A Psychological Perspective on Place 
                                                                                                     by David Russell

 Continued from previous page

Yarramundi, a person and a place 




  Photo courtesy of: Doonside Tech. High School, NSW


    As I mentioned earlier, a sacred place, or a place with psychological significance, has attained this title because of what has happened there. Most often the topography of the site suggests a mystery of mythic proportions such as one of the big stories of an original fertility, or of a death and of a subsequent resurrection. These myths “did not explain  such marvels nor were explained by  them. Rather they were the poetic forms by which such mysteries were intricately symbolized.”[i] The topography, by its visual appearance, expresses a numinous gateway, or meeting point. It could be where the river from the mountains meets the river from the plains or where the fresh inland water meets the salt water of the sea … just such a place is Yarramundi.


          Yarramundi is the name of a very specific locality only a few kilometres south from Richmond on the Nepean-Hawkesbury river.[i] It is the place where two rivers meet, one form the mountains and one form the plains, and where the same river changes its name for Nepean to Hawkesbury. But all this is just a backdrop to what actually happened at this conjunction; it is only suggestive of possessing a potential for a significant (psychological) event. The fact that history records [ii] what must now, in hindsight, be judged to of profound importance, the meeting of the black ‘doctor of renown’[iii] and the white Governor representing the King of England, a meeting that took place before the war of dominance and subjugation took its terrible toll. Marine Captain Watkin Tench who accompanied Governor Arthur Phillip on an expedition “to ascertain whether or not the Hawkesbury and the Nepean were the same river”[iv] describes the meeting as follows:

A canoe, also with a man and a boy in it, kept gently paddling up abreast of us. We halted for the night at our usual hour, on the bank of the river. Immediately that we had stoped, our friend (who had already told us his name) Gombeeree, introduced the man and the boy form the canoe to us. The former was named Yellomundee, the later Deeimba. The ease with which these people behaved among strangers was as conspicuous as unexpected. They seated themselves at our fire, partook of our biscuit and pork, drank form our canteens, and heard our guns going off around them without betraying any symptom of fear, distrust or surprise. On the opposite bank of the river they had left their wives and several children, with whom they frequently discoursed; and we observed that these last manifested neither suspicion or uneasiness of our designs towards their friends.[v]

   How we know that Yellomundee was a person of renown is demonstrated by the account that Tench gives of an episode showing ‘the force of imagination’ which both created a chest wound and its cure in one of the expedition party (a member of an Aboriginal-Australian coastal community who was accompanying the Europeans).


    While this event gradually assumes a significance in European history, the real importance of Yella Mundi (storyteller and old man in the Eora language)[vi][vii] is beautifully expresses in the story that he (Yella Mundi) tells[vii] and which constitutes the psychological and cultural truth on which the story of Pemulwuy’s (the rainbow warrior) resistance to the British invasion and colonial rule, rests. Yella Mundi’s story is a mythopoetic account of the bungled attempts at communication with the Aboriginal-Australians by the British, the subsequent fall into madness and war, and finally, an image in the night sky of a ‘secret truth.’ (The full story is reported in the Endnotes.)[viii]

    In our Western tradition, a psychological place is a place inhabited by those creatures, called daimones by the Greeks and genii by the Romans, who were intermediary between humans and Gods. Because they, in contrast to the Olympic gods, could be emotionally touched, one could find solace in conversation with them. It was understandable then that such a spirit would gained a reputation of being approachable, of being the special spirit of this place … the particular genius loci. The very invisibility of a spirit was a sign of presence (psychological presence), not absence. And as Simon Schama says: “To feel its presence and that of all the ancestors buried in such a place required only a kind of respectful annihilation of the human self.”[ix] Or in the terms of this paper, a letting go of a total reliance on only what the senses literally tell us. Much earlier in his book Landscape and Memory, Schama tells us of the archaic origin of ‘place’: “Before it can ever be a response for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. It’s scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.”[x]

     The spirit of Yella Mundi is tangibly present to anyone who takes time out and sits by the conjunction of the Grose (the river from the mountains) and the Nepean (the river from the plains). To anyone who remembers the meeting of the black and white tribes whilst manifesting neither ‘suspicion or uneasiness’ as they shared food and stories of other places. The great sadness that his meeting arouses, sadness due to the inability of the Europeans to use this meeting as a model for how the two tribes might coexist (for mutual benefit rather than domination by one over the other) remains. The large river stones, which dominate the landscape during a dry season, echo the pain of lost opportunity. The bones of many generations, having turned to stone due to the suffering that followed this meeting, echo an invitation to meet anew. What a shame that both Phillip and Tench believed that they were bringing progress and civilisation to the southern continent … that they had to be cruel to be kind … that they knew best!


