The Importance of Place
December 18, 2010
Years ago, when I was reading a lot of Western writing—meaning books by authors of the American West, not genre “Westerns”—there was much talk about the importance of place in literature. This somewhat vague concept includes not just the physical attributes of a place but the meanings humans bring to the locale. American writers of the twentieth-century West became especially sensitive to place and its implications. Why? Several reasons come quickly to mind:
(1) Western writers shared a sense of outsiderness, feeling isolated from the supposed cultural centers of the East. For them, making place important was a form of self-assertion.
(2) Western landscapes are so dramatically different from those of the East—often harsh, dry, empty—that it seems they must intrude on a story, affecting the thoughts and emotions of the characters.
(3) Some Western experiences just don’t exist in the East. In Vermont you’ll never encounter a grizzly bear or a surfer, unless s/he’s on vacation.
(4) Because of Western geographic and climatic conditions, patterns of settlement differ. Could a suburban Connecticut tale, with neighbors right next door, be transplanted to a desert region of Arizona where you have to drive an hour to find a dentist?
(5) The West, being the new region, lacked the traditions of the East. It had little history, at least as far as Euro-American settlers from the East were concerned, and much of its real history was soon distorted into myth. Hence it was a locale, as Gertrude Stein remarked of Oakland, with no there there. Western writers focused on the sense of place in part because of the lack of human depth to their place.
(6) With open land for the taking, the West is where our migrants traditionally headed, and once there, they typically kept on moving. Even in the late twentieth century it