Reading Response: Sense of Place 10-19 (wk6)

I guess I never really knew the real meaning of “context.”  I understood it for it’s vague architectural meaning in studio: the surrounding buildings of a place.

Context comes from the Latin word ‘contexere,’ to weave, an active root that belies its static common meaning.  Context weaves patterns of events, materials, forms, and spaces.”  This deeper meaning of context gives me a greater sense of the idea of place.  It becomes apparent that context is not just  made of buildings, trees, and ground, but instead it is dynamic and constantly changing.  Context is shaped by it’s processes and materials.  These processes and materials give meaning to context, making it place.

Something about the word ‘place’ feels more personal than ‘context.’  Place connotes being… it is a place, a location, that has a specific place in time, and a person should be rooted in that place.  A place has traces of past moments in time, other people that have been there, past events that have marked the place.  Maybe context shapes place and makes it place.

My site:

Crossing into my site, you cross the boundary of the railroad tracks.  The train moves across the tracks multiple times a day, wearing away the dirt that has blown onto the tracks and pushing back the plants that are encroaching on the path.  A dirt path moves across the tracks, splits and hugs either side of Fort Washington Park.  The gravel that is freshly distributed in the summer is slowly worn away by the bikers that constantly ride around the path.  The material of the ground is grass and gravel, both of which are in the constant process of change related to the seasons.  In the winter, a blanket of snow covers the grass and freezes to the gravel.  The crunching of the snow beneath your feet fills your cold ears.  In the spring, as the snow melts away, the gravel and dirt is washed away into the roads and down the drains.  The grass is lost in a sea of mud.  But, as the days warm up, and the sun dries the earth, gravel is replaced and the grass grows back.  Long summer days bring bikers down the gravel trail, kicking up the little stones under their tires.  Couples on a stroll crunch across the ground and have a picnic in the shade of the trees.  Dogs roam free, digging up the fresh grass and dirt.  By autumn, the gravel has warn bike paths in the middle, where water collects after a cool rain.  Brown spots are speckled across the park, which become the favorite places of dogs who visit the park regularly.  This ritual of the place allows it to move and change, yet remain constant and rooted within its context.

In the article “The Sense of Place,” Seamus Heany distinguishes that there are two ways to know a place: “One is lived, illiterate and unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious.”  I agree that in order to move past the picturesqueness of a place, you have to have a connection with the place that goes beyond the aesthetic qualities of the place.  They are features that relate to something beyond themselves, such as memories and knowledge of other places, materials, and processes.  I think that both forms of knowledge are important.  I relate most to the common, mundane, and everyday events of a place.  I am most moved by the “affectionate and feeling eye,” instead of by the “analytical and profane eye.”  I do think, though, that the analytical and profane gives a sense of place another layer of meaning that is important for its full understanding.  Sometimes the processes that aren’t evident to the aesthetic eye are the most important in shaping a place.

After a year of daily movement through the gravel path around Fort Washington Park and across the railroad tracks, I have acquired a whole catalogue of memories that make up a deeper meaning for me… they give me a sense of the place.  The crisp autumn breeze that cuts through the trees and makes the orange and green lights of the park lanterns dance across the ground reminds me of Halloween and the mystery and excitement it embodied for a child growing up in a small New England town.  The asphalt lot next to the park is empty.  The cracks in the pavement create a landscape of lakes and rivers when it rains.  But, I don’t see an empty lot.  I know that in a few months, when the snow comes, this lot will be piled high with snow and ice.  The white mountain will grow through January and February, and as Spring brings warm sunny days, and warm rain, the snow and ice will be begin to melt, and the detritus of Cambridge will be begin to peek out of the pile:  broken cell phones, lost scarves, a glove, a Dunkin Doughnuts cup, thousands of cigarette butts.

These are my lived understandings of this place.

My literate understandings are completely different, and allow for another reading of the place: a reading that, perhaps, isn’t as romantic and carefree.

Every time I ride past this little park, there are dogs running free across the grass.  It looks like a happy place for dogs and their owners, especially on the weekends when they all meet up to play and chat.  But this leash-less dog park has fought its way through a lot to be what it is.  It appears pleasant enough: dogs roaming free, running after balls and sticks.  If you look past the one or two singular dogs, though, you realize that the process of hundreds and thousands of dogs running across the grass, urinating, and digging in the ground will completely kill the grass and rip up the soil.  The beautiful green park that you see now is the result of a lockdown for many years… to rebuild the ground and replant the grass.  So, everything that is there now, that looks like a plane park, has been carefully planned, built, and taken care of.

Heany speaks of the movement to “reinstate the fairies, to make the world more magical than materialistic.”  This park does this: the trees, the light, the wind, the train.  It is a quiet little park tucked away, keeping it quiet and still.  The train tracks are silent, except for those few moments, perhaps three times a day, when the train bullies past the site, bringing a sense of movement and noise to the air.  At night, the park is filled with magic.  You don’t think of the traditional New England granite that makes the heavy base of the fence, instead you only notice how it shimmers in the dancing evening light, like fairy dust.  You don’t notice what kind of trees are there, instead you only feel the weight of their branches as they close in on you as you turn the corner around the park.  It isn’t the park lights you notice, but only the glimmering colors of the lights that cast orange and green haloes on the leaves above you and the ground below your feet.  The park is eerie at night, a magical place of fairies.  Maybe that is why I was so attracted to it.


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