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Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Place of Place: “Do I Stay, or Do I Go?”

regionalism. Emphasis on regional locale and characteristics in art or literature. Regionalism was a significant movement in Canadian literature early in the 20th century. Other national literatures also had periods in which regionalism was emphasized. 

Midwestern Regionalism. American literary movement of the late 19th century that is characterized by the realistic depiction of Midwestern small-town and rural life. The movement was an early stage in the development of American realistic writing.
- Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, 1995

[Don’t ask me why the EOL capitalizes Midwestern Regionalism and not regionalism. I have no idea.]

In the last couple of decades, the term sense of place has become ubiquitous in American discourse; whether the topic is fiction or the visual arts, sense of place is often highlighted and extolled. It is a sensibility that has come to pass over and against an earlier aesthetic, in which historical period dictated what was considered important or beautiful. And yet, oddly, while sense of place has become a dominant theme, the label “regional” tends to limit the audience for arts or books. Why this disconnect? Given the definitions above, situating regionalism in the historical past, the view from the critic’s chair is clearer.

But where does that leave us? The sense of place aesthetic is at odds with postmodern criticisms that locates regionalism in the been-there, done-that category. We live in a “global” world, we’re told. Is our fascination with sense of place, then, nothing more than nostalgia?

I’m not setting out today to advocate for or against regionalism but to explore what this sense of place discourse means to us, as Americans, and what place place holds in our individual life stories. What is the place of place in your consciousness or mine? In the arc of our personal narratives?

Re-reading some of Jim Harrison’s essays from over two decades ago, I am struck not only by the way he responds to various places – to Leelanau County, the U.P., New York, France, Montana, and Arizona – but also by a general question he poses as it relates to food, a question that could also, easily, relate to geography – or anything else: Is it more desirable to climb a hundred mountains in a lifetime or to climb one mountain a hundred times? Being a man, Jim naturally sees a parallel in the question of marriage vs. the life of a libertine. Surely he has also thought about the parallel question of where one makes a home, where one spends one’s life, given that his own life has been lived in multiple places but also, in each of those places, on terms of intimate knowledge of each place.

As I reflect on that, already I am seeing “100 mountains” or “one mountain 100 times,” even as an analogy, to be a false dilemma. I’m seeing a wide and fertile middle ground. But I don’t want to assume it from the outset and have not yet explored far enough to have made a case for its existence.

For many writers, one particular part of the world or of their native country remains home for all their lives, whether they remain in that place or leave it and never return, and all of their important writing lives there, in that place where it is at home. For Sarah Orne Jewett, “the country of the pointed firs,” rural New England seacoast whose name she gave to her most important writing, was that place. For Ernest Gaines, home is Louisiana, the part where country people live. Eudora Welty’s world was Mississippi. Ivan Bunin’s fiction is set in the Russia of his childhood. We associate so many writers with New York City that the list would take more room than I want to give to it – but for some reason, fiction set in New York and infused with its streets and sights and smells and patterns of speech is not considered provincial. Why not? Surely the locale and characteristics of the city are vital to many New York stories. Well, I’ve always wondered but don’t want to follow that side road today.

One of my favorite writers who has chosen to climb the same mountain over and over is Wendell Berry. His poetry and essays and fiction are unimaginable apart from his life as a Kentucky farmer, and in choosing that life he also advocates for it.
And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.
Wendell Berry, The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky's Red River Gorge
This past week I read a book that came to my attention because the author is from Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I lived for many years. In fact, before my years in Leelanau County accumulated, I had lived longer in Kalamazoo than anywhere else, from South Dakota to Illinois to Michigan and beyond. So, not surprisingly, here is the passage that struck me on Thursday evening:
Evolutionary cul-de-sac. That was how I thought of the streets of Kalamazoo. There were a lot of good things about Kalamazoo, and even some great things, like my family. But I’d already lived 19 years of my life there, which was too long to spend in any one place. And when I went to the grocery store or to work, I ran into people who’d known me since I was a kid, and most of them still applied their old knowledge of me. Even though everything was different now, it was hard to escape the powerful orbit of history, the inertia of the past. 

-               Joelle Renstrom, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature

Wendell Berry finds a meaningful life only in returning and staying in the country where he grew up, the country of his family history, whereas Joelle Renstrom’s return, initially necessitated by her father’s fatal illness, becomes problematic after his death. As she puts it, “I needed to continue evolving.” She sees staying in Kalamazoo as the end of her personal growth.

This is where I need to address the question of my own life, if only because my life is the reason the question arises for me at all.

Wendell Berry has his answer: his part of rural Kentucky is his place in the world. He belongs there, his life and work and art inseparable from the place. Joelle Renstrom’s answer, insofar as she has formulated it at this stage of her life, seems to be that each place she lives has a certain expiration date. Vancouver was home for a while, and then its time was over. She had a New York era. She came back to Kalamazoo but needed to move on.

