Lars--that is a good question and I don’t have an answer—yet, but maybe I’ll find one soon. Nevertheless, your kind words did give me courage to keep blogging even though you set a very high bar if I’m to emulate Steinbeck. Only in my dreams could I attain Steinbeck’s facile wit, insightful social analysis, and brilliant writing; he is definitely a great model for any travel writer (see NOTE** below recounting my personal connection with Steinbeck’s beloved Monterey, California—a place crucial to launching my career path).
New Questions: Lars’ commentary got me thinking about the role travel writing has played in literature, social history, personal identity, and even political action--as the Motorcycle Diaries (the film) based on the original travel diary of Che Guevarra did for many in Latin America and around the world. It also reminded me (as a professional geographer) how important place is to shaping our characters, identity, psychic and even physical health (see some of the resources online on sense of place—see HERE also).
There is also a growing discussion in academia and in technology circles about the role of virtual places and spaces e.g. Avatars and SecondLife for instance or Farmville on Facebook. For many—particularly the younger generation--these virtual spaces and social media tools are more important than the real places and people I love to explore, analyze, photograph and map. At this point and for this road trip, I’m assuming that most people still have a strong affinity with where they’re from—the places they call home—and that this is still very important to understanding their world and defining their identity.
But I’d like to posit for discussion, whether there are downsides to our traditional view of sense of place that may need change or reassessment. Could Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) tools—particularly mobile digital devices--change the very meaning of sense of place?
Maybe being rooted in real places is a quaint and even passé obsession--a whimsical need of the Boomer generation who grew up with National Geographic as their window to the world. Maybe it is even a dysfunctional human adaptive trait. Have iPhones and their proliferating Apps and other Smartphones, as well as OnStar (GPS-enabled autos) and software tools such as MapQuest, and Google Earth make physical space obsolete? Or, as I’d like to propose--we need to redefine and update what sense of place means in the digital world we now live in? So, as someone who was born and raised to expatriate parents—one who often lamented not having a true hometown in the USA as did Steinbeck and his beloved Monterey and Salinas California—I will go forth on this travel venture and see if place still really matters.
On Being a Global Citizen: In fact, a reason I feel the need to address these questions is the nagging sense (even fear) that here I am starting “retirement” (the big R word) and don’t know yet where I’m from!—and more specifically, where I want to retire to? Even today when people ask me “where I’m from” (which is often) I find myself hesitating and saying “well…it depends what you mean”.
By the way, I still consider my roots to the Mosquito Coast of Honduras where I was born and raised—so I’m not rootless. But my foreign upbringing and global career experience has made me more a citizen of the world (as Socrates declared) rather than being strictly a North American. I think on balance my international upbringing and career has been positive but are there downsides I should be aware of?
Coincidentally, when I tell people I’m a global citizen I frequently I get looks that suggest I may have a dread disease of some kind (the curse of philosophic musing) or worse--maybe I’m an untrustworthy liberal (whatever that means) and not an American (to some on the political right). This of course is a charge our own President Obama now finds himself accused of by critics from the birthers and Tea-Party Movement.
This negative-turn in current American political dialogue is one of those things that has most concerned me on my return from working in Africa and the Middle East. I ask “why can’t we get along”! Whether we want to accept it or not we are living in a global village--I’ve experienced it all my life and particularly the last three years. And I worry for the soul of the America—the place I always assumed would be that shining light on the hill and respite for the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—the reason why my ancestors came here!
Let’s talk more politics later, but surely when one retires--which is my focus right now--it must be to somewhere that has real physical, geographical, aesthetic as well as strong social meaning and value. It should not be to some rootless, placeless, cookie-cutter retirement community (such as some perceive the Sun Cities of the world) a place that could be anywhere or nowhere, in my opinion. By the way I can’t think of anything more boring than retiring to a place where golf seems to be the pinnacle of daily existence.
Maybe I’ll be convinced otherwise—that’s another reason for this road trip—but in my opinion this type of retirement place lacks sufficient interaction and contact with real America or the larger global community. This is also a problem with the growing worldwide phenomenon of gated communities. In Brazil they are called condomínio fechado (a closed housing estate) a place primarily for who can afford to isolate themselves from the real world instead of remaining engaged with their communities to build together something better for future generations.
A Proposal: Let me suggest, therefore, that maybe we need to redefine sense of place from one that is NOT rooted in the geography of very small locales or closed circles of family and friends who hold small-minded worldviews. Instead let’s adopt a new state of mind that glories in the diversity and complexity in the world--and, that we learn to be comfortable with and engaged with it!
This suggests that maybe it’s not the smallness of the geography that is at issue but the small-minded attitudes and worldviews that some associate with localized places. I will see on my trip if this hypothesis holds water or not. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think and hopefully even some types of small places also can promote a sense of place that is more inclusive, open and healthy in all aspects—or maybe this is just some of the culture shock I’m feeling and need to get over?
