Place Matters

15843925_10154320505237683_8770527364191556256_oWhile hiking up Mount Royal last summer with my wife’s parents, a curious young boy of about eight or nine came up to me and asked me what I had in my hand. I told him it was a blue-spotted salamander. Much to my surprise, however, the kid really wasn’t that interested in seeing or touching or talking about the living, breathing salamander in front of him. Instead, he wanted to tell me about another salamander and give me a little pop quiz consisting of one question: “Do you know why the fire salamander is called the fire salamander?” I was puzzled by the question. After all, the fire salamander (Salamandra salamandra) is native to Europe. And we’re not in Europe. I turned to the boy’s parents and asked them if they were from Europe. They said they were not. Any family in Europe? Nope. Had he seen a fire salamander on a European vacation? Nope. The kid had never been to Europe. Not even once. This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature shows! This, my friends, is what’s wrong with nature books for kids!

It’s sad that most of the kids I meet in Montreal can tell me the names of ten dinosaurs or ten animals from the African Savannah or ten marine mammals, but they can’t name ten Montreal animals. This tells me that their boilerplate globalized knowledge of Nature comes from nature shows and mass-market children’s books produced by multinational corporations based in New York and London. Their knowledge of Nature ought to come from an intimate connection with the world immediately around them, with the plants and animals who share this island with them. Instead, it’s derived primarily from what I call “nature porn” (e.g., British-accented nature shows with their zoom lenses, impossible camera angles, and all-seeing eyes). The difference between real Nature and the Nature depicted in a David Attenborough documentary is roughly equivalent to the difference between real sex and the sex depicted in Debbie does Dallas (1978). Just as a kid who learns about sex from porn is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about sex, a kid who learns about nature from nature shows is going to have some seriously messed up ideas about nature. Nature porn reinforces the Romantic conception of Nature as a pristine place you visit: in the summer (e.g., at camp, at the cottage), or on vacation (e.g., on a Costa Rican eco-tour).

We live in an increasingly globalized world where every thing and every one and every place is supposedly expendable, unimportant, and interchangeable. The company your dad works for moves the factory to China to save a few bucks and kills a small town in Idaho. The New York movie you’re seeing tonight was shot in Toronto, and the dystopian DC show you watched last night on Netflix was shot in Montreal. The malls in Missouri look just like the malls in Ontario, and, though you’ll never admit it, you went to McDonald’s when you were in Italy because—goddammit!—you know what you’re gonna get! So much of our global culture—the very same way of life that’s systematically destroying the living systems upon which we depend—is based upon a radical denial of place. As such, one small way to struggle against this global culture is to stubbornly insist upon the placeness of place. It may seem odd at first, but it’s really no different than saying: “I don’t love humanity in general, I love you. And I don’t love cities in general or rivers in general or mountains in general. I love this city, this river, and this mountain.” Never before has the real been so radical. Place matters. Reality matters. Now more than ever.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

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