This weekend, on one of my runs, I listened to a RadioLab episode called “Lost & Found.”
It was partly about how our brains piece together where we are. In one segment, a scientist named Lera Boroditsky told us about a tribal language in Australia that is really focused on location: Instead of asking “How are you?” tribe members ask, “Which way are you going?” And the answer can be astonishingly accurate: “North-Northwest, in the middle direction,” say.
Dr. Boroditsky noted that something like one-third of the languages worldwide have this kind of dead-reckoning built into them. We don’t use it as much in English, but I’ve noticed something interesting in my short time here in California: the scale here is so big that I have a hard time thinking in terms of north, south, east, and west.
I was much more prone to using dead-reckoning speak when I was living in cities. I think this has to do with the compactness of places. and the relative ease of finding landmarks: In Paris, the first major city I ever lived in, the Seine split the city neatly; the Luxembourg Gardens were due south by a block; the Marais due north and across the river; school was one arrondisement to the south-east. In New York, “the Bronx is up and the Battery down”; the Empire State Building barely north and east of my first-ever job; the Chrysler Building just across the street from my fourth-ever job; the PepsiCo bottling plant sign across the river in Queens, my second-ever New York home; the World Trade Center way south; Inwood Park at the northern tip; the Hudson to the west. In Chicago, freaking Lake Michigan got in the way of exploring Michigan itself and prevented you from wandering too far, ever, and if you got to O’Hare you pretty much were about as far west as you wanted to go.
“Well,” you might say, “what’s the problem? In California, the ocean is West.” True. But it’s too far away for me to use it as a marker, really. And I’m hemmed in by three different mountain ranges, one to the south, one to the east, one to the north. In between? Strip malls, modeling schools, Green Burritos mashed up with Carl’s Jrs. You could drive for an hour on the I-10 and only be sure of your location by counting the number of auto malls–car dealerships, they call ’em everyplace else–you’d passed.
Anyway, the good doctor had this to add: When, after enough time living among the tribe that spoke in dead-reckoning speak, she finally had a brief flash, like a Magic Eye illustration, of a map in her head, of Where She Was, a little red dot on the map, she told someone, and they said, “Well, of course. How else would you do it?” And I kind of realized, running south on Indian Hill to Baseline, where I’d run straight east until I hit home, how much I missed that way of thinking about things. I don’t tell people anymore go to east until you hit so-and-so street. I don’t tell folks that I live to the north of anything.
In short, I miss knowing Where I Am.
I have started rectifying this. I look at maps of Southern California on a regular basis. I am always trying to get people to tell me where they live, not like this:
“I live at the intersection of the 15 and the 10.”
But like this:
“I’m just southeast of you by ten miles.”
Is this unfair? I don’t care. A sense of place is important.
By the by–I think of this pictorial representation as the reason something like storyboards work so well, or, in my case, my index-card grid for my manuscript. Being able to see where you are in the story arc…that’s something real, something you can lean on and hold up for progress’ sake, and in exchange for a small piece of sanity.