by Joe Kinyon
We often talk about our ‘five senses.’ Any ability to perceive that is not sight, smell, touch, taste or hearing is called a ‘sixth sense,’ usually associated with the paranormal. However, having more than five senses is completely normal. We have at least nine ways to feel and perceive the external world. Some argue that we have as many as 20 or more senses when we include internal senses that give feedback on the function of organs. Other organisms have additional senses and specialized organs that humans don’t have, built to perceive or extend into additional wavelengths.
The unique senses that humans possess are our windows of perception. What we perceive is organized in our brains into relationships that create a model of our world. Everything we do is checked against that model -- it is how we orient ourselves to everything else. We have additional perceptions not based upon a single or specific sensory organ. We also have perception of patterns or relationships that are fluid, and the ability to organize nebulous things or fill gaps to interpolate complex information. These can be culturally constructed such as a sense of timing with humor, strategy in a game or a sense of fashion with garments.
Somewhere between our five senses and our fashion sense is a sense of place. I’m not refering to the sense of place one might call decorum or knowing one’s place in a caste or hierarchy. A sense of place has two parts. It consists of the characteristics of geography that some locations have and others do not — or it can be the feelings or perceptions associated with the place that may strengthen attachment or identity. In addition to a sense of place are the meanings we assign to locations. For example, a bend in the river can be recognized as a historic mill site or sacred place.
The geography that gives a place its characteristics may also make it feel placeless. Mountains are a good example of this. They can be distinct landmarks like Sonoma Mountain or they can take shape as many indistinguishable mountains in all directions, creating a disorienting (or inspiring!) sense of being in the middle of nowhere. Some people find strip malls disorienting as placeless regurgitations of indistinguishable chains or franchises and architecture -- the opposite of landmarks. Some places are gone, transformed or lessened. “There is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein once quipped.
When I make maps for Sonoma Land Trust, I have a dialogue with my sense of place. With every map made, I critique it for its ability to convey that sense. Every map is a drawing of a sense of place that we are trying to share with our staff, board or constituents. Sometimes, our maps are filtered and streamlined to more efficiently convey a message. Other times, the information on maps is saturated and rich in order to mirror characteristics of the landscape. Sometimes, the map is exact and precise so that it may give directions and start the process of taking action.
An unwritten rule of the importance of mapping in our organization is as follows: “If we know it, we’ll love it. If we love it, we’ll protect it.” For this reason, maps are essential to that key step of knowing a place and, therefore, an essential part of the loving and protecting that we engage in as an organization.
Joe Kinyon is Sonoma Land Trust's GIS manager and mapmaker extraordinaire.
Sonoma Land Trust is a local nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, CA, that conserves scenic, natural, agricultural and open lands in Sonoma County for the benefit of the community and future generations. This blog focuses on SLT's stewardship team, whose members do hands-on work to directly protect, restore, and safeguard the land for generations to come.