[i] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, London: Fontana Press, 1996, p.257.

[ii] Richmond is of historical significance to the white community in Australia as it was one of the early settlements in newly founded English colony of New South Wales. The town of Richmond is 56 kilometres west of central Sydney.

[iii] The extraordinary account of this meeting is described in the narrative of the beginnings of modern Australia (Sydneyís First four Years) and first published in London in 1793 by Captain Watkin Tench. The work has recently be republished as Watkin Tench 1788, edited and introduced by Tim Flannery, Melbourne: Text Publishing,1996.

[iv] Ibid., p.197.

[v]ibid., p.185.

[vi][ ibid., 193.

[vii]      From a Glossary of the Eora language as found in Eric Willmotís imaginative novel (which is closely based on both European historical records and the unpublished records of Aboriginal-Australians) Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior, Sydney: Bantam, 1987.

[viii] Willmot, Pemulwuy, pp.117-118.

[viii] The following is the full story as it appears in the text:

The new year passed into 1793 and Captain John Macarthur was appointed Commanding Officer of the fortified town of Parramatter. Toongabbie became its first satellite and then Prospect Hill. The bird of night flew into burnigula, the setting sun. She rested quietly and the night was heavy in the land of Eora.

    No rain came and the old people were afraid, but Yanlarree and Conduwuy were great hunters. They could run all day in the heat through the mountains. At night they would return, each with a ganimantj on his back. The Eora felt secure because they always had food.

There was a berringen whose ordinary name was Yanada and she was the promised wife of Gonduwuy. Yanada had a passion for Yanlarree, and he for her, but Yanlarree and Gonduwuy were bulumna to each other, and so was in a propriety relationship in marriage to both men.

The Eora were fearful that if she became the wife of one of the men, they would fight and kill each other and the Eora would starve.

It was clear that Yanada was growing to the age of dinyaeghine and a child spirit might enter her body and begin to grow there. She would then have to become the wife of one or the other of the hunters and the trouble would start.

One morning the group was awakened to find Yanada beating children and old men with sticks. She was also making strange noises and all agreed that she must be mad.

The old man ceased his story for a while then called the children closer and went on.

That Yanada was seen to be mad is the first part of truth; that which we can see easily.

He stopped again and all waited.

The Eora called a carrdigan murray to attend and heal her, but he could not do this. He told them that she had worried so much about the consequences of pregnancy and the fighting between the hunters that her body opened in fear and a mischievous spirit entered her and made her mad. This he said was very sad for her. She must be cast out from the group and she must never have children.

This, said the old man, ìis the second part of truth; the truth in other peopleís mind.

The old man again stopped and smiled almost to himself.

There is a third and final part to truth. It is the secret truth within each person.

The old man paused.

Tell us, Mundi, called one of the children. What is the secret?

No,îhe said, ìI shall tell you what becomes of Yanada. You must think of the last truth yourselves.

The old man reached out in front of him.

The Eora seized Yanada and carried her to a distant place from which she could not return, and there were no Eora child spirits and she could not conceive.

The great spirit of the rainbow knew her secret truth. He was sad for her but knew that she was matlong. He picked her up and carried her into the heaven where you see her in the sky.

Yanada, he said. Eora will hereafter know you as the new moon. You will be the envy of all women. Each month you will lie on your back and become pregnant. Your stomach will swell and you will bear a child each month and it will be a new star, but you must then return to earth for a short time to tell other young women to beware and not make trouble between men.

Yella Mundi then told the children to go to sleep.

Black Caesar, who had joined the group, stood up now and put his hand on the old man's shoulder.

Yella Mundi, he said in his deep voice. ìIs it an Eora man's secret or can I know Yanadaís third part of truth?

The old man smiled.

