Who doesn’t want to get away from it all sometimes? The problem is, as you may have noticed, away from it all is perhaps the only place that’s hard to find in this Google-mapped, GPSed, geotagged age.
It’s quite a trick to get lost these days, but in his fascinating new book, Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies, Alastair Bonnett catalogues dozens of different locations where one can, in effect, fall off the map of the known world. He also makes an excellent case for leaving some places permanently unmapped.
Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University in England, and his résumé includes a stint editing a short-lived “avant-garde psychogeographical magazine” called Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration. His book, however, is in no way academic or abstruse. It is, rather, a conversational, thoroughly researched, and very engaging armchair tour of what might be seen as a parallel planet to the one we live in every day—one in which nothing is ordinary.
Our guide begins by explaining his dismay at the way people have become “much better at destroying places than building them.” His inspiration for searching out the world’s unsullied, unexpected nooks and crannies has been fueled by his distaste for what he calls “generic blandscapes,” the homogenized nonplaces that have crept inexorably over the Earth’s surface—the endlessly replicated strip malls and interchanges, the prefab subdivisions, the food courts and parking lots, the roadside wastelands on the way from one thing to the next.
So he takes us to places that are anything but bland: the city of Zheleznogorsk, a secret during Soviet times because of its function as a plutonium production center, and now a voluntarily closed community; the Principality of Sealand, an island off the British coast proclaimed an independent state by a retired military man in 1967, briefly a harbor for unsavory internet businesses, and now once again uninhabited; the cloistered, all-male, celibate Greek Orthodox enclave of the Mount Athos peninsula; the residential RV community in the parking lot of LAX Airport.
Each of these places is, in its own way, unmappable, unfathomable, incapable of being described by simple geographic coordinates (though Bonnett includes those, when possible). Bonnett thinks such places are also vital to our humanity. He argues that “topophilia,” or love of place, is as core to the human experience as the love of living things, or biophilia, described by evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson.
Topophilia, as outlined in Bonnett’s deft and charming prose, can extend to a fox den or to an artificial ice island created by an oil company in the Arctic to support its drilling activities. It can encompass a city, such as Leningrad, that is now obscured (though not obliterated) by renaming. Topophilia can even extend to a place such as Sandy Island, which was long depicted on maps of the South Pacific and even on Google Earth—before it was determined, by a visiting ship in 2012, that no such piece of land exists.
Why does a “phantom place” such as Sandy Island matter? In Bonnett’s words, “It matters because today, although we live with the expectation that the world is fully visible and exhaustively known, we also want and need places that allow our imagination to roam unimpeded.” For that journey to nowhere and everywhere at once, Alastair Bonnett is a most excellent traveling companion.