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.

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