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, Google-mapped world.
Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist who knows that real places are seldom found on maps.