Reflections on spaces and virtual places

you belong among the wildflowers/in a boat out at sea/you belong with your love on your arm/you belong somewhere you’ll feel free…

-Tom Petty

Note: I switched order a little this week bccause I wanted to do another anti-Brady photo. I also had a long run in with a butter-tongued biscuit.

This is only sort of game-related, but it’s something I’m working on and would love to hear some thoughts on. It’s abridged from a different piece of writing:

                I am currently mulling over this issue: how does “land” or “place” work in our current reality. This is something I’ve identified as a personal problem I have with current Native/Indigenous scholarship, if it isn’t, in fact, a problem for the field in general. Part of my problem is that thinking about “land” as the origin point or birthplace of a culture is difficult and fragmented for someone of mixed blood like myself.  The other problem is that my primary research focus is digital environments/networked worlds. And as I consider what has become of “land” or of “place,” I can make moves an intonations (for example the virtual “inn” in Orgrimmar, the orc  town in World of Warcraft that my character calls home, is in many ways a “place,” but no one can physically visit), 

I cannot justify these virtual spaces as “places” in the way that most Indigenous scholars talk about places. This dilemma is compounded by a discussion I had recently with my girlfriend. She came to the realization that she needs to feel close to where she was born and raised. As she shared this, I thought about the fact that there has only been one time in my life where a “place” really felt like home (to the point that I actually longed for the physical space): the one time that me and my family lived in/around a wooded area. I also thought about my mother’s almost primal, reactionary need to have “a home” and “a yard” (land), and I feel a disconnect. 

As I have studied embodiment, I have come to the realization that like so many of the scholars I have met who are obsessed with theory, I have in some ways divorced myself from my sense of my surroundings. I think in some ways my sense that my life, and my reality, is highly portable and constituted in my head/in a social web that technology allows to grow ever larger is partly indicative of the way society is changing. But I also think it creates a bit of a blind spot as I try to understand the importance of place. I am writing this précis lying on my bed, in my apartment in Okemos. But beyond the fact that I have configured this space for my needs, it is no more or less comforting to me than my office on campus, my bedroom in my mother’s apartment in Richmond, IN, the guest room of a friend’s house. The value of place is a concept I can understand, but it is more difficult for me to embody.

While reflecting on all of this, a quote got stuck in my head: “The land is always stalking people. The land makes people live right. The land looks after us. The land looks after people” (p. Basso’s Wisdon Sits in Places, p. 38). There’s something both sinister (in stalking) and comforting (“looks after”) in this statement, but it also brings back into sharp relief the issue I am grappling with. I believe that people DO feel this connection to their land. It makes perfect sense, and I’ve seen people who feel that way. But what does that leave for those of us who do not know our land, or who aren’t—as self-loathing as this sounds—pure blooded enough to have A specific land? How then does the mixed blood, or the radically displaced, ever reconnect with this sense of belonging?

I sense that there’s a Neitzsche-esque response that would claim that such a person—displaced without hope of finding a tangible straight line to the past—is simply lost. But a more positive turn would be to look at the sort of work Basso does in this book as a way of bridging the gap. Basso talks of history, and of mapping, and of locations in at times highly concrete ways, but “place” can also be conceived in a more hypothetical way.

One of my colleagues has a close friend from graduate school who always dreamed of having a huge yard  to decorate with flowers and other plants. Because of the reality of academia, that person—now a fairly respected scholar at a major urban university—couldn’t afford a house with a yard in her geographical space. She instead bought a plot of “virtual” land in the online simulation Second Life, built a house, and maintains a virtual garden, which she tends to in her free time. In one sense, this could be seen as incalculably sad: a person dreams so deeply of land and of connection to nature that she must simulate it through a game. But on another hand, it speaks to a rhetoric of survival and to a solid attempt to connect to something. It speaks to the desire for connection and for a translated form of what is needed (and I would argue that this woman NEEDS her garden—this goes beyond simply wanting it).

There’s a song by the band Keane called “Somewhere Only We Know.” The first time I heard the line “I came across/a fallen tree/I felt the branches of it looking at me/is this the place/we used to love/is this the place that I’ve been dreaming of?” triggered a memory deep in the recesses of my mind. I could clearly see the clearing in the trees where I used to sit in the woods behind our house. I could hear the wind in the leaves overhead, could feel the humidity of an Indiana summer day. That place is gone. It was plowed under so that a house could be built (they paved paradise/and put up a parking lot, to keep my pop culture motif going here).

Is that place still real? Can I still connect with it, even if it’s physically gone? If I build a virtual model of it, and it reminds me of something that now exists only in my memory, is  that virtual space any less real than the memory? Is the memory/virtual space any less real than the place once was? And here’s the cliché book-title-invoking kicker: if “wisdom” or memory or some element of the soul or of culture can indeed inhabit a place, can that same intangible quality adhere to a virtual place?

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