Monthly Archives: August 2017

Story and Our Sense of Place

We all share a strong emotional connection with the concept of home. Where we live, or more specifically where we were raised as children, is an integral part of our self-identity. My father for instance, was born in southern Queensland and although he lived the vast majority of his life in Victoria he always considered himself a Queenslander first and foremost. These parochialisms seem increasingly outdated within a highly mobilised society such as ours here in Australia, where we often move to far flung corners of the country (if not the world) for the sake of work or family. How many people living in a modern urbanised society still live in their family homes, or even the same suburb or town in which they grew up?

Our childhood homes are laden with our earliest recollections and our burgeoning ‘narrative of self’ is the result of these memories. Thus we are, in essence, a product of the places in which we were born and raised. Personally I have a strong attachment to the city in which I was born and grew up. Melbourne holds the ghosts of my past: the streets I walked as a child provide the link with my past self whenever I walk those same streets today. So much of my identity tied to memory by the multisensory experiences of smell, sound and the highly tactile sensation of Melbourne winter sunshine. All of our senses act as tethers to place, and whether we are conscious of them or not, they become a part of us and serve to ground us in place with strong emotional attachments.

The unique way place evokes memory is the fundamental mechanism that lies at the heart of the method of loci. We remember things better when they are hitched to our memories of place: our sensory perceptions and the myriad of emotional attachments that are associated with them. These memories and sensations then evolve into stories, or narratives, that serve to evoke this sense of place. In the technique of creating a memory palace, stories are the key to unlocking the information encoded by the specific place in which it has been stored. How much more memorable then would these stories be if we used our personal history to help encode and then unlock vast stores of knowledge and information?

As I have begun to experiment with my own memory palaces I have come to appreciate the profound inter-relationship between the mnemonic stories I create and the broader context of the place I now call home. The distinctions between the realms of knowledge and understanding I am encoding are gradually diminishing. There is no single thread of information that follows its own unique path. I can only wonder at how inextricably intertwined the stories, histories and pragmatic knowledge encoded in indigenous cultures around the world must be after many centuries of continual practice.

The cultural stories, folk lore, legends and fables that encode the memory of a nation (such as the ANZAC legend in Australia, or the ‘Thanksgiving’ of the early settlers in the US) become the matrix of perception and understanding of a nation’s shared identity. In the modern context of mobility and displacement from our childhood homes however, these cultural associations and affiliations have been completely disrupted. As a result, our cultural stories have become increasingly disassociated from the places we actually inhabit and so the deeper purpose for which they were intended become corrupted and rendered meaningless.

Here in Australia, those of us of European descent straddle two distinct worlds. That of the stories from our displaced culture and the realities of the new country in which we actually live. For example, think of the strong cultural association between the celebration of Christmas and the falling of snow, reindeer sleighs and hot pudding, while it swelters outside in a blistering Australian summer! Or the fertility celebration of Easter that heralds the end of a long cold winter in the northern hemisphere, while here the crops are being harvested and the non-native trees are beginning their colourful retreat into dormancy. Or the pointless definitions of the four seasons that may well match the seasonal changes in Europe but provide little practical use in the various environmental contexts of the vastly diverse Australian continent.

The inconsistencies and contradictions of these broader cultural narratives undermine the true depth of meaning we might otherwise attribute to the more personal stories we tell ourselves. We have come to think of ‘story’ as mere entertainment: a past-time that we may enjoy, but which holds no real importance to the ‘reality’ of our daily lives. Yet it is story that grounds us in place, linking us with the larger narrative of where we came from and who we are as individuals in relation to other people and other things. Our removal from a true sense of place makes the stories that help ground us in our natural environment become increasingly irrelevant. Without the stories to help us understand and appreciate our natural environment we become even further removed from a sense of place. Untethered as we are from this profoundly important connection with the ‘country’ that sustains us, is it any wonder we heedlessly destroy the forests, drain the rivers, and dig up our natural resources?

Dr Lynne Kelly’s research provides us with an insight into the once universal connection all humans had to their natural environment. As a member of an urbanised culture that has lost this connection to the natural environment I am only beginning to truly appreciate how profoundly important these issues are by engaging with my environment in a whole new way. Not by exploiting it as a resource, but using it as a tool for memory.

Paul Allen