I have a dream life akin to Wendell Berry’s, but my actual life has been much more like that of Joelle Renstrom. There were 17 adult years for me in Kalamazoo (I arrived at age 22), and there have now been 24 years in Leelanau County, but I grew up in neither place, and no earlier generation of my family called either place home. And what to say of two years in Cincinnati? Repeated returns to Paris, France? Or winters on Florida’s Gulf Coast, or, more recently, last winter in the high desert of southeast Arizona? Is northern Michigan less important to my life because I have loved other places? Is loving more than one place some kind of disloyalty? And if I say no, have I begged the question from the start, doing nothing other than try to justify my own life?

Some ways of life have little to do with the place in which they are conducted. Someone can move to a strange city and spend all day at work or (if a student) in classroom and library, go home after a few beers, and collapse in an apartment. I knew people who lived like that in graduate school, but it was not my way. On foot, on public transportation, in a borrowed car, I ranged as far afield as possible – other parts of town, public parks, surrounding countryside, and beyond. Those habits had been strengthened by a month alone in Paris the preceding spring, but even in Kalamazoo, my long-time home previous to graduate school, I never tired of exploring. Back in Michigan now for a long time now, out in the woods with my dog is one of my favorite places to be, but the truth is that many roads continue to becon.

Here I go back to Jim Harrison. No one who knows Jim or his work could deny that he has always had both a very active life of the mind and an insatiable appetite for the outdoors. When Jim lived in Michigan, he was connected to Michigan, engaged with it, eager learn all he could about it by intimate acquaintance. Later he approached Arizona and Montana the same way. He would probably be the first to admit he will never know the mountains or the desert as does someone who has lived an entire lifetime in mountains or desert and nowhere else. But as for those multiple places, truly being, as fully as possible, where he was when he was there – that has been his way of life.

Down on the Illinois prairie, post-Cincinnati, my yearning for the woods and waters of Michigan practically made me ill with longing. “In the abstract, then, you could be happy living in Wisconsin,” someone told me. In the abstract? Home is not an abstract question! Place is not abstract space! Nothing against Wisconsin, you understand, but my overflowing treasure chest of northern memories is full of time in Michigan.

On the other hand (and back and forth I swing!), my love of place is not singular but is, rather, a love of places. There must be, as I mused earlier, a middle ground between commitment to one place and promiscuous serial residences without attachment. A place can be a beloved lifetime friend without being a spouse. It cannot be disloyalty to love more than one place, can it?

What of Renstrom’s question of personal growth or evolution?

Here too I must insist upon more than one answer and say the answer will vary from one person to another. Born in South Dakota, which I only recall from a family vacation there years later, I could not wait to leave Joliet, Illinois, at the age of 18 and could never imagine living there again, yet my youngest sister has made a very full and rich and satisfying life and career without ever leaving the town in which she was born. The third sister has a life history of cities: New York, New Orleans, Chicago. “San Francisco,” she told me once when there on a business trip, “is your kind of place!” But I’ve never seen California.

In Leelanau County and its small villages, clear labels are given to differentiate “natives,” “locals,” “summer people,” and “tourists.” Those who move here from somewhere else are questioned closely about where they grew up and just how many years they have been here (or, for summer people, “coming up here”). It would be hard to find someone here who doesn’t love this place, but who is entitled to claim it as home? Home, here in the county, often seems a vigorously contested category.

Some people live entire lifetimes in one place. Others return later to childhood homes. Still others lead ex-patriate lives until they die, perhaps in one place, perhaps in a series of places. But how can anyone think the quality of a life is determined by the number of places one lives?

-- Serendipity has come to my rescue once again! Searching back through pages of The Raw and the Cooked, looking for the essay in which Harrison put forth the mountain/mountains dilemma, I happened on this:
The wilderness does not make you forget your normal life so much as it removes the distractions for proper remembering. -               “Just Before Dark,” 1991

It’s worth taking time to read that sentence more than once and to think about it for a while. It took me several readings to think about the part played by the difference of the urban world and the natural world in the place or places we choose to call home.

One of the most jarring things about returning to a city or town where one grew up or lived long ago – for me, Joliet, Lansing, or Cincinnati would be examples -- is the disorientation brought about by changes in the landscape. An old city hall is gone, along with the old movie theatre and bowling alley. An entire neighborhood was demolished for a freeway. One’s memories have been erased from the material world. And it’s no better out in the suburbs, where subdivisions and malls have replaced farms. What has become of one’s old landmarks? They are all gone. And so, while the city is full of ghosts from your past, many of them waft about unanchored. All these changes, along with busy traffic, distract from “proper remembering.”

True, deeply rural landscapes change, too, of course, but usually not so abruptly, and even where there is abrupt change it somehow feels different. You drive an old logging trail in the U.P. and see where forest fire swept through the year before, a fire you heard about on the news. Now you see miles of charred trees. It’s shocking, yes, but somehow it makes sense in a way that miles and miles of big new houses where you used to build tree forts with childhood playmates can never make sense.

