Hu­man na­ture plot­ted in study of puz­zling places

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Greg Di Cresce

WITH so much talk of space and time be­ing an­ni­hi­lated by the In­ter­net, along comes the quixotic voice of geog­ra­pher Alas­tair Bon­nett and his charm­ing study, Un­ruly Places: Lost Spa­ces, Se­cret Cities and Other In­scrutable Ge­ogra­phies, to dis­turb our vir­tual slum­ber. Bon­nett, a pro­fes­sor of so­cial ge­og­ra­phy at New­cas­tle Univer­sity, quaintly sug­gests that place isn’t an ob­so­lete or tired no­tion. It’s not some­thing to be shed like last sea­son’s tech toy or trashed like an old so­cial net­work. Place is nei­ther a blank screen nor some ab­stract space to be filled and deleted and filled again. For Bon­nett, our sense of place is a vi­tal part of the awe­some and en­chant­ing stuff that makes us hu­man. In short, Un­ruly Places re­minds us places mat­ter, of­ten pro­foundly. Bon­nett makes the case that we’re a place-lov­ing species by se­lect­ing 47 sites that have chal­lenged his un­der­stand­ing of place. He then writes brief es­says on each spot and groups them un­der such themes as “Lost Spa­ces,” “No Man’s Lands,” “Dead Cities,” and “Float­ing Is­lands.” The range of places he chooses to in­ves­ti­gate run from the pumice and trash is­lands found in our oceans to be­tween-the-bor­der posts of Guinea and Sene­gal, from the un­der­ground cities of Cap­pado­cia in east­ern Turkey to a traf­fic is­land in New­cas­tle, Eng­land, and from the Be­douin vil­lage of Twayil Abu Jar­wal in Is­rael’s Negev Desert to park­ing lot E at Los Angeles In­ter­na­tional Air­port. As the study jumps from hid­den city to for­bid­den is­land to CIA black site, Bon­nett’s bright, clear and force­ful prose smartly re­veals the many ways — some para­dox­i­cal, some dark, some play­ful — place is stitched into the most deeply held as­pects of our be­ing. For ex­am­ple, when Bon­nett takes the reader to the pe­cu­liar no man’s land be­tween the bor­der posts of Guinea and Sene­gal in West Africa, this trek also pre­sents a land­scape to ex­plore our am­biva­lent long­ing to es­cape and to be­long. The bor­der posts be­tween Guinea and Sene­gal are sep­a­rated by a 27-kilo­me­tre stretch of high­way. In this strange na­tion-less gap, trav­ellers of­ten camp as part of pack­aged trips to the re­gion. This “es­cape zone,” we’re told, can act as a place from which to imag­ine those liv­ing there freed from the “ar­chaic, non­sen­si­cal na­tional borders drawn up by greedy Euro­pean lead­ers at the Con­fer­ence of Berlin over 100 years ago.” But it’s more than that. For while trav­ellers may ex­pe­ri­ence free­dom in such in-be­tween places, those who live and work there can face in­creased in­se­cu­rity and a sense of aban­don­ment. Sto­ries of bor­der guards send­ing trucks and their driv­ers back and forth, with calls for more doc­u­men­ta­tion and new bribes, are com­mon. “Patches of ground ‘be­tween’ na­tions are places that can be thought of as free,” Bon­nett con­cludes, “but they are also places where we are re­minded why people will­ingly give up free­doms for the or­der and se­cu­rity of be­ing be­hind a bor­der.” Un­ruly Places is a trav­el­ogue packed with such in­sights. Bon­nett’s pro­duced an at-once de­light­ful and dis­turb­ing cor­rec­tion to the malaise of place­less-ness that has set­tled upon our pre-fabbed, Googlemapped world. Greg Di Cresce is a Win­nipeg jour­nal­ist who knows that real places are sel­dom found on

maps.

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