We humans seem to have a great need to anthropomorphize; that is, we tend to want to ascribe human characteristics to inanimate objects, nonhuman animals and natural phenomena, such as the wind, rain or sun. We want to believe that everything that we touch or that touches us adheres to the same motivations, morals and feelings that we do. So, we’ll say things such as, “it looks like the sun doesn’t want to appear today,” “my dog is just shy” or “the car’s engine is a bit temperamental.”
This inclination of ours has been going on for a long time. Read any of Aesop’s fables that were first written down probably sometime in the first century. Or watch the movie Toy Story 3 from last year.
It occurs to me that we do the same thing with places. For instance, if I say the word “Siberia” to you, what’s your first thought? I imagine it’s something like exile. Bleakness. Hardship. Darkness. In other words, Siberia is a “bad” place.
During the Cold War years, what we Westerners heard of Siberia was mostly that it was a place of dire circumstances and struggle. No one would have imagined Siberia as a vacation destination. Even to the Russians, “Siberia” conjured up a dark, faraway world.
Today, however, locals in Verkhoyansk (the oldest city above the Arctic Circle, founded by Cossacks in 1638) dream of a boom in tourism. And it just may soon become a reality, since nature travelers are now coming to appreciate that despite its remoteness, Siberia offers an authentic Russian experience.
And if I were to say to you “Guantánamo Bay,” what would be your first reaction? It’s a place of “imprisonment” and “terrorists,” right? It’s today’s “bad” place. While we might never think of packing our bags for this spot on the southeastern end of Cuba, will our children or our grandchildren some day regard it as the hot spot for spring break? Could the place somehow turn “good” in our estimation of it, as Siberia is trying to do?
I live in Wisconsin, in the Heartland, and I’ve often heard my home ground disparaged. “Fly-over country.” “The Corn Belt.” Yet, like the locals of Siberia, I think that the Midwest just may be the real gem of the continental United States. Maybe it’s because I was born here, but I find the flat, endless horizons of grasslands and the wide-open vistas of prairies some of the most attractive landscapes on Earth. To my mind, mountains would just get in the way of all that clear-sightedness.
I also think that it’s because of where I come from that I find the Arctic and sub-Arctic tundra one of the most astonishingly beautiful places in the world. While most people travel to Churchill in order to see the polar bears or the beluga whales—not for the specific purpose of seeing the landscape—I find that the lack of obstructions anywhere on the horizon is enough to keep me enthralled for days on end.
It could be, though, that the reason I love these landscapes is because it seems as though no one else does. Mountains are described as “majestic,” but rarely are the pancake panoramas that thrill me described in words that suggest anything close to royalty. Maybe I have such a fondness for them because I think they’re lonely and they need a little attention.
Then again, maybe I’m just anthropomorphizing.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,
People tend to see and sense what they expect; the former location of a prison camp will be just another stretch of wilderness to those who don’t already know what was there.
I suppose if I’m not looking at a prison camp whilst at Guantanamo Bay or Siberia, I could easily forget.