You can know my friend, but I will not tell you. It is good for men, as well as children, to think of the truth.

The night bird now ascended from the firelight on her silent wings. She looked up at Yanadaís luminous body and she knew her secret truth.

[x]Schama, Landscape and Memory, pp.398-399.

[xi] Ibid., pp.6-7.

Psychology, relationship and place


     One’s experience of place can be reflected and intensified by understanding the experience as a complex of psychological phenomena. It’s complex because I am wanting to include memories, attitudes, dreams, emotions, cultural stories, personality characteristics, needs and motives all of which carry with them the influences of a particular time in history and one’s particular socio-economic position in society. What’s more, some of these elements of the experience can be in conflict with other elements. How could it be otherwise when the psychological phenomenon and the cultural context inevitably co-evolve over time.

   The phrase ‘sense of place’ emphasises the felt-experience and the face-to-place nature of the experience. How I experience a special place describes my connectedness to that place and it is through language ... with oneself, with another, with the place itself, with one’s hopes and dreams ... that this special engagement is expressed. It is not surprising then that the imagination is the primary source of this engagement and that the language of the imagination (poetry, metaphor, imagery, wordplay) best allows us to dwell meaningfully in this place.

Martin Buber (1923/1970)[i] offers an analysis of two worlds of experience, one which describes a relationship (with a person or place) with no particular psychological significance and the other ‘thick’ (William James’s term) with meaning. Buber’s name for the second sort of relationship is an I-Thou experience. Buber’s analysis begins with the declaration that to “man” the world is twofold, according to “his” twofold communication. It is twofold in accordance with the words we speak: I-It and I-Thou. At the heart of Buber’s analysis is the changing nature of the ‘I’. A person takes some relational stand in regards to a particular place (because of a particular set of experiences) and it is in this stand that the specific nature of the I appears. The experiential world of an I-It relationship is set in time and space and is characterised by a sense of fragmentation and separateness of the observer and the observed. Whenever a person has an object before her/him, be it an object of perception, imagination, will, or thought, she/he has established the realm of It ... But the world of Thou is different. “Whoever says (Thou) does not have something; ‘he’ has nothing. But ‘he’ stands in relation.”[ii]

   It is the pattern of the relationship (the person with the particular place) that determines what sort of person the I is, the I of an I-Thou relationship is different from the I of an I-It relationship. Once a person has integrated the richness of his/her experiences in relation to a special place, the I has changed, has been transformed. What began as an I-It relationship is now experienced as an I-Thou relationship.

    Buber illustrates this transformation when he speaks of two ways of considering a tree ... as an ‘object’ and as a Thou in relation with an I. When the tree is related to as a Thou it is no longer just an object or an It “...if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It ... it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it - only differently. One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.”[i] He goes on to say that the I-Thou is not minimised even though he does not know whether the tree has a consciousness similar to our own. What he does caution against is a relentless questioning of our own consciousness, “... must you again divide the indivisable? What I encounter is neither the soul of a tree nor a dryad, but the tree itself.”[ii] Buber talks of the I-Thou as a domain of ‘pure relation’ where all there is, is relating ... what he calls ‘meeting’.

    I’m struck by how well this describes a psychological appreciation of place. While we are very familiar with the world of I-It, a world which characterises our daily living, when we experience a meeting of the I-Thou kind we are no less sure (psychologically) that we have touched a deep and very meaningful vein of human experience. It is also not surprising that people have described as a religious experience the making of a Thou from an It. William James for example, who some have called ‘father of American psychology’, picked up on Buber’s terminology when in 1927 he wrote that the “universe is no longer a mere It to us, but a Thou, if we are religious.”[iii]In a psychological sense, the person experiencing themselves in an I-Thou relationship will never be the same again - their configuration with the world will have changed.

The experience of a special relationship to place underscores the psychological insight that human experience is not usefully viewed as only a set of personal events (the function of the brain/mind/body) but as a relationship between the person and an ‘other’ where that other can be a place (a place which in no way excludes people). Or in Buber’s language ... the experience of a ‘between’ is more powerful and significant than either the I or Thou alone.

