as many different connotations as nature – there s a tendency to associate a sense of place with enduring areas less altered by human occupation, disturbance, or design. Contrast then is as critical in defining place as is the context that we are a territorial species with Pleistocene honed habits of vision superseding other senses of our surroundings. 

LimekilnTechnology as tool-use arose in specific places and altered those conditions particularly after pastoralism, agriculture, and mechanization each in its particular manner had become widespread. Remember that the industrial antecedents of electronically sophisticated machines arose in rural conditions close to the resources needed that were at hand in places such as Shropshire, or along the Atlantic Fall line, or in Salzburg. Peculiar places give rise to technologies that are capable of eventually transforming even distant landscapes and those isolated places in ways that only trained observers may be able to discern. Technology has played an ambivalent and often obscurant role in defining those qualities of places that have meaning for inhabitants and thus the level of technical ability is a significant influence on any shared sense of place. Often the nature versus nurture argument also obscures a reality contributing to a sense of place because arguing over inherited influences versus environmental conditions keeps us from comprehending how places either embody or fail to thrive in possessing qualities we can articulate as culturally significant.  In describing Sussex, England, fore example Tim Radford notes  "The iron mines, furnaces, and forges are gone. So in fact this sense of permanence, this feeling of enduring history, is a tease: landscapes alter. Humans make their mark and then in a generation or two the marks are erased: the evidence of what has once been may be visible enough to archaeologists, ecologists, and topographers, to trained eyes but to most of us the countryside we see is timeless: because it is there, and because it looks just so … we find it easy to believe it has always looked so."[10]

Frequently called cultural hearth's today genetic analysis of commonly held chromosomes promises – if ever so briefly – a simple understanding of life's functions and evolution with respect to the environments in which current and even long extinct organisms developed. Often it is these long-extinct creatures that have contributed to the very conditions we value today. The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles are just such an example of a place unlike others for the fossil remains associated with the site revealing some insight into our geological past; the Burgess shale formation in Canada is quite another example.  



The cultural geographer John Brinkerhoff Jackson's showed that there are numerous technological ingredients that complicate a simple recipe for creating or identifying the taste we have for "a sense of place." He suggests that this picture of architectural transformations as the "secret" behind our ideas of place is being replaced, and a sense of place inherent to all life has been lost in the automotively – influenced landscapes we now inhabit. He warns that the inheritance of architecture that so enthralled writers like Lawrence and Durrell is static and has thus been swept away by the fluid patterns that have emerged and are still emergent with the widespread popularity of automobiles, highways, airlines, and aerospace.[11]

John Jackson shortly before his death wrote a long essay arguing how spacetime ought to be the framework to fully embody those qualities that a sense of place indicates about the history of terrains.  The essay distinguishes between landscape features that engender repetitive monotony and distinctively picturesque qualities of settings.  He poses two opposite definitions of "a sense of place," but with a caveat about a loss of meaning.



Jackson defines "a sense of place;" as both personal and social. Authorities such as Jackson had argued, "It is my own belief that a sense of place is something that we ourselves create in the course of time." He associates this sense of place with a feeling of homey familiarity; "It is the result of habit or custom." By contrast he notes that "others disagree." He explained that "They believe a sense of place comes from our response to features that are already there – either a beautiful natural setting or well-designed architecture." He explained that, "They believe that a sense of place comes from being in an unusual composition of spaces and forms -- natural or man-made."[12]     

Use of the term sense of place has been criticized by Jackson, and others as "The term is used by architects "injecting life and design into the decaying central city . . ." to no lasting avail. Urban renewal was in many ways deficient in restoring the lost sense of belonging. But a true ". . . sense of place is reinforced by what might be called a sense of recurring events," Jackson insists because ". . . time seems to function as a segmenting principle; it helps segregate the private and the public spheres of life from one another." Jackson, instead of place contended, "…what we actually share is a sense of time."[13] 

Four features of a place are attachment, familiarity, necessity, and peculiarity.

Attachment, as Arnold Pacey describes is that "we can feel strongly drawn to specific places, to special activities within the landscape, that it is as if nature were indeed 'courting ' us or 'inviting' our participation."[14]   

Familiarity  as Jackson has suggested draws people to places over and again.

