Welcome to Day 1 of 31 Days of A Sense of Place. This project will be a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m going to write about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen.
There are at least two ways to think about “a sense of place:” As the descriptive identity of a place, what makes it the place it is — landscape, animals, plants, culture, history, geography, etc. — and also as the way a place makes us feel, its connotative identity, the experiences, emotions, sensations, and memories we associate with a particular place.
Rebecca Solnit’s insight, above, speaks to the way we integrate real places into our mind map, even into our soul, as the trails, boundaries, highlights, waypoints, physical and metaphorical scenic overlooks are experienced, shaped by perception, and then catalogued in our memory, fine-tuned over time, in space. A sense of place is born of the physical world, our natural and built habitat, and then shaped as soon as we encounter it by our experience of it, our associations, what happens to us in that place, what doesn’t happen, how we interpret it.
For example, we may have played as children in small backyards that are connected — some with yew or boxwood hedges between them, some with swing sets set up in the corners, or a birdbath, a dog wandering among the yards, robins or blue jays, spiny caterpillars in the lawns — and we remember a feeling of spaciousness, freedom, and wonder; or perhaps we felt trapped, caught in a suburban landscape that never felt wide or wild enough. Did the yard and outdoor spaces feel like home? How did this place shape us, form our desires, fuel our fears, embrace and approve our happiness? What was its atmosphere? How did it locate us, how did it orient us? How does it haunt us, sustain us, or leave us longing for it?
“Seems like it’s peaceful, just bein’ in a country that lays the way you remember it layin.” — William Gay, from Provinces of Night (Doubleday, 2000)
I grew up in three suburban neighbourhoods. What I remember most, as far as landscape that felt like home, were the wooded places and fields, behind our house in two places, nearby in another. Not deep woods, not real wilderness by any means, but a green place to escape, without humans. Particularly when we lived in one place, I could walk out the back door, down a small terraced lawn, into woods, over a stream, through more woods, across a grassy, wild-flowered field, into more woods. I’m sure there were houses beyond that (and now there are houses on top of it) but it felt remote. It felt like relief, a place to think, to not have to think, to not have to interact, to simply lie still and listen and watch and breathe. It was a home when I needed to be away from home.
Now that I’m older, I can feel at home in almost any natural place, so long as there are insects, reptiles, mammals, birds, plants, rocks and boulders, shells, or trees; but what I love most are oceans, beaches, shorelines, and then marshes, bogs, fens, swamps — places with saltwater, tidal water, or at least water with a briny, decaying aroma. Maybe it’s Myrtle Beach vacations as a child that made home smell salty; but we also had a cabin on a lake when I was growing up, and yet lakes, lovely as they are, don’t make my heart skip a beat.
Gary Snyder says “To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part, and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is a whole. You start with the part you are whole in.”
It sounds abstract, but it’s actually very grounded in the here and now. My habitat, as yours, is Earth, this place of dirt and rocks. It’s the whole.
The parts that make up the whole, and which are also whole in and of themselves, include, for me, Jekyll Island, GA – and particularly Clam Creek marsh, the southern tip of the island beyond St. Andrews Beach where the birds congregate, the mid-beach at sunset, the alligator ponds; southern coastal and mid-coastal Maine – and particularly Laudholm Farm, Popham Beach, some Boothbay Land Trust properties, Pine Point Beach in Scarborough; meadows and forests in northern New England; northern Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; the Russell Peterson Wildlife Refuge on the riverfront in Wilmington, DE; Central Park and The High Line in Manhattan; botanical gardens like Longwood Gardens; my own garden, the marsh behind my house, the bog in town.
The parts I am whole in are many, including those I’ve named here, perhaps especially the coastal places.
Anne Michaels, in her novel Fugitive Pieces (set mainly in Greece and then in Toronto), says: “Love makes you see a place differently, just as you hold differently an object that belongs to someone you love. If you know one landscape well, you will look at all other landscapes differently. And if you learn to love one place, sometimes you can also learn to love another.”
In this way, a sense of place is, somewhat ironically, transferable. Paying attention makes us vulnerable to the pull of any place.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.
I revisited your essay. It is quite beautiful. Do you ever have the sense that wherever you go you long to be there as opposed to here (wherever that may be?) I do. I wonder what that longing is. I recognize it in myself, but I don’t know where it comes from. (I used Ernie’s website because I do not have one of my own.)