The Essence of Place


One of the things I used to love about going to San Francisco on business was flying out Saturday night and buying a Sunday Chronicle newspaper. The Datebook pink section advertised special events. I could open up the paper, drink coffee, and plan out the day. It was totally spontaneous – what did I want to do today? No kids or anyone else to consult.

One Sunday morning there was going to be a talk given by an expert on virtual reality, which was a relatively new concept at the time. I went to the lecture, expecting to hear the latest technical details. The guy talked briefly about how they had experimented with taking movie cameras in cars and airplanes to record visual data. Then he spent the rest of the two hours talking about why that would never work.

He said that he had found it was impossible to capture the essence of a place digitally. Sure, you can capture snapshots of the visual and auditory environment. But that doesn’t tell you about what is important about that place or everything that is happening there, including smells and textures. Or the people. Or the sense of change that happens when the same place is different next time you go there.

Ever since that lecture, I have changed the way I visit places. Now I seek out what is special about that particular place at that particular time. The picture at the top of this post was taken in Portland at the Chinese Garden, Over 500 tons of rock was shipped from China for the garden, and 50 chinese workers spent 10 months putting every rock in place. I had worn my vibram shoes that day, so it was wonderful to feel the rocks beneath my feet. When I looked down and saw my toes on the rocks, it made me laugh because I felt my toes were in perfect harmony with the rocks.

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