Intimate Places


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There is a strong connection between our separation from the Earth and the harm we do to it. That’s old hat. It’s obvious; it’s been said countless times and it is not very useful simply to lament our alienation and stress the importance of ending it. Humans are not likely to develop intimacy with the places they inhabit just because ethically, it would be a nice thing to do. Changes made purely out of a sense of duty lack authenticity and are seldom sustainable. But there is a much more compelling reason to develop relationships with land. Intimacy enriches our lives, whether it is with the people we know or the places we inhabit. Conversely, if the places we inhabit remain mere acquaintances, our lives are impoverished every bit as much as if we never get close to the people we live with. So this paper explores the ways in which we can learn to develop intimacy with the places we know.

Culture as Barrier

In order to find out how we can develop a deeper connection with the places we inhabit, it will be useful to investigate the barriers that our culture erects between us and the natural world. My dictionary gives one meaning of the word culture as ‘the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings, which is transmitted from one generation to another’ and this is the sense in which I use the word. The culture I am talking about is the one that produced the computer you are probably using to read this. It is a culture that prevents rather than promotes intimate relationships with the places in our lives.

Is it realistic in our culture to expect people to develop a deep sense of place? Most of us don’t depend directly on the place where we live for our food, clothing and shelter, and so our relationships, even with those places most familiar to us, become conceptual and aesthetic rather than a matter of life and death. If we adopt a wider perspective, we may see that life and death are very much at stake. However, we know that not in an immediate way, but on a conceptual level.

It is one thing for me to know intellectually that if the world’s agricultural land is depleted, more people will go hungry in ten years’ time; it is quite another to know that if the land I live on ceases to produce food, then I and my loved ones will starve. In traditional hunter-gatherer societies, every action, every moment, involves some link with the natural world, and survival depends on those links. In our culture this meaningful immediacy has been lost.

In this respect it is worth pointing out the limitations of ideas about saving ‘the planet’ or ‘the Earth’ or ‘Gaia’. While these ideas are useful, I believe they lack the power which direct experience brings. I can’t experience the Earth directly. It’s too big. I can only have direct experience of specific parts of the Earth. The Earth will always remain a concept, no matter how powerful. Consequently, I believe that the strongest, most authentic motivation for environmental activism is rooted in our attachment to specific pieces of the Earth rather than a commitment to the abstract idea of the Earth as a whole. This is borne out by Thomashow’s findings about the childhood experiences of environmental activists, discussed below.

Another effect of our culture is that it isolates most of us physically from the natural world, as James Lovelock points out:

Imagine a world where men and women were raised separately until adulthood. It would not make loving relationships easy. The fact that the Earth is more raped than loved may come from our unnatural separation from her in the cities [quoted in Swan 1990 p.12].

But the separation is not just physical. When compared with indigenous people, members of our culture are at a serious disadvantage even if they are lucky enough to live in places where the land is not covered in bitumen and concrete. Robert Greenway has for over twenty years been conducting wilderness expeditions to help people deepen their connections with wild places. He believes that the success of these ‘wilderness experience’ trips depends upon ‘the extent to which we can leave culture behind’ (Greenway 1995).

For traditional hunter-gatherer societies on the other hand, there is no question of leaving their culture behind in order to commune with nature. Such an idea would seem bizarre in the extreme, since their cultures are an expression of their links to the land. These links come in the form of information about food and its procurement, totem animals, creation stories, sacred sites, the building of shelters, the making of clothes and in many other areas of life. In fact it would be difficult to find any aspect of these cultures which did not in some way deal with a link between person and place. In our culture such direct connections have been supplanted by our dependence on shops, institutions and money.

Another way in which our culture works against intimacy is to turn time into a scarce commodity. Intimacy generally requires conversation, and as David Orr points out,

Good conversation is unhurried. It has its own rhythm and pace. Dialogue with nature cannot be rushed. It will be governed by cycles of day and night, the seasons, the pace of procreation, and by the larger rhythm of evolutionary and geologic time. Human sense of time is increasingly frenetic, driven by clocks, computers and revolutions in transport and communication [Orr p.53].

If we allow our busy lives to dictate to us the amount of time we spend in natural places, then we are likely to have hurried monologues rather than good conversation.

