The Human Landscape

One of the scholarly writers and thinkers I regard most highly is humanistic geographer Yi-Fu Tuan.  I heard him speak last week at a public lecture in downtown Madison. The title of the lecture was “Humanistic Geography:  Traversing the Human Landscape.”

In our profession, we have had an enriching and broadening experience with another humanistic geographer — Graham Rowles from the University of Kentucky.  Especially in the 1990s, Graham Rowles expanded our thinking in occupational science and occupational therapy to embrace the idea of space and place as occupational experience in our lives.  Rowles suggested that we therapists have often ignored our clients’ experiences of being in place by our strong emphasis on doing and performance in therapy.  As I wrote in the chapter on space and place in my book, Rowles was concerned “that we have ignored the contributions of place to people’s identity and well-being and have underestimated the importance of the meanings and values that underlie the environments in which people live” (Ch.3, p.46).

Yi-Fu Tuan, Emeritus Professor of Geography here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is largely considered the founder of the discipline of humanistic geography.  His early book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (1977), was a launching pad for his subsequent lifelong (and continuing) exploration of the experience of space and place in our lives.  Its table of contents reads like an irresistible menu of inviting entrées:  Space, Place, and the Child; Spaciousness and Crowding; Mythical Space and Place; Intimate Experiences of Place; Attachment to Homeland — to name several.  His list of over 25 authored books is equally enticing.  I invite bloggers to Google Yi-Fu Tuan or go to to probe into his vast history of scholarly contributions. In some ways, his most recent book (2012) represents coming full circle — Humanistic Geography:  An Individual’s Search for Meaning.”

I was introduced to Yi-Fu Tuan by one of my doctoral students.  We were both drawn to his teaching focus on space and place, partly because of our familiarity with the work of Graham Rowles.  Sue registered for one of Tuan’s courses.  She came back excited and very enthusiastic about the professor and the content, and she gave me his 1977 book on space and place as a gift.  I was fortunate, then, to be able to spend some time with Yi-Fu and to have him present a guest lecture in one of my seminars.

Tuan is a man with an encyclopedic mind, brimming with ideas and ways of seeing the world of space and place.  He is a giant in his field, and yet physically, he is a small man, soft spoken, with an easy and accessible manner in front of a group or class.  He has the ability to relate his philosophical thinking about the experience of humans within their environments to the everyday-ness of his own life and those of the people in his audience.  As those of you who have been following this blog and/or have read my book or other published works might guess, I rather like that approach to scholarship!

One aspect of his extensive published works I was not aware of until I went online after last week’s lecture is his ‘Dear Colleague’ archive.  Since 1985, Yi-Fu Tuan has written over 700 letters, short essays and notes about an amazing variety of topics — all addressed to colleagues and friends.  My first thought when I discovered the existence of these short works was “What a good idea!”  My second thought was, “That never occurred to me.”  My third thought was, “Well, maybe the editorials I wrote as editor of The American Journal of Occupational Therapy were somewhat similar to Tuan’s Dear Colleague.  The “From the Desk of the Editor” writings offered me one way to feel in direct contact with the many readers of AJOT — from all over the world.  After the end of my 5-year term as editor, a long-distance reader in Milan, Italy told me that she felt like she had gotten to know me through the editorials, and now it seemed as if she had lost a friend.   I was touched by her comment; it awakened me to the potential power of connection — forged through writing — that can be built, even between colleagues who are an ocean apart.  Yi-Fu Tuan has presumably forged hundreds of connections with his hundreds of Dear Colleague letters and notes.  Communication across space and place —   what a good idea!

Part of what I miss in retirement is the stimulating world of ideas that is alive and well in the academic setting.  Attending Yi-Fu Tuan’s lecture last week brought me back to that world of ideas.  The lecture stirred up a flood of memories of graduate school and my faculty days, gave me an hour of  complete absorption in the thoughts and insights and philosophies of a consummate scholar, and provided the always welcome intellectual stimulation that we all seek in our everyday “human landscapes”.

One thought on “The Human Landscape

  1. “provided the always welcome intellectual stimulation that we all seek in our everyday “human landscapes”.”

    Interesting, as always! Takes me back to my university days…I always loved the world of ideas.


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