      Place, when viewed as a psychological phenomenon is, perhaps, more to be lived and described than explained. If it is only considered as an abstract universal then it inevitably comes across as an empty and somewhat frivolous notion. If, on the other hand, it is seen as an experience that is mediated and modulated by the full spectrum of cultural activities then we can see it as a rich relational phenomenon which is a source of both individual and social meaning. And what’s more, when it is mediated by a sense of oneness it is a source of religious meaning - a meaning built on the symbols that constitute that boundary place between the visible and the invisible worlds, a place where mystery is experienced, where we experience a world ensouled.


[i][i Martin Buber, I and Thou, translation by Walter Kaufmann, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. (Originally published 1923)

[ii] ibid., p.55.

[i][ ibid., p.58.

[ii][ ibid., p.59.

[iii] William James, ‘The Will to Believe’, in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, New Yourk: Longmans, Green and Co., 1927, p.22.

                                                                              The Mulberry Tree 

                                                                                                                           by Vincent VanGogh, Oil (1969)

                                                                                                                                   Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA

Shaping Place as a Psychological Phenomenon


     As stated in the very first words of this paper, no place is a ‘place’ until things that have happened in it are remembered as being important to our cultural life. Another way of saying this is to state along with Carl Ratner[i] that ‘activity forms psychology’ or more specifically, that a psychological phenomenon (such as a sense of place) is dependent on social activity. A psychological phenomenon just doesn’t happen out-of-the-blue, rather it follows somewhat of a developmental path beginning with an act of the imagination. As Theodor Herzl, the founder modern Zionism, said ... “Dreams are a fulfilment of the days of our sojourn on earth. Dreams are not so different from deeds ... All deeds of men are only dreams at first.”[ii]  Karl Marks, only a few years earlier had said .. “the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”[iii]

   The first stage of a transition from an I-It to an I-Thou experience, from a of-the-senses-only experience to an in-depth psychological experience - is an act of the imagination. One needs to ‘dream into’ this place or be ‘carried away’ by the place. The second stage is to encourage the rich activity of one’s daily living ... the emotions, memories, personal idiosyncrasies, longings and sense of belonging ... to inform, or flesh our, the experience of this particular place. The third stage is to communicate to an other (who could be oneself!) having tapped the abundant energy source of the enriched imagination. The desire to express a soul-making experience, especially in the language of metaphor, myth and story, is to act psychologically. Not in the soulless language of positivivist psychology but with the images of Psyche herself.

     Our current interest in ‘sense of place’ as a topic of psychological inquiry is grounded in specific social and cultural activites. This particular historical moment in Australia is a fertile time for re-examining our attitudes, memories, needs and motives as a means of better appreciating how ‘place’ is a cultural construct. Place, as a complex of psychological phenomena, is a rich field for cultural psychology. What I have tried to do in this paper is to offer the reader an example of how a particular place can be understood from a soulful, or psychological, perspective; how experiences determine what is psychological; and how the imagination is the key vehicle for the transformation of any place into a special ‘place’


[i] Carl Ratner, Cultural Psychology and Qualitative Methodology: Theoretical and Empirical Considerations, New Your:Plenum Press, 1997, p.101.

[ii] Thedor Hertzl, Old New Land, 1902, from the Epilogue, quoted by Evelyn Abel, in JNF Illustrated, Winter 1996-97, pp.1-9, in her article, Old New Land, p.1.

[iii]  Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.1, Moscow: Progress publishers, 1961, p.178. (Originally published 1887)



        My main argument in this paper is that a psychological appreciation of place needs to be characterised by two processes: aggiornamento, or keeping abreast of the times, and approfondimento, or deepening of thought. We keep abreast of the times by respecting, and being responsive to, the life of the senses. The requisite deepening of experience is achieved by granting due legitimacy to the life of the imagination. By braiding together these two ‘ways of knowing’ we have a body of knowledge which is both dreamed and perceived. Only then can we realise, at lease to moderate degree, the human desire to once again, eat the fruits of Paradise, see the Midnight Sun, drink from the Holy Grail, hold the philosopher’s stone in the palm of your hand and, as a consequence, gain the deep energy needed to actively work for a better world. Yella Mundi would, I believe, appreciate the necessity of a psychological perception of place and Jacob would, I argue, certainly understand the necessity of the bitter struggle that such an appreciation entails.

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