My job is constant travel, so the question is always: "How do I know where I am?"
GPS is not the answer, because what I really mean, I think, is:"How do I be with (or in) the fact of where I am?" How do I escape the erasing effect of travel, the grim sensation of "no matter where you go, there you are"? How do I arrive in each moment with some joy at new possibilities, new sensations, that couldn't have been gotten where I was?
One answer is to fixate on people, and on certain pleasures of human contact that technology can't replicate. Another is to fixate on landscape, which this blog shows me to be doing constantly. For example, my obsession with botany, and especially plant identification, is simply a way to see immediately how this place is different from that one. An awareness of evolutionary patterns, manifested in the genetic "closeness" of physically distant plants, fuses the necessary sensation of distinction and uniqueness with the equally necessary awareness of connectedness to forge a felt sense of "here."
Another is to touch the water.
It's been my ritual for many years that when visiting a coastal city, I must touch the water. I'm not much of a swimmer or beach-lazer, so this contact requres an intentional ritual. The situation doesn't much matter, though obviously a relatively pristine beach is preferable.
You would think, from all I've said, that the real purpose must be to contact something unique to this location. But salt water is everywhere, and feels and tastes pretty much the same everywhere. Indeed, nothing is more homogenizing, more crushing of distinctions that matter to us, than the sea. It helps that cold saltwater is a clammy, unpleasant sensation; like all metaphorical voids, the sea is not there to please us.
I touch plants, too. I'm not literally a treehugger but while walking I often reach out to touch leaves, and occasionally pause if that sensation is interesting.
So why water? Things present themselves most intensely right at the edge of their absence. This is the intrinsic drama of the urban waterfront -- so much complexity right up against what reads to us as vast emptiness. Touching a large body of water is a contact-with-the-infinite that intensifies the richness of the finite. So, after touching the water, I turn back -- to the city or landscape that was behind me -- and can how feel (not just know) that I'm seeing something that is vulnerable, contingent, even doomed sooner or later, and therefore real.
It's not just that I'm seeing past what the power of architecture wants me to see. Touching the vastness of the city's physical edge -- cold saltwater -- is as close as I can come to seeing the city's jagged temporal edges of creation and doom. I'm seeing the waterfront city superimposed on its ruined (or underwater) condition centuries from now, and on the landscape that was there before it was born. I can see the city's power and beauty as inseparable from its vulnerability and transiece, as though it were a flower.
In other words, I can see it.