Cataloguing the shortcomings of our culture is not a particularly helpful thing to do if that’s as far as we look. But an understanding of the roots of our alienation is essential if we are to do something about it. What our culture does is to put constraints on the ways in which we interact with the natural world, and, getting to the main point of this paper, interaction is the key to intimacy, whether that intimacy is with land or with other humans.

Let me try an analogy. Suppose I were to meet a woman and fall in love at first sight. Unless I was scared, or for some other reason more inclined to observe life rather than live it – I might be an internet junkie or an academic – I would soon want to move beyond first sight and talk with her. If that felt good, I might want us to develop a relationship, to develop intimacy. If I were prevented from doing these things, all I could do would be to look, to admire her from afar. I may believe that through being in her presence, I have contacted her spirit. But without any real interaction, how would I ever know whether I wasn’t just my own projection that I was contacting? Though I may try to hold on to it, the first thrill of falling in love would inevitably fade. In the absence of any real experience of her, I would begin creating fantasies about what she was like. There would be a relationship, not between me and another person, but between me and my fantasy.

I don’t want to labour the point of this analogy too much. What I want to stress is that a relationship with a piece of land, based solely on an appreciation of its visual beauty, will always remain one-dimensional. It is only through interaction that a sustainable, fulfilling relationship is possible.

The title ‘Intimate Places’ was cheap trick to get your attention, and seeing you’re still reading, it seems to have worked so far. But the comparison between human-to-human relationships and human-to-land relationships was more than a way of grabbing your attention. It provides a useful way of looking at our relationships with land and the assumptions we make about them.

In order to explore the implications a bit further, I would like to discuss briefly the concepts of natural places, wilderness and intermediate areas. By natural places, I mean those in which there exist a large proportion of natural species that are not under the direct control of human beings. This definition is deliberately loose and does not refer exclusively to wilderness areas, which I take to be areas in which obvious human intervention is minimal. Areas which are natural but not wilderness, I have called intermediate areas.

In general, we learn to relate with our environment through interaction, just as we get to know people through our interactions with them. In other words, we test our knowledge and understanding by taking action, and any subsequent action will in part be determined by how the environment responds to that action. This is true whether we are talking about a child learning to walk, two adults learning to relate in a mutually fulfilling manner, or someone learning to use the internet.

Is Wilderness a Wank?

When we deal with wilderness, however, it appears that interaction is discouraged, as Steven Van Matre points out:

It is an unfortunate irony that many of the very institutions which should be counteracting such [alienating] views – parks, preserves, nature centres – have become so concerned about the number of their visitors that they are often unconsciously perpetuating people’s separation from the natural world around them. A formidable legion of signs – stay on the trail, don’t pick, keep off, don’t run, don’t touch – have become commonplace solutions for handling today’s visitors [Van Matre 1979 p.7].

By definition, a place is not thought of as ‘wild’ unless the amount of human impact is negligible. So when we enter a wilderness area, our relationship is reduced to one of passive observation. Although we may walk through it, paddle through it or camp in it, I believe there is a fundamental difference between such a relationship and the usual context in which relationships develop. To return to our analogy, one could argue that simply to admire a picturesque view is a bit like looking at a Playboy centrefold. In neither case does the observer have a fulfilling relationship with the object of his or her admiration. Making love with a place or a person requires intimate knowledge and it requires interaction rather than passive observation.

The very concept of wilderness areas as places where humans have not had an impact does not stand up to close scrutiny. A popular anti-green bumper sticker proclaims that ‘the only true wilderness is between a greenie’s ears’. There is more truth in this statement than most environmentalists would wish to acknowledge, since wilderness as most people think of it is a concept rather than an actuality. The idea of wilderness areas as ‘untouched’ has been debunked by many writers including Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton who points out that so-called wilderness areas ‘have been inhabited and used by indigenous people for thousands of years’ (Langton 1996 p.16).

The distinction between wilderness and non-wilderness is therefore a false one, and the same forces operate in bother realms – a fact that humans ignore at their peril. I am not denying that the distinction is a useful, indeed essential one. But it is also useful to realise that the distinction is ultimately non-existent. Humans are subject to the same limits and processes as other creatures, and the idea of our separateness is based upon the denial of this fact.

I am not suggesting that wilderness areas should be sold off to developers because they are based on a false duality. Given the predatory nature of our relationship with the Earth, it is essential that such areas be kept intact. The point I want to make here is that our relationship with these areas is limited and that therefore, they should not be the only areas in which we look for a connection with the natural world.

