How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you – you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences – like rags and shreds of your very life. – Katherine Mansfield
Last year, I moved from the Bay Area in California, where I’ve lived for most of my adult life. It’s the only place in the world that I’ve come to know this well – if I close my eyes I can still see the sudden curves and cliffs of the coastline, still conjure that particular palette of its muted greys and greens, still smell the redwood and eucalyptus and sage cutting across highways and through the middle of the San Francisco Zoo. I can watch the turkey vultures, the ravens and the redtail hawks ride the dry, shifting, warm-cool currents over a peninsula striving to outgrow itself, to push its own borders right up to the environmentally stressed bay on one side, the threatened Pacific beaches on the other. The land is expansive, exciting, tired and faded in parts, glittering and then abandoned in others as Silicon Valley fortunes rise and fall. At the same time I resented the impact of heavy commute traffic on this landscape, I was very much part of it myself, twice a day, five days a week.
Northward are the rich promises of world-famous wine country and an ecology somewhere at the intersection between Tuscany and the Rhine Valley. East and inland are marked by sudden, heavy industry, large machines for building ships, moving and storing products from Asia. Bilge water from Chinese cargo vessels brings invasive species and more pollution. Southward, pockets of serious affluence and troubled poverty. A million miles of manicured business parks stretch across a flatness where the Ohlone tribes once told stories about the trickster coyote and hummingbird spirits (who both now run wild through Golden Gate Park).
This is the most intimate I am with any single landscape, for all that I have lived in dozens of them. I am struck both by the larger picture of the place – its history, economy and its myth – and a hundred tiny locations-within-locations that remain in memory for some personal, particular quality.
I now live on the East coast, in the Charles River basin area of central Massachusetts. In some ways it’s like the Virginia I lived in as a girl – I catch the echoes of other places in some of the trees, the shape of the deer, the humidity of warm and startling spring. But I am careful not to confuse one place for the other, because then I miss details and my vision is not true. The transitions here are dramatic – it would be impossible to pinpoint the moment spring started in California, but I know I felt it here. I mourn that there are no ravens in my life any more, but I am amazed that the Canadian geese never seem to leave.
This landscape feels insular, pocketed and secretive, the populated areas contracted and heavy with immovable history and defensive pride. There are no clear and easy lines demarcating town from landscape. This is marsh country; I am surrounded by wet swamps and uneven footing. Every morning’s walk reveals new and amazing plants pushing through the bog, striving for light between dark pines. Most I have never seen before. It will take me years to learn it all and that’s assuming I stay here long enough. Nothing is certain – but is this because of my uneasy history with place? Or is it because the place I currently inhabit does not encourage certainty?
Our imaginations are largely shaped by the containers and expanses of places from a very early age; our personal mythology is hopelessly rooted in the concept. Even if you were a military child as I was, our senses crave and remember landscape, a sense of “whereness.” We build our myths and our identities largely from the materials of where we are from, where we have been, where we are, where we wish we were. There’s an ouroboric quality to this interplay – place is formed by our personal and cultural myth, which in turn creates the very concept of place.
It is not down in any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville
What is a place? It’s a mentality of localization, as opposite to globalization. Our sense of place begins where we end and something else begins. A genuine appreciation of place begins when we have some concern for the world outside of ourselves. Place is intersected by the senses – think of the places you know as much by sound and smell, even the changes in the quality of light and temperature.
Place might be location, geography. It’s also the natural environment and the impact of human presence – people who are in a place now, people who lived there before. Place includes politics, environmental concerns and community. It includes both the effects of time, and our changing perceptions over time. Any stories we have or poems we make about place include us, as poets, as part of the landscape whether we are just passing through or are a permanent resident.
Many poets stress the importance of connecting poetry to the natural world and physical location – read Mary Oliver, Seamus Heaney, W.S. Merwin. Their poetry values locales rather than feelings, intellectual wordplay or abstract concepts. Their work gives us the sense of the uniqueness of specific and beloved places. They capture some essence of the “here and now” and connect concrete, specific images to something eternal or even spiritual. We understand their philosophy because we ourselves have this relationship. We think, Yes, though we have maybe never been to Big Sur, Station Island or Provincetown. We learn (in North America) that we all live on Turtle Island – who knew?
* Where did you come from? How many different ways can you define it? What dimensions may be missing from your knowledge of it?
* Where does time seem to stop, for you?
* Write about the differences and tensions between two places you have lived, or visited.
* Research the Roman concept of the genius loci – if this strikes a chord with you, write a poem about a place you feel might contain such a spirit.
* Write about some precious nook in the world. Where do you find poetry?
* Write about transitions of place that have been significant in your life. Sometimes the effects of a move or relocation are not felt until years later.
* Write about how a particular place either came to be, or ceased to be.
* How has your presence affected a place? How might this place have been different if you were never there, or if you had occupied it differently?
* Write about the process of discovering a place that is important to you. When and how did you become aware that it was significant to your life’s story?