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Mountains & Channels

25 November, 2007; 22:00 Leave a comment Go to comments

El Toro
Originally uploaded by Green Hocker

I grew up amidst California hills, which are big enough that many people call them mountains. They don’t seem like mountains to me, since they’re actually sort of rounded in shape, and they’re a yellowish-brown color for most of the year. In my mind, mountains should be angular, with exposed rock and snow-caps. But whatever you call them, they provided a constant backdrop to my experience. At least, they did during those formative years in Morgan Hill, California (see the photo at right), from 1st through 4th grades and 7th through 12th grades….

Originally uploaded by jhlombof

Even before that—in Halden, Norway, where my earliest memories are from (age 3-5)—there was a backdrop of hills surrounding Iddefjord, and the Fredriksten Fortress atop one of them, a distinct landmark recognizable to most Norwegians as the spot where the last invading Swedish king was shot dead. Considering both Morgan Hill and Norway, there is something significant about always having hills visible in the distance. It supplies a constant sense of orientation, of having a specific position in space.

Champaign-Urbana from above
Originally uploaded by jgthree

This changed briefly, for the two years that I lived in Champaign, Illinois (in 5th & 6th grades), where there are no mountains, no hills, no valleys, no canyons—not a single contour of land that wasn’t built by humans. In the absence of hills as a point of reference, I found myself getting confused easily about where in the city I was, and which way I was facing. I, along with my siblings, came to be keenly aware at all times of the position of the two tallest buildings in Champaign, both cylindrical and one dark colored, the other light colored.

Pittsburgh Hills
Originally uploaded by n8xd

So it was quite a relief to come back to California, and comforting that the hills were again always visible. That’s when I first became conscious of this…well, this dependency of sorts, on hills. But it wasn’t long before I was proven somewhat wrong about that dependency. My dad moved to a small town outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the middle of the Allegheny Mountains (which, by California standards, are definitely hills). Here, I was more disoriented than ever, despite the constant presence of hills. The reason was that here, they were constant rolling hills, all of similar height, so you didn’t have to go very far before you were looking at a totally different set of hills than five or ten minutes ago. These hills were useless as a point of reference, worse than those two towers in Champaign, unless you took the time to learn them all.

Central Valley
Originally uploaded by Fossil Freak

The theory was further tested in the Central Valley of California, where I lived for ten years at university and working. But what that proved was that hills were helpful, but they didn’t need to be very near. The Central Valley is flat, as flat as Champaign. But on a reasonably clear day, you can see the Coast Range to the west. And on a really clear day, you can look east and see not only the foothills, but the mountains themselves of the Sierra Nevada range (and this time when I say mountains, I really mean mountains). Just make sure you have good glasses.

Seattle is a no-brainer. It’s a playground of mountains, with the Cascades to the east, the Olympics to the west, and the stunningly huge Mt. Rainier, an active snow-capped volcano, to the southeast. But it also has other features…and we’ll come back to that.


What’s really interesting is that in moving to Stockholm, I have never really been bothered by the absence of hills or mountains within sight. As an adult, I’ve often said I needed to live in a place with mountains or hills, having long-ago accepted the theory above. But now I see I’ve been wrong. One factor may be that Stockholm itself has contour, with large parts of Södermalm being situated in higher rocky ground, and with many other such mounds throughout the city. But actually I think the important thing has been the canals and drawbridges. At left is the view out my window, showing the channel between Södermalm (Stockholm’s Southern Borough) and Liljeholmen (the mainland to the south). The open drawbridge is part of Liljeholmensbron (bron=bridge), and here you see one of the largest ships that regularly passes along this channel, a Cement ship. Pretty cool, eh?

Seattle Lake Union Canal
Originally uploaded by RajeshS

OK, back to the topic. The key here is that the six years in Seattle allowed me to develop the skill of defining and organizing my mental maps using a system of waterways, which is really an alternative to hills or mountains. In Seattle, the mountains help for orientation, but they don’t really help you figure out where you are in the city–for that, one needs to look at the hills within Seattle or, better yet, the lakes, the Puget Sound, and the Ship Canal. In one of my urban planning class projects, in a course on Qualitative Methods, I asked Masters students who were new to Seattle to draw a mental map after only living in Seattle for two months. All of them drew the waterways and most drew in the bridges, but very few drew the hills. It just works better to think in those terms. So, my new theory is that I learned in Seattle to draw my own mental maps, in my mind, in terms of waterways, then I applied that in Stockholm. Stockholm’s central city is entirely on islands and a peninsula, so the channels between them and the bridges that connect them really define its geography. Using those things for orientation just works best.

Categories: geography
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  1. 16 December, 2007; 10:16 at 10:16

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