Necessity as Ian McHarg wrote involves  "The price for survival, persistence and evolution was understanding and intelligent intervention."  [15]

Peculiarity as Arnold Pacey writes derives from the fact that  "In today's world, there is perhaps an increased sensitivity to nature among a minority who campaign to protect the environment, who study and enjoy the living things around them, and who celebrate their sense of place." [16] 

Acting together, these four attributes through Invention and transformation – together re-create  the genius of place as Dubos insisted, or may  "de-create" places as Pacey argues because of the power of automated technology to hide while influencing our senses and still profoundly transfigure natural terrains. As Pacey points out "For the majority in modern consumer society, though, it is easy to feel that the relationships that involve cherishing nature and place have all but disappeared."  He warns that "Many people prefer machines that express domination over nature. . . ."[17]



Through this third way called geographical regeneration, George Perkins Marsh suggested in 1864 an idea that could serve as a replacement for the simplicity of dialectical materialism and material culture that lies at the root of our human transformation of the topography of geographical places. Regeneration of terrains is easier said than done, but natural conditions can often better buffer cultural uses of landscapes than imposing architectural solutions. Wetland, oyster bed, and fishery restoration of Jamaica Bay for example has an advantage of flood protection and a pliable defense against an inevitable rise in seas. Even in genetics discoveries reveal the power of the conditions to accentuate, or dampen the proteins needed to express desirable traits. The environment as Richard Lewontin has suggested may be though of as a triple helix instead of a mere double helix of DNA. In his conclusion Lewontin says "It is useless to call . . . for some more synthetic approach or to say that . . . we need a new insight."[18]

He, instead insists that "The role of the external environment in this theory is twofold."

First, some environmental trigger may be necessary to start the process. Desert plants produce seed that lies dormant in the dry soil until occasional rainfall breaks the dormancy and development of the embryo begins. Second, once the declenchement has occurred, setting the process in motion, some minimal environmental conditions must exist to allow the unfolding of the internally programmed stages, . . . . "

Lewontin concludes that  "Progress in biology depends not on revolutionary new conceptualizations, but on the creation of new methodologies that make questions answerable in practice in a world of finite resources.  [19] 

The new methodology should move beyond the old argumentative dichotomies and recognize that regeneration requires a sensible, subtle, and sustaining use of technology to revive terrains upon which spirit, health, or settlement jointly depend. In this respect the inherited materials that influence these environments shaping our sentiments, in spite of our senses inability to alert us to our mistakes, must be understood as a spectrum where all elements fuse.

The physical, biological and social-psychological attributes of any geography are but pieces of the Gordian knot that is human sensitivity to terrains and the ensuing historical puzzle of particular places we discern within altered, alterable, and altering topographies. In order to regenerate a landscape that sustains people in society enduring sufficiently long enough to assure civilizations' necessities, we must employ a synthetic understanding of how technology is shaped by physical constraints to alter biological conditions and reshape the sensory acuity of we the tool users.

Places are geologically evolving vegetative conditions in which particularly evolved associations of animals reside on terrains that may be converted into landscapes with identifiable cultural layers. Cultural landscapes are by definition technically altered geographies in which the expressive arts and techniques of a society are for a time manifest. Such places can reinforce, negate, or otherwise affect the behavioral ways in which people respond to changes in their surroundings. In this more participatory sense this suggested synthetic approach respects the surroundings as partners enabling the society to recover with the landscape and not in spite of it.     


'Sense of place' is a much used expression, chiefly by architects but taken over by urban planners and interior decorators and the promoters of condominiums, so that it now means very little."       "It is an awkward and ambiguous translation of the Latin term genius loci."  Jackson

Plenitude, a condition of fullness; the abundance of creation and that all possible kinds of being can and do exist because the more there is in the world the better that world is. Glacken equates the idea of plenitude with the concept of biological diversity  and the stability of ecological systems. Glacken, 1967, p. 6. 

Sensibilité, sensibility or sensitivity; that is arising from sensory experiences; manifest ability, capacity to respond, the propensity for an organism to respond to stimuli .


