By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
When describing place, place theorists Jeff Malpas and Edward Casey say we live in place and can only live in place. Our “place” doesn’t just have a coordinate system. Rather, our place is made by bounded, flexible, constantly changing relationships. In effect, place is not separate from human experience.
This suggests that place is actually about relationships and it is our experiences, relationships and memories that makes a place “home’.
These concepts come from the study of human geography, other wise known as anthropogeography which is a branch of geography that deals with humans and their communities, cultures, economies, and interactions with the environment by studying their relations with and across locations.
It’s an important topic to me personally as I digest the change to my place with the creation of the G2G Rail Trail. In a much broader reach, the concept of place affects us all collectively as we process Indigenous issues and what it means to “own” land and the right associated with having a deed, a huge loan, growing crops and raising livestock on land we’ve bought and are still paying for.
If, as human geography suggests, relationships and experience are at the core of place, then how we understand our own section of land requires a re-evaluation.
Beginning with the G2G rail trail, I am personally struggling with its creation and popularity given that it crosscuts a significant portion of farmland my family has owned and made a living from for two generations.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s a beautiful trail! Flat and hard-packed, I love hiking and biking down it as much as anyone. I just finished cycling the 130 km distance from Gueloh to Goderich! As with any good thing, most appreciate the privilege of using the trail and respect the space and place for the opportunity it proffers to enjoy nature and exercise. Alongside the majority of respectful users come the disrespectful ones who trespass in our fields, leave garbage in our brush piles and park in our farm lanes, disrupting the flow of farm machinery during crop season.
It’s frustrating. I feel like my place, which includes the trail when it was pitted, overgrown and unpopular, is now an open corridor for agricultural destruction. On a personal level, I am honestly mourning the influx of people onto what was once a quiet wayfare through my farm. I do not begrudge the travellers who are respectful but my goodness, I get all worked up about those who don’t.
“Boohoo,” you might say and perhaps I am complaining and resisting change for change’s sake. Perhaps I’m being selfish and this is likely true. I walk trails in other areas without apologizing for it and as stated, I enjoyed cycling it. I’m in mourning nonetheless. Technically, we never officially owned it but because it was part of our landscape, we feel like we did. Landowners lost ownership rights when the Ontario government bought the abandoned railway line in the 1990s.
Landowners like myself now need to redefine what the rail trail is to us. If, as human geography suggests, place is about relationships and experience, perhaps I can rethink my stance. What opportunities can the rail trail offer in terms of relationship so that I can appreciate the space once again? Can I use it to educate hikers and cyclists about farming practices with signage along the trail? Can I take advantage of the trail to routinely travel east, creating relationships with towns and fellow cyclists/hikers along the way? Will a friendly hello and a quick chat become more valued than a quiet walk used to be?
I imagine use of the trail and accepting its transection of my home will be an evolving process.
Life changes all the time.
We all, at some point in our life, find something important to us that we wish to stay the same. It might be your house or a local landmark. Human geography examines how historians can become fixated on places. They see them as unchanging and glorify their nature at a given moment. It has led to the heritage movement in which buildings and sections of neighbourhoods are “frozen in some artificial concept of how things were at some important time,” states Dr. Anne M. C. Godlewska, a geography professor at Queen’s University.
There is a line between preservation and progression that is constantly moving.
This ties in, I think, to a country-wide notion of place, ownership and land with its connection to Indigenous issues.
I haven’t done enough studying here to fully understand all the underlying issues but the concept of place as relationship and experience really changes the idea of ownership, don’t you think?
It doesn’t mean I’d happily hand over farms we’ve worked for decades should a dispute arise. That just displaces another culture from their connection to the land. I think the key word is “relationship”. As more and more speakers acknowledge meeting places as once having been the traditional homes of Indigenous peoples, it’s the start of establishing an understanding which can lead to relationship.
Geographers, said Godlewska, need to think about their own personal experience of place to understand “how others are embedded in places formed of relationships with other people and indeed, the larger environment.”
That’s something to ponder as we spend hours in the tractor harvesting on our/their land. Or, perhaps, as we hike down the G2G. ◊