Places in which humans have impacted on nature are of fundamental importance because we are able to interact with them in ways which are not possible in wilderness areas. It is our relationship with such areas that I would now like to examine.

Intermediate areas

Eshana has examined the hypothesis that ‘experiences of natural environments … are more psychologically beneficial than experiences of human-made environments’(Bragg 1992 p.53). She examined the responses of subjects to three environments: city streets, a suburban park and ‘forest and open grassland with views across wetlands and nearby hills (ibid p.70).

As the author points out, the results did not support the idea that the more natural the environment, the greater the psychological benefits:

An unexpected result was that the environment of intermediate ‘naturalness’ (the suburban park) produced the most positive responses of all environments. The hypothesis that short-term psychological benefits increase along the ‘human-influenced to natural’ dimension was not supported [ibid p.80].

I would suggest that one reason the subjects benefited more from the park rather than the wilderness environment is that they could interact in a more complete way in the park, or that they could at least see evidence of such interactions. Active involvement is in some ways more fulfilling than passive observation.

Because traditional Australian Aborigines have an intimate, interactive relationship with their environment, and because their culture promotes rather than hinders these relationships, it will be useful to examine their experience.

In the words of the great anthropologist, W. E. H. Stanner, Aboriginal people before the white invasion moved ‘Not in a landscape, but in a humanised realm saturated with significations’ (Rose 1996 p.18). Their world was not a wilderness in that it was far from untouched by humans. Rather than worship the land from afar, traditional Aborigines had a relationship of deep intimacy with their country.

As Deborah Rose points out, pre-invasion Aborigines did not shy away from having an impact on the land:

Here on this continent, there is no place where the feet of Aboriginal humanity have not preceded those of the settler. Nor is there any place where the country was not once fashioned and kept productive by Aboriginal people’s land management practices [Rose 1996 p.18].

‘It is now possible to say with certainty’, says Rose, ‘that Aboriginal people’s land management practices, especially their detailed use of fire, were responsible for the long-term productivity and biodiversity of this continent’. As well as fire management, Aborigines practised ‘selective harvesting, the extensive organisation of sanctuaries and the promotion of regeneration of plants and animals’ (ibid p.10).

The relationship went far beyond practicalities. To use Stanner’s term, the country was ‘saturated with significations’ that involved far more than resource management. For traditional Aboriginal culture, ‘tribal land has its sacred origins, its sacred and dangerous places, its sources of life and its sites of death’ (ibid p.9). The key aspects of this relationship, then, were management, intimacy, regular interaction and sacredness. It is interesting to compare these with those factors identified by Van Matre as being necessary for effective environmental education. Van Matre’s work is discussed below.

Interaction with intermediate environments offers other advantages in the quest to deepen our relationship with the Earth. There is no doubt that the experience of wild places can for many people involve a depth of connection that would otherwise be unattainable. But few people can go to wild places every week, and if they did, sheer numbers of visitors to such places would result in their becoming less wild as a result.

As Greenway (1995 p.133) points out, ‘a key issue becomes how to maintain, or integrate, wilderness-learned modes of knowing when living again within our culture’. Intermediate environments can provide a means of doing this, and their accessibility is one of their major advantages. Cahalan (1995 p.217) points out that ‘growing food and cultivating soil can be central to this experience’ of maintaining contact with natural processes.

I would now like to discuss childhood experiences of place, because this is one particularly significant type of interaction.

Childhood Connections with Place

Our childhood experiences are of great significance in the development of a connection with particular places. Thomashow (1995 p.12) advocates exploring childhood memories of place in order to ‘gain awareness of the connections we make with the earth, awakening and holding those memories in our consciousness of the present’. Thomashow reports that several theorists, including Joseph Chilton Pearce, Roger Hart, Edith Cobb and Paul Shepard, believe the period of childhood between the ages of nine and twelve to be the most important in the formation of these connections. These childhood memories, says Thomashow, provide us with ‘an idealised version of what it feels like to bond with a place’ (ibid p.12).

