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There are many books that recount the astonishing adventures of brave individuals in fabulous locations. I could not write one of those books. My adventures are not so astonishing. I am not so brave. But some of the places I have been are fabulous, and I have one thing in common with those brave authors: the urge to write something about where I have been and something about the adventures – however small they were – that I have had. No, I am not even Prufrock, let alone Prince Hamlet, but although I never saw those attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion, I did at least look into the night sky, and sometimes I remembered what I saw.

At least, I think I remembered what I saw. As time moves on, it is increasingly hard to be sure, and it is uncertainty that gives me confidence. Unlike the brave authors of those astonishing adventures I am only going to write about things that happened so long ago that they may as well have been forgotten by now, and if I remember them at all I will be forgiven for remembering them imprecisely.  And because these things happened so long ago, it is inevitable that they happened in places that no longer exist. Yes, Greenland is still there; Iceland, Ecuador, San Francisco, Oxford, Birmingham – they are all still on the map, of course. But what defines a place is not necessarily what you can see on a map. Marcel Proust wrote: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience”. Revisiting a road that he had known well many years before, and finding that the people he associated with it were no longer there Proust wrote: “The reality that I had known no longer existed. It sufficed that Mme Swann did not appear, in the same attire and at the same moment, for the whole avenue to be altered,”

Enough time has passed, and the cast of characters is sufficiently changed, that, even if you were to visit the site of one of my adventures, it would be gone, in every way but on the map.

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I am starting a new category within this blog to house posts for a new writing project. So if you see anything new with the “The Places We Have Known” category you will know it is part of that project, and if you decide to follow that project then you can just look up everything in the “The Places We Have Known” category! If it takes off, I’ll move it into a new blog. If it dies the death, it may as well do so here, quietly, while nobody much is watching. Whether this is part of the empire or part of the termite army remains to be seen. Watch this space but, as always, avoid holding your breath. Why is it called “The Places We Have Known”? It’s from Proust: “The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience.” Like everything, it is about Geography, History and Memory.

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I’ve been doing some very local geography lately. Partly just because I find my interests going that way and partly because I’m doing “research” for my “Total Geography” project. Of course doing hyper local micro-geography is nothing new, but it’s new to me. Today I was out with my i-phone, close to the building where I work, looking for the 53rd parallel. Yes, I know I could have looked it up on a map but that’s not the point. Yes I know that “real” geographers will tell me it’s sacrilege to use a phone for serious navigation, but this wasn’t all that serious. Part of the fun, in fact the whole point, was that this would be my 53-degrees north. I didn’t want to tame it and bag it and pin it down, I just wanted to go and find it, watch it for a bit, and then leave it alone. I know it’s already marked on the map so it’s not much of a discovery, but the one on the map isn’t mine, it’s the Ordnance Survey’s. I needed to find my own. Yes, the GPS found it for me really, but by combining the GPS and the map, and using a fairly dodgy GPS and a fairly small-scale map I kept any real certainty out of the picture and felt as if I was exploring for myself and discovering, over the space of a few minutes, an actual in-the-flesh example of an elusive geographical concept. A whole-number line stretching off around the world in both directions, separating everything to the north from everything to the south.  And so I sat for a while with my own little bit of the 53rd parallel. If I go and look for it in the same place tomorrow I hope it will have moved at least a little.  For a moment I considered (since it runs through the University Campus where I teach)  that I could mark it with some posts and a line carved in the ground, like the meridian at Greenwich or the equator at, well, at lots of places in fact. But then what would be the point of anyone trying to find it. Part of the fun of geography is exploration. At a global scale that is quite hard. But at a local scale it isn’t hard at all unless somebody has already labelled everything in big letters. Hence the growth in popularity of activities like geocaching, and the relevance of projects such as Mission Explore. For most of my professional life my Geography has either been at a grand scale (ice sheets, and epic landforms created in extreme environments) or has been couched within a framework of global systems. In a lot of “science” physical geography you can only get funding if you demonstrate that your project will address some global concern or relate to a massive international project concerning the history of the planet and the global impact of some hugely significant process . I don’t think I’ll get NERC funding to go and sit with the 53rd parallel for half an hour. But it’s Geography. And I enjoyed it a lot. If you have a little time to spare one afternoon you could do a lot worse than look at a map to find out what your nearest nice-sounding line of latitude or longitude is, then just go out and try to find it. Don’t disturb it. Just sit with it quietly for a while then leave it alone where nobody will pay it much attention. But next time you pass, you’ll know it’s around there somewhere. My 53-degrees North was on a stone bench at the end of the terrace walk overlooking the old walled garden at Keele. When I last saw it the line stretched off into the distance to the west across open country, and to the east it dived into dark woodland. Next week I might go and see if I can find 52-degrees and 59-minutes north.

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I have been working with an artist. She describes her work as being the care and maintenance of the web of our noticing. The paying heed of things overlooked. Exploring contemporary notions of where “wilderness” might now reside when the last bit of the world has been mapped, she has put together, amongst other things, a carefully curated collection of lost buttons, found on the street, the location and date of the discovery of each one carefully recorded. We are looking at the small moments that make up landscapes. Trying to help people to notice. To see more. For me, as a teacher, that is the coal face of my work.

Link: Miriam Burke’s website

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