Sense of place

Hey, kids.

It’s been a rough week for folks in the path of Sandy. I did a post about that at Women and Words. At the bottom of that post are links to organizations involved in relief efforts. If you’re so inclined, help as you can. Thanks.

Like millions of Americans, I watched storm coverage and it broke my heart to see so many houses lost, and to see the friends and families of those who did not survive. I’ve seen aerial photos that testify to what Sandy did to topography and landscape, and to the memories of people who derived part of their identities from familiarity with their surroundings.

I recall one woman in particular, standing near the ruins of what had been her house on Staten Island. It was a just piles of lumber and what looked like stalk after stalk of salt marsh seagrass, layered in geometric patterns among the detritus of a neighborhood. It looked like a vast field of wheat-colored seagrass interrupted with random pieces of furniture, wood, and other items that had once been the signature of a household, and therein, the indicator of an identity.

This woman on Staten Island told the newswoman that she just wanted to go home, and she gestured at the littered field that had been her house, and said, “but I can’t. I don’t know where to go or what to do.” And then she sobbed, and I cried with her. The newswoman gave her a hug, no longer a newswoman but rather a sympathetic shoulder in the midst of overwhelming loss.

I think a lot about “place” and how we pull from it our sense of selves. I’m a Westerner by birth and soul. I was born in New Mexico, grew up in a ranching town in southwestern Colorado, and returned to New Mexico where I spent about fifteen years of my adult life before wandering farther east, only to be pulled back to the West. I still wander, but my heart and sense of self will always be rooted in Western landscapes, particularly the Rocky Mountain West and the high deserts of New Mexico.

Chaco wall

Photo by Andi Marquette

I think a lot about “place” when I write fiction, as well. For me, it’s different than “setting,” though setting provides threads in the tapestries of “place.” Where a character is from and where he/she has lived since tell me quite a bit about that character’s background, culture, and approach to the business of living. How a character deals with community, and what are important politically and socially are as much a function of place as they are of family. The longer a family has been in a place, over extended generations, is also an ingredient in the formation of culture and soul, and reflects in a character.

A recent issue of High Country News (I’m a longtime subscriber), asks “Are You A Local?” It’s full of essays and brief reviews/descriptions of books that deal with a sense of place through the eyes of Westerners. I absolutely loved this issue, but something in the conversation with author Amanda Coplin (“Inside the Orchard“) really struck me. Coplin’s novel, The Orchardist, is historical fiction set in the place she grew up: Wenatchee, Washington, “The Apple Capitol of the World.”

HCN asked what makes a place home. Coplin responded, “I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Home in the deepest, truest sense is that place, those orchards in Wenatchee. I feel very strongly about those places, but I don’t know if that’s just because I spent my childhood there. It resonates with some deep part of me.” She continued that though it resonated with her, and though it was her home as a child, she’s not sure it could be her home now. But it remains home for her on many different levels.

That’s part of the essence of “place”: where you feel “home.”

When I left Tennessee a few years ago to return to Colorado, “home” hit me in El Reno, Oklahoma. I stopped there for the night, and knew the next day I’d be back in Colorado. In that moment, I knew exactly who I was. I felt it in the cold, dry air of a January night, and in the clarity of the star-ridden sky. I was westering again, the pull of the mountain and high desert landscapes almost tangible in the smells of open space, unending vistas, and winter’s earth.

That night, even Oklahoma was familiar. I’d driven it many times before, but that night, it served as the prologue to this chapter of “home” rather than simply a rest stop on the way to someplace else. I think I slept better that night than I had many, many nights before. Coplin told HCN that if you don’t go away from a place, you can’t miss it. She didn’t write about “home” until she left. Neither did I. My first mysteries are set in New Mexico, which will always be “home” in my truest sense: where bone and blood meet, where seasons are mapped in the constants of familiar landscapes, where the rhythms and subtleties of local culture are part of lore and lingo. Something you speak fluently.

Landscape helps define “home” for me. Wind shifts and downpours might alter a physical aspect of it, but the solid geological underpinnings remain intact and recognizable, a place on a map where I pin my memories and future trips. Landscape — “place” — tells me where I’ve been, and provides a chronology for who I’ve become.

So I cried with the woman on Staten Island. She’d lost not only her material place of residence, but her landscape, her sense of familiarity, of belonging, all built on the years she’d lived there and the memories that bound her to that place. She’d truly lost “home.”

We are a species that derives self and soul from “place.” Author Claire Vaye Watkins quotes a professor she had years ago: “We are who we are because of where we are.”

May all of you who have lost your “wheres” find a place that will help you grow anew. And to those who have not, may you always have a “where,” a “place,” and a “home.”

Source:, photographer Steve, 2006 (re-sized here)

7 thoughts on “Sense of place

  1. Sometimes it takes a while to truley find your home. I was born in St Louis, MO and lived there until I was in my early twenties but it never felt like home. My mother and sister still live there but despite an intimate familiarity with it, it doesn’t call me back. I eventually moved away from St Louis to Orlando, Florida and carved out a life for myself and grew in my sense of self a great deal. It still never really felt like I truely belonged there. I met my spouse there and she had the same problem. We eventually moved back to Missouri with the idea that since I’d matured and grown, maybe I could have found a sense of place but it turned out to be pretty horrible. We hung on there for a few years despite not feeling connected before a layoff forced us to reevaluate what we wanted and where. I’m not sure why we settled on the part of Washington we did but from the first night there we’ve felt connected to it like that’s where we should have been all along. It’s been about three years now and we still have absolutely no regrets. The city and state have utterly captured us and we couldn’t feel more at home. I’m in my early fourties now and am just now finding my sense of home, and I couldn’t be happier.

  2. This blog post stirred me on a very deep level.Well done. You captured an essence that I have never quite been able to put into words, a profound, deep essence. I’ll be saving this lovely sonnet.

  3. What a great post, my friend. I loved that issue of HCN, too. It really hit me on so many levels. Mostly, it caused me (like this post), to look inside and ask, who am i? Again.

  4. Thanks, both of you. I loved Craig Childs’ essay in that HCN issue. Sarah Gilman’s was good, too. And how about the ghost story? Really dug that issue!

  5. I know a couple who lost a home in the hurricane. They are being remarkably positive and philosophical about it. I believe their attitude is, “Here’s our chance to rebuild it the way we thought it should have been all along.”

    That’s what we call “making lemonade,” I think.

  6. Thanks, Andi. I was touched by your elegant description of what I often feel. Place is very important. And there are some places that are just home. It has always bothered me that the place I grew up in (Virginia) and which I love, no longer feels like home. It has been so different than the place I knew growing up or maybe I have changed so much that I am no longer at home there. But, I was a nomad for awhile and have found other places, the Southwest being one, that have become home even if I don’t live there at the moment. Minnesota has become a home, as well. But there is definitely something about place and our need to be in our place and at home. I loved the Wizard of Oz growing up and there truly is “no place like home.”

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