The importance of childhood connections in shaping our relationship with place, and therefore with environmental issues as a whole, is demonstrated very powerfully by Thomashow’s observation of environmental activists from many countries whom he worked with over a period of more than fifteen years:

Despite the variety of international and cultural experience, there is a striking thematic pattern … they all tell a similar story. They have fond memories of a special childhood place, formed through their connection to the earth via some kind of emotional experience, the basis of their bonding with the land or the neighborhood. Typically, these are memories of play experiences, involving exploration, discovery, adventure, even danger, imagination, and independence. And what stands out is the quality of the landscape – full descriptions, vividly portrayed, embedded in their memories [Thomashow p.9].

In order to examine what conditions best promote the formation of childhood connections with places, I turned to the writings of Stephen Van Matre on environmental education. Van Matre has written at length on what qualities are necessary for children to learn about the natural world in an exciting, meaningful way. Although environmental education and our development of connections with place are not identical processes, they have much in common. Van Matre’s work is therefore a valuable guide to what is needed for the early formation of significant connections with place.

Overcoming parentally-imposed taboos against touching is one of Van Matre’s priorities. He has found that ‘many kids approach the out-of-doors today as if encapsulated in plastic bubbles, cut off from contact with mush of life by a set of admonitions: Don’t get dirty! Don’t put things in your mouth! Don’t get wet! Keep Your clothes clean! … In short, life for many youngsters is something to look at, not touch (Van Matre p.7).

One of Van Matre’s premises is that ‘people learn best when they feel what they are learning’ (ibid p.9). It is not clear to me whether by ‘feel’ he means ‘touch’ or ‘emotion’ or both. It is probably no coincidence that the word ‘feel’ has this double meaning. The connections between touching and experiencing emotions would be another productive area of investigation.

Solitude is greatly valued by Van Matre as something which ‘enhances the acquisition of such non-verbal skills as waiting, watching and receiving. It sharpens awareness and enhances our sense of harmony with the world around us. It helps us sort out what is happening to us, or gives us time just to “be”’ (ibid p. 9). In our culture, solitude is often undervalues and difficult to achieve.

Sharing, as well as solitude, is important according to Van Matre. He writes that ‘people of all ages respond better to sharing than to showing’. Learning theorists have stressed that self-directed learning is the most effective. Van Matre agrees: ‘the best learning experiences start where the learner is, not where the leader is, and the experience, not the leader, is the best teacher’. Another aspect of learning about the environment that Van Matre emphasises is the importance of daily contact ‘with the elements of life’ because ‘it refreshes our sense of being and renews our certainty of becoming’ (ibid p.9).

And finally, Van Matre sees a sense of magic as being indispensable. ‘In good learning experience’, he says, ‘the medium should be magic of discovery and wonder and joy’ (ibid p.9). He does not attempt to define magic and neither will I. Whatever it is, I believe it can be seen as a quality intrinsic to all existence. A sense of magic is discouraged by most reductionist science, and it finds its expression in the myths and sacredness which abound in indigenous cultures.


So far, I have attempted to convince you that our connections with natural places are important, that our culture makes deep connections with place difficult, and that interaction, rather than just passive observation, is necessary for the formation of such connections. I have also attempted to show that because of the importance of interaction, areas that I have called intermediate places are important. What follows is an account of my own experience with the land where I have lived for the past twelve years. It explores some but not all of the issues I have raised.


  • Bragg, E., 1992, ‘Short-Term Psychological Benefits of Natural Environments: Positive Moods and Mindfulness’ in People and Physical Environment Research, no 39/40, Jan-April 1992, Sydney University
  • Cahalan, W., 1995, ‘Ecological Groundedness in Gestalt Therapy’ in Roszak, Gomes and Kramer (eds) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth; Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
  • Greenway, R., ‘The Wilderness Effect and Ecopsychology’ in Roszak, Gomes and Kramer (eds) Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth; Healing the Mind, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco
  • Langton, M., ‘The European Construction of Wilderness’ in Wilderness News, Summer 1995/6, The Wilderness Society, Hobart
  • Quinn, D., Ishmael, Bantam/Turner, New York
  • Rose, D. B., 1996, Nourishing Terrains: Australian Aboriginal Views of Landscape and Wilderness, Australian Heritage Commission, Canberra
  • Thomashow, M., 1995, Ecological Identity
  • Swan, J., 1990, Sacred Places: How the Living Earth Seeks Our Friendship, Bear & Company, Santa Fe
  • Van Matre, S., 1979, Sunship Earth: An Earth Education Program; Getting to Know Your Place in Space, American Camping Association, Martinsville.

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