Lawrence George Durrell, A landmark Gone 

D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan places 

Aldo Leopold, A Taste for Country 

Arnold Pacey, Meaning in Technology

Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore. Bekeley: US Press, 1967.

"three questions concerning the habitable earth and their relationships to it."

John B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time  -- Spacetime

Rene Dubos, A God Within, & Man Adapting 

Ian McHarg, Design with Nature 

Tim Radford, The Address Book 

Alan Gussow, A Sense of Place: The Artist and The American Land. (1972). 

Richard Wilbur, "Introduction" A Sense of Place: The Artist and The American Land. (1972). 

Terry Tempest Williams,  "writing imbued with place"  

Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix, Harvard, 2001. A third facet of inheritance 

Paul Tillich, God of space and time

Hippocratic Corpus   


[1] Painting #2) Rosa Bonheur, Plowing in Nivernai, oil on canvas, 1850.

[2] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture. (1959), p. 16.

[3] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1995). pp. 37, 43-45, 52, 67-76, "By the summer of 1941 this program of physical and human alteration had already been well advance." p. 70, 71.

[4] Gussow, A Sense of Place: The Artist and the American Land, (San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1972), pp. 27-28.

 Painting # 3)  John Trumbull, View near Hartford 1781

[5] Richard Wilbur "Introduction", Alan Gussow (1972), p. 26.

Painting # 4) John Constable, Flatford Mill, 1816-1817. Sussex, England.

[6] Tim Radford, The Address Book, page. 52.     

[7] Donald Meinig, The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), page. 44, cited in The Making of the American Landscape, Michael Conzen, ed., (N.Y. Routledge, 1989). pp. 1, 3-4.    


[8] Clarence Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore. 1967. pp. 4-5. 

Illustration  painting # 5)  Washerwomen, or The Marsh, Constant Troyon, oil on canvas, 1840. Art Institute of Chicago. The artists' rendering of the how rural people utilize a marsh.

[9] Rene Dubos, A God Within, 1984.    

Illustration photograph # 6) Minor White, Two Barns and Shadows, 1955. MOMA  


[10] Tim Radford, The Address Book. (2011). pp. 51-52. 

Illustration painting #7) Turner, Exhibited in 1844, he depicts the Maidenhead railway bridge.

[11]John B. Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Illustrations, paintings #8 & #9) Hopper Maine Road, 1914, Gas (filling station), 1940.


[12] Jackson, A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994. p.151.          


[13] Jackson. (1994). p. 162.       


[14] Arnold Pacey, Meaning in Technology, 1999 (Boston: MIT Press, 1999) p. 123. 


[15] Ian McHarg, Design with Nature.    p. 101,


[16] Pacey, Meaning in Technology, p. 121.


[17] Pacey, Meaning in Technology, pp. 121-122. 

[18] Richard Lewontin, The Triple Helix, p. 109.

[19] Lewontin ,The Triple Helix, p. 129. 



"Often it is these long-extinct creatures that have contributed to the very conditions we value today. The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles are just such an example of a place unlike others for the fossil remains associated with the site revealing some insight into our recent geological past. The Burgess shale formation in Canada is quite another far older example of the continuity of processes through time. They are both windows revealing the geological and ecological dimensions that lend importance to places. "


John Trumbull –preindustrial land 
John Constable – rural countryside 
Joseph M. Turner – the technological change 
Constant Troyon – human use of landscape features 
George Inness – the spirituality manifest in landscapes 
Georgia O'Keeffe – a sense of place 
Minor White – visually memorable characteristics of places 
Edward Hopper – industrial spaces as formative places 
David Hockney – different vantage points within that same frame in the painting 
Helen Frankenthaler, "Sea Change."       


Students when constructing a sense of place use words, literature, pictures, maps, painting, sounds, cuisine, and describe ethnic varieties of inhabitants.  




Terry T. Williams | Gerald Durrell | D. H. Lawrence | Arnold Pacey | Tim Radford | Norris Hundley | Mary Austin | John Wesley Powell | Wallace Stegner | Siry, Marshes