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Lost in place



At first glance few things are as solid as time and place. The place we live in is made of wood bricks and steel and is anchored in the earth. Yet philosophers and poets will tell us that things are not so simple. Richard Wilbur’s short poem 'Epistemology' for example explores the contradictory challenges to the assumption that the world is solid: 'Kick at the rock, Sam Johnson, break your bones / But cloudy, cloudy is the stuff of stones.'

Young girl sitting down alone in the dark (Photo by Giuda90 via Getty)Place is elusive but easily badged. In most societies whether you are born on this side of the railway line or the river is seen to matter. Whether you live on the east or west side of the city, went to this school or that, and spend your holidays in this country or that, is also taken to matter. But why it should matter and how your experience of place colours your life are less clear.

Recent studies that have tied social disadvantage to place suggest that for many people it does matter. Following the late Professor Tony Vinson's pioneering research it is now generally accepted that the many indices of disadvantage are clustered in comparatively few regions in Australia. These include homelessness, lack of child care, education and places of recreation, mental and physical illness, domestic violence, contact with the justice system, access to computers and so on.

If this is so, it follows that society might address this disadvantage by focusing on these places through long term and integrated programs directed to help children and families to deal with their challenges and integrate with society.

It has also become clear, however, the measures of disadvantage reveal little change over many years. Although this may be simply explained by the failure of successive governments to commit sufficient coordinated resources to properly evaluated programs over a long time, it also raises the question whether place itself, working in conjunction with the factors associated with disadvantage, also has a large role in shaping a person's life and future. And, if this is the case, whether our experience of place is shaped by its long history.

These questions are part of a broader reflection on how our sense of place shapes our understanding of the world. When asked what places have been most significant in their lives, people give varied answers. Some name places from which they have gained considerable benefit in reaching goals they had set themselves. These include most notably places of education, but also sporting facilities and work places. Places are associated with personal and social identity because they have formed tangible links to our future growth and occupations.

For other people the places of greatest significance have been associated with moments of self-transcendence, single or repeated. They are described as magic or paradise places.


"If it implies that there is no place they love, this would be concerning. Might that lack of attachment to place prove to be a significant factor in hindering people from making connections with society?"


A creek valley seen through mist from a hilltop during regular long walks, for example, a mountain suddenly framed by a road winding up through a valley, or a cricket ground irradiated by the evening sun during the last hour of play, are some examples of places that are experienced both as ordinary and transfigured. They are imagined as alive with possibility beyond their tangible reality, and for that reason significant in providing a compass for musings on our identity.

Places of this kind are often associated with childhood and with places away from home. The original experience is later evoked through presence in similar places, and the recall triggers pleasure and longing, as if we are looking in at a sunlit garden through a locked gate. Such places ground the relationships that form our identity, prompt wonder and gratitude for life experienced as a gift, and feed nostalgia for connections once enjoyed and now lost.

The experience of 'magic' places seems similar to the way in which Indigenous Australians describe relationship to country, and perhaps also the relationship of many farmers to their land. Their significance cannot adequately be described in pragmatic terms of opportunity and benefit, because central to the experience are silence and wonder.

The power of this experience of place prompts reflection on the way in which young people who live in areas marked by multiple disadvantage relate to place. Many say they hate the areas in which they have grown up. This would be an understandable response to a world in which they have found neither opportunity nor beauty.

But if it implies that there is no place they love, and that they have never enjoyed an experience of place which awakened a sense of something more and a longing for it, this would be concerning. Might that lack of attachment to place prove to be a significant factor in hindering people from making connections with society? Cloudy, cloudy indeed is the stuff of stones.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Photo by Giuda90 via Getty

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Tony Vinson, youth detention



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Existing comments

Yikes, thoughtfully and beautifully written Andy. Another writer I admire is David Malouf. The first time I read his essay "A First Place", written for the 1984 Blakelock Lecture, I was smitten. It starts "To begin with topography. The first thing you notice about this city is the unevenness of the ground. Brisbane is hilly." We both grew up in Brisbane (myself from the age of 8) in suburbs close geographically. There the similarity ends. However, I deeply understood his words. So, even as I experienced trauma in childhood, my place is still important and loved. I'm sure the trauma has impacted in ways sometimes barely perceptible to me. Notwithstanding, Brisbane retains a close hold.

Pam | 02 July 2019  

So beautifully written and so evocative for me. Thank you. This also had me thinking about "aging in place" .. we so much need beauty wherever we are... and the eyes and heart to notice.

Jo Ann | 05 July 2019  

Andy, your splendid poetic allusion memorialises 'place' in a way that Tony Vinson superbly addresses its importance politically. An Indigenous Australian who does that in her own way is, of course, Sally Morgan. In retirement, and through circumstances beyond my control, I find myself living in a place that reminds me at times of the Calcutta of my birth: multicultural, materially impoverished and, at first glance, unfashionably unexciting. Initially, the privilege that I have experienced made me recoil from it, inclining me towards the curmudgeonliness that age sometimes visits upon the resentful; but it has begun to grow on me. I notice things that have escaped my 'inner eye' in earlier life (even if, like Pam, I too live in Brisbane ;) Thank you for your great gift with words!

Michael Furtado | 11 July 2019  

A beautiful piece Fr. Hamiliton. My mother used to say that there was no place like home and yet in a state of ' homelessness ' one can often hear 'it ' in the wind in the trees, in the trickle of a waterfall, the sight of a rainbow, the distant trumpet of an elephant call and on a starry , starry night flaming flowers that brightly blaze.

Susan Vasnaik | 14 July 2019  

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