Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Geographical Signifiers Analysis

We often overlook geography in our day-to-day lives. It is one of those concepts that is understood, but rarely acknowledged as something that could have a personal effect on one’s life. My entire life, I have been surrounded by the geographical beauties of the Hudson River Valley in New York, but I never fully appreciated the idea and gift of geography until I left my home to study abroad.

Flying into Ireland as the dawn breaks over the horizon is one of the most breathtaking images I have ever experienced. The mix of shadows and light made the geography of the country’s western coast seem beautifully dreamlike and unworldly. From my view, at a twenty thousand mile altitude, I could see everything - - the darkness of the sea, the ripples of the waves, the white foam as it crashed against the rough rocky coastline, and the sprawling green landscape can never be adequately captured by picture or painting. Seeing these awe inspiring natural characteristics opened my eyes to the amazing yearlong experience I was about to embark upon. They helped me become acquainted with the country I would be calling my home; they welcomed me; they helped me break the confinement of my little world so that I may be open to new peoples, cultures, and worlds.

That moment on the plane gave me a sense of comfort, which one of the main things I experienced while abroad. The people I met and became friends with were welcoming and comforting just as the land welcomed and comforted the crashing waves. I suppose in a sense I could be viewed as a wave, coming all the way from the opposite side of the Atlantic, breaking against the land. I quickly learned that this sense of hospitality is very much apart of the Irish culture and something that is treated with respect. As a foreigner, I had prepared my self to come face to face with hostility, especially given the current state of world events, but the kindness was a welcomed surprise and allowed me to ease into my new environment seamlessly enabling me to grow and become enriched in all aspects of life.

My geographical experience in Ireland immediately popped into my head as I was reading Epeli Hau’ofa’s essay, Our Sea of Islands. Throughout the article, Hau’ofa speaks of the belittling views held by the majority of the Oceania cultures and inhabitants. Many see Oceania as an area of numerous small islands in the middle of nowhere, which are all dependant on the world’s “super power” nations, such as America and European nations. Because these islands are small dots speckling the ocean, they are in a way helpless. What Hau’ofa suggests, however, is that this “narrow, deterministic perspective” is hopeless, and perpetuates a sense of confinement throughout the world (30). In other words, the inhabitants of the islands are confined by their landscape and therefore confined in their minds. This cannot be true, though. The islanders cannot be confined by their landscape when they are so close to the ocean, which touches all corners of the world, and practice reciprocity with the ocean. In their culture, land and ocean are one, interconnecting, and unlimited. Those who do not realize this connection participate in the very confinement they are applying to the islands and islanders.

We can connect Hau’ofa’s claims with Ihimaera’s in The Whale Rider. Both authors stress the importance on man’s relationship with the land and sea and how the demise of that relationship ultimately leads to the demise of human connection and, in a larger view, humanity. Kahu was able to save humanity and reestablish that connection and oneness between man and nature, which saved her tribe and community, and Hau’ofa is calling his readers to release their thoughts of confinement so that we can be open to becoming one with the ocean and land. For me, I was able to witness first hand the connection between land and see – how land welcomed the sea- and how the people of the land mirrored the geography, welcoming me into their land and culture.

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