Sense of Place and Social Media: Here is a corollary question I want to explore (as someone fascinated by ICTs); can the social media revolution and mobile digital communications tools help achieve a healthier form of place (even virtual space) for the era we’re now entering? I believe that may be the case and I'm confident that blogging can be part of that change. See an article by Pertti Hurme which suggests digital tools and social media can improve relationships and communications in the workplace; maybe it will work in other settings as well, i.e. education and retirement communities? (Pertti Hurme, 2005. Mobile Communication and Work Practices in Knowledge-based Organizations. Human Technology: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Humans in ICT Environments. ISSN 1795-6889 www.humantechnology.jyu.fi).
In sum therefore, here are some additional questions I will think about and explore on my road trip:
- How do we gain the emotional, social, and ecological benefits of having a strong sense of place in the Internet era we now live and work in but avoid its downsides?
- Could some of the problems facing our world today, i.e. alienation, terrorism, intolerance, racism, fear of the “other”, ecological degradation, and the increasing inability to compromise in our political discourse--be one of the downsides of the Internet era?
- If the above is true, can we devise ways to recapture the positive benefits of having a strong sense of place while still reaping the benefits the apparent place-less/rootless mobility the digital communications revolution brings?
**PERSONAL NOTE ON MY ENCOUNTER WITH STEINBECK’S WORLD IN MY EARLY CAREER (1975):
Karen and I (and our first-born Bryan then about two years old) lived for six months near Steinbeck’s home on the left coast in a small Pacific Grove California apartment within walking distance of Cannery Row in Monterey. That was in early 1975 during graduate school when I spent five months studying French at the Presidio of Monterey’s Defense Language Institute (DLI) as one of two civilians in a class of eight military officers. The other civilian was a marine scientist planning to go to Tahiti to study coral reefs. I thought it was SO COOL then (and still do) that he worked in the same institute that was once the digs of the famous “Doc” (Ed Ricketts) Steinbeck used as a key character in his book Cannery Row. It offered a personal connection to Steinbeck that I still value. How coincidental is that!
That period of intensive period of French language training launched my own “globe-trotting” career in ways I could have never dreamed of at the time—that of course is how life works out sometimes! I had come to DLI already speaking Spanish and with considerable writing and reading knowledge of French from my high school years in Costa Rica, but not sufficient for real field research in Africa. I should explain that the reason I found myself at DLI was becauseI had been offered a chance to do a field research assignment in Sahelian Africa studying the famous drought of the early 1970s--and get my PhD dissertation paid for by Uncle Sam (USAID).
The Sahelian Drought had just recently hit the world press with its horrific images of hungry children and dying cattle, and I was in graduate school at UC Riverside with the right technical and language skills to assist a multi-disciplinary agroforestry and land-management research team in their study of desertification and its human and ecological dimensions in the then-named Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso). The goal was to find ways of preventing famine from happening again in Africa, i.e. making agriculture in the Sahel more resilient to climate change and drought or sustainable as we’d say today. This was long before the term sustainability came into common usage--see FEWSNET, one of the new coping tools that was developed starting with that drought using Remote Sensing and GIS.
Of course we now face even greater global climate threats that make sustainability and ecological resilience a major issue for all of us—from local to global (more on this later). It’s worth remembering that the Sahelian Drought was the first modern global climate tragedy of our era—at least as popularized by the press. It was also the post-Vietnam War era when many of us idealistically believed we could save the world. I had accepted the assignment with the goal of then returning soon after to my true passion (I thought) which was to study cultural geography and human-ecological history on the Mosquito Coast in Honduras where I grew up.
Now as I look back, I realize how much our lives are altered by seemingly small decisions that take us down the road less taken (Robert Frost). As I reflect back on my professional life which ever since then has focused on the many of the failed states of the world, i.e. Haiti, Congo. I see now why I came to love Monterey and Steinbeck—it was my own attraction to people like him who have a strong sense of place and wanderlust, but also strong empathy for the poor and those most vulnerable to natural and human-induced disaster.
In later blogs I look back on my career dealing with desertification and other disasters in Africa and Latin America (e.g. Hurricane Mitch in Honduras) and discuss how I see that career from having just returned from a difficult assignment in war torn, corrupt but yet resilient Congo (DRC).
June 25, 2010 Loveland, Colorado
PS - In the next few days I'll add more of a travel log with photos and impressions of what I am seeing and thinking as I travel; there are already select photos from my road trip covering the phase from the Los Angeles area to Loveland, near Denver Colorado in my FLICKR photo album the next phase is covered HERE also on FLICKR.