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Geographies of the air – hiding in plain sight? Pt 1: Place, Medium and Value

Co-authored with Harvey Logan (@harv_logan / www.theairplanesblog.wordpress.com)

UndergroundPavelCulek

London Underground by Pavel Culek

“Strategy and international politics are influenced strongly by geography”

This is the tantalising and prescient first sentence of Stefan Possony and Leslie Rosenzweig’s article ‘The Geography of the Air’ (1955: 1).  However, within a few lines, it becomes clear that the promise of an examination of the complex relationships between power and aerial geographies is snuffed out, and the remainder of the piece concerns itself with a narrow conception of the geography of air:

“The geography of the air… is the study of the physical differences of the air in various locations and altitudes” (p.1)

This definition, whilst concerning itself with a worthy and longstanding field of study within physical and environmental geography, is, ironically, claustrophobic and airless in its failure to conceive of a wider geography of air.

Below, we sketch out some of the contours of the existing  geographies of air and ponder the extent to which human geography has neglected the potentialities of exploring this theme.  We do not pretend to have carried out an exhaustive study of pre-existing materials or to have employed academic rigour; we merely offer this up as a ‘think piece’, and we welcome feedback!

The human scale – air, odours, and place

“There’s something surreal about plunging into the bowels of the earth to catch a train. It’s a little world of its own down there, with its own strange winds and weather systems, its own eerie noises and oily smells” (Bryson, 1995)

In this vivid description of the London Underground, Bill Bryson takes the reader’s mind’s eye (or is it their mind’s nose?) to an anonymous platform, where they can easily imagine themselves contemplating the history and complexity of the capital’s underbelly.

This snippet also illustrates how a place can be represented multi-dimensionally.  We understand why vision might be the sense that geographers first rely on when trying to understand a place, but sound and smell, let alone the physical sensation of moving air on the skin, deserve more of a look-in, if you excuse the pun.  Mustiness and mildew can indicate that a place is uncared-for, abandoned, and past its prime.  The stench of human and animal excreta can build on this impression.  Smells and noises can be interesting, evocative, and even exciting too.

Indeed, there has been a growing trend to document and explore sensory landscapes in the early years of the 21st Century: psychogeography has experienced somewhat of a renaissance, for example through the writings of Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and Robert MacFarlane.  Reflecting on the positionality of these and other writers, there have also been interesting and crucial discussions about dominant ‘gazes’ in an era in which Geography is finally beginning to open itself up to an authorship more representative of humanity.

Nevertheless, researchers, urbanists, artists and writers have woken up and smelt the coffee: lived realities are not just about dry statistics and about what is seen, but they are also about the fuller sensory experience of a place, including odours and sounds.  A lovely discussion of ‘The sensory landscape of the city’ took place on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed in January 2018 and is available here.

Smellscaping has risen in prominence as a fieldwork tool in recent years: see, for example, http://goodcitylife.org/smellymaps/ and https://www.geography-fieldwork.org/a-level/place/placemaking/method/#sensory – and as shown in Figure 1, below.  Soundscapes have also recently experienced a similar trajectory.

Aroma Wheel

Figure 1: Aroma Wheel by Kate McLean

Source: Field Studies Council

Air as a medium

It should also be remembered that visual and aural impressions of a place are also transmitted through the medium of air.  Accusations that this is stretching the importance of the air too far are easily countered by pointing out that these impressions are affected by atmospheric conditions – for example, if an observer waits for the cloud to clear before taking a photograph of a Lakeland mountain, then they will be misrepresenting the reality of the place when it was shrouded in fog.  How often do geographers wait until rain, fog, or wind has passed before recording what a place ‘looks’ like?

The role of air as a medium has of course been crucial in the covid-19 pandemic, and beyond the devastating medical and economic impacts of the virus and attempts to combat it, it also opens several research avenues for geographers, from the impact of ‘social distancing’ on hospitality venues and desire lines in parks to the way it has focused attentions on conceptions of ‘fresh air’.

The economic and cultural, and environmental value of air

Geographers are aware of the importance of views and sight lines in both urban and rural areas.  Aesthetics and place attachment are both tied up in these considerations.  Recent consideration of ecosystem services has heightened the importance of views, especially as monetary value is placed upon what can be seen from workplaces, homes, sites of leisure and consumption, and in the journeys in between such places.  A pleasant view, for example, of greenery, can boost property values.  A consideration of the geographies of air must also pay attention to air pollution; such pollution, even more so than water pollution, does not respect borders.

Cultural Geographies of flight

The ability to see the earth from the air was undoubtedly a feat which re-oriented understandings of world Geography.  With the modern ease of accessibility to satellite imagery, the ‘view from above’ is something to which people have become all too accustomed.  In the not too distant past, this new perspective on the planet revolutionised how people understood the world and their place in it.

The lyrical writings of Frenchman Antoine de Saint Exupéry, a pilot for Aéropostale in the early 1900’s, tend towards awe when describing the experience of flight and the viewpoint it afforded on landscapes passing below.  They offer valuable insights into how flying changed our conception of the world:

“Even if a road does venture across a desert, it twists and turns to enjoy the oases […] Flight has brought us knowledge of the straight line.” (Saint Exupéry, 1939, p.33).

The enduring influence of Saint Exupéry’s work highlights how the air has taken on a role as the location in which cultural works are situated.

Alongside wonderment though, geographers ought to consider the extent to which aviation in this period contributed to enshrining colonial ideologies and mindsets.  Flying was an activity reserved for colonial elites and being up in the air was assumed as a position of superiority; their subjects (both the human and natural) could be surveilled below.  Airline advertisements of the time, like the following (Figure 2), reflected this.

Flight Poster

Figure 2: 1919 advertisement for Latécoère (the predecessor to Aéropostale) – regarded as the world’s first airline route map. Moroccans are pictured almost worshiping the arrival of an aircraft resplendent in French insignia

Source: Ovenden and Roberts, 2019

This paper by Lucy Budd considers how the ‘view from the air’ has developed and constructed our understanding of landscapes throughout the history of flight: https://repository.lboro.ac.uk/articles/The_view_from_the_air_the_cultural_geographies_of_flight/9457370

That’s enough hot air for now…

In Part 2, we will mull over aerial militarisation and intensification.  We will also consider what is taught, and what might be taught, about the geographies of air, before asking you to contemplate the ‘place’ of geographies of the air in geographical imaginations and curricula.

David Alcock and Harvey Logan

December 2020

References

Bryson, B (1995) Notes from a Small Island (HarperCollins)

Ovenden, M and Roberts, M (2019). Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design. (Penguin)

Possony, S T and Rosenzweig, L (1955) The Geography of the Air in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 299, pp1-11

Saint Exupéry, A (1939; Translated 1991). Wind, Sand and Stars. (Penguin)

By alcockblog

Optimist, Geography teacher, teaching and learning champion, interested in progress, social and environmental sustainability and outdoor learning. Father, orienteer, fell runner. @DavidAlcock1

2 replies on “Geographies of the air – hiding in plain sight? Pt 1: Place, Medium and Value”

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