Thursday, October 21, 2004

Barry Lopez: A Literature of Place

(excerpt--from Envirolink)

An excerpt:

My imagination was shaped by the exotic nature of water in a dry southern California valley; by the sound of wind in the crowns of eucalyptus trees; by the tactile sensation of sheened earth, turned in furrows by a gang plow; by banks of saffron, mahogany and scarlet cloud piled above a field of alfalfa at dusk; by encountering the musk from orange blossoms at the edge of an orchard; by the aftermath of a Pacific storm crashing a hot, flat beach.

Added to the nudge of these sensations were an awareness of the height and breadth of the sky, and of the geometry and force of the wind. Both perceptions grew directly out of my efforts to raise pigeons and from the awe I felt before them as they maneuvered in the air. They gave me permanently a sense of the vertical component of life.

I became intimate with the elements of that particular universe. They fashioned me. I return to them regularly in essays and stories in order to clarify or explain abstractions or to strike contrasts. I find the myriad relationships in that universe comforting. They form a "coherence" of which I once was a part.

If I were to try to explain the process of becoming a writer, I could begin by saying that the comforting intimacy I knew in that California valley erected in me a kind of story I wanted to tell, a pattern I wanted to evoke in countless ways. And I would add to this two things that were profoundly magical to me as a boy: animals and language. It's relatively easy to say why animals might seem magical. Spiders and birds are bound differently than we are by gravity. Many wild creatures travel unerringly through the dark. And animals regularly respond to what we, even at our most attentive, cannot discern.

It is harder to say why language seemed magical, but I can be precise about this. The first book I read was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I still have the book. Underlined in it in pen are the first words I could recognize: the, a, stop, to go, to see. I pick up the book today and recall the expansion of my first feelings, a slow, silent detonation: words I heard people speak I could now perceive as marks on a page. I myself was learning to make these same marks on ruled paper. It seemed as glorious and mysterious as a swift flock of tumbler pigeons exploiting the invisible wind.

I can understand my life as prefigured in those two kinds of magic, the uncanny lives of creatures different from me (and, later, of cultures different from my own); and the twinned desires--to go, to see. I became a writer who travels and one who focuses, to be concise, mostly on what logical positivists sweep aside.

My travel is often to remote places--Antarctica, the Tanami Desert in central Australia, northern Kenya. In these places I depend on my own wits and resources, but heavily and more often on the knowledge of interpreters--archeologists, field scientists, anthropologists. Eminent among such helpers are indigenous people; and I can quickly give you three reasons for my dependence on their insights. As a rule, indigenous people pay much closer attention to nuance in the physical world. They see more. And from only a handful of evidence, thoroughly observed, they can deduce more. Second, their history in a place, a combination of tribal and personal history, is typically deep. This history creates a temporal dimension in what is otherwise only a spatial landscape. Third, indigenous people tend to occupy the same moral universe as the land they sense. Their bonds with the earth are as much moral and biological.

Over time I have come to think of these three qualities--paying intimate attention; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place--as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you're intimate with a place, a place with whose history you're familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you're there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.

As a writer I want to ask on behalf of the reader: How can a person obtain this? How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? How can you find such a reciprocity?

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.

My question--how to secure this--is not meant to be idle. How does one actually enter a local geography? (Many of us daydream, I think, about re-entering childhood landscapes that might dispel a current anxiety. We often court such feelings for a few moments in a park or sometimes during an afternoon in the woods.) To respond explicitly and practicably, my first suggestion would be to be silent. Put aside the bird book, the analytic state of mind, any compulsion to identify, and sit still. Concentrate instead on feeling a place, on deliberately using the sense of proprioception. Where in this volume of space are you situated? The space behind you is as important as what you see before you. What lies beneath you is as relevant as what stands on the far horizon. Actively use your ears to imagine the acoustical hemisphere you occupy. How does birdsong ramify here? Through what kind of air is it moving? Concentrate on smells in the belief you can smell water and stone. Use your hands to get the heft and texture of a place--the tensile strength in a willow branch, the moisture in a pinch of soil, the different nap of leaves. Open a vertical line to the place by joining the color and form of the sky to what you see out across the ground. Look away from what you want to scrutinize in order to gain a sense of its scale and proportion. Be wary of any obvious explanation for the existence of color, a movement. Cultivate a sense of complexity, the sense that another landscape exists beyond the one you can subject to analysis.

The purpose of such attentiveness is to gain intimacy, to rid yourself of assumption. It should be like a conversation with someone you're attracted to, a person you don't want to send away by having made too much of yourself. Such conversations, of course, can take place simultaneously on several levels. And they may easily be driven by more than simple curiosity. The compelling desire, as in human conversation, might be to institute a sustaining or informing relationship.

To Read the Entire Essay


Diana said...

This is an unusual subject, rarely written about. Was it Hemingway who said a story needs a "place?" Imagine trying to tell a story without one. Having lost our sense of place we as a society have become vulnerable to manipulation by abstractions. Is it any wonder people have become so maliable and confused? Worst of all, I think, the "modern man," "man without a compass," "man alienated from nature," has lost, or mis-placed, the ability to live and tell stories.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your essay.

Oh, and welcome to the Progressive Blog Alliance,which is what brought me to your blog today.

Cheers :)


Michael Benton said...


Thanks for your comments, very insightful... and thanks for the official welcoming to the PBA.

I teach place-based writing in my university courses and what Lopez is talking about is very important--we can see it in the "mcdonaldization" of our "fast food nation" developed as "kinderculture" devotees of corporate culture only recognizing the "sign wars" of the "society of the spectacle" ... ha, ha, sorry I'm thinking of these different books for a course I'm designing next semester and they just popped out.

I really appreciate your comments and its very good to see that someone else gets what Lopez is saying! Thanks