Climbing one mountain over and over, whether for years (as Wendell Berry has done) or only for a matter of weeks (as I did on each visit to Paris or as David and I did every day we drove from our high desert ghost town to the little cow town 14 miles away), if one is living in a place and paying attention to it, brings the realization that it is never the same mountain two days in a row. You cannot step into the same river twice? Neither can you visit any natural setting more than once, because the woods, the lakeshore, mountains and desert, the playa – all are different every day. And because they are, they compel attention and at the same time leave room for “proper remembering” of one’s “normal life.” In the wild, we are able to look at our own life as another part of nature, rather than seeing it – no, feeling it -- as the center of the universe.

This post is far too long. I doubt I have held a single reader through every paragraph from the long-ago beginning to the (blessedly) now-approaching end.

I cannot see either staying forever or forever moving on as contrary and exclusive possibilities for personal growth. We can surely stay and stagnate, but it is closing down or failing to move forward, not staying, that determines stagnation. Just so, I’m sure that moving on can be either embrace of adventure or flight from self, thus growth or the inhibition of growth. Or, in both cases, I suspect (staying or moving), something in between. Periods of growth and periods of stasis. Life’s rhythms.

“Oh, the places you’ll see!” promised Dr. Seuss. We will none of us see them all. What counts, I do believe, is not flitting from one to another and vying to have the longest list but being as completely as possible in whatever place you find yourself in, at least long enough to know if it can be home for you or if you need to move on.

No one else can make the decision for you. And you yourself will make it over and over again, as long as you live.


Deborah said...

I did indeed read the whole blog in one sitting, you didn't lose me! I'm always anxious to travel and see new sights, to climb new mountains as well as to climb a mountain again and again. I hope there will always be new adventures. Like Sarah, I can always find something I want to explore. Aren't we lucky to have authors that provide new grounds to explore when we can't leave home?

Unknown said...

"You want to keep moving, and you want to stay still, but lost in the moment some longing gets filled"...Joni Mitchell
"Perhaps this is our strange and haunting paradox here in America -- that we are fixed and certain only when we are in movement. At any rate, that is how it seemed to young George Webber, who was never so assured of his purpose as when he was going somewhere on a train. And he never had the sense of home so much as when he felt that he was going there. It was only when he got there that his homelessness began."
Thomas Wolfe, You Can't Go Home Again

P. J. Grath said...

Yes, Deborah, we are indeed lucky to be able to explore farther afield via books! David, thank you for those very relevant quotations. And here's another comment that came to me by e-mail from the coast of Maine:

"Your post (which I did read from beginning to end) made me think of Thoreau speaking of "Travelling much in Concord." I have faced the same question many times in painting. This part of the country is all about the ocean. Every gallery is filled with seascapes. For a long time I decided they were trite, and tried to avoid doing them. At some point, I realized how embedded I am in this place. To not paint it would be more a separation from my reality. I know it better than I know anything else.

"Though I've traveled, I've never spent more than a few weeks in any other place. I've returned to the same places many times, each time only to find them entirely different from my memories of them. As Albuquerque appears under the wing of the plane, I think, "Oh, yeah, I remember now." But then I start to notice that things are different. The landscape isn't as flat, the mountains not so high, the desert not so barren. The city is not quite as full of billboards. On the third visit it is different, again..........nicer than the last time when I came home describing it as a big gravel pit. Pick up trucks with yellow dogs and guns in the back are not as prevalent, water not so scarce.

"I think everyone "knows" a place in a different way. The place itself is independent of the person looking at it. Eastport has been my home for over a decade, but the way I see it is in no way the same as those who were born here and lived here most of their lives. An artist always creates a self-portrait."

Isn't that last line great? "An artist always creates a self-portrait." Quotable quote, Cheri!

P. J. Grath said...

Here is another interesting comment received as e-mail that adds a great to what others have written:

"I just finished reading your ... blog about sense of place. I would do well to reread it. So far, the penultimate paragraph strikes me as very close to my own view.

"But maybe here is a new angle based on my experience: Some places, at the time you inhabited them, were percolating with a sense of their place in history, not just a sense of place. In my experience the sense of place and sense of place/importance in history were equally determining and detectable in the way the locals talked about their village or city. I refer both to my kibbutz (1950-55), and in a way Jerusalem (1959-64). So, though I only spent 5 years in each of those locations, they left a deep impression on me, a deep and grateful sense of belonging, commensurate with their importance in Jewish and Israeli history."

Living somewhere in a time historically significant for that place would certainly intensify impressions and memories.

Gerry said...

I read it all the way through the day you published. I am having a terrible time formulating my own thoughts. Over the last year I've been thinking a lot about my places in the world. Haven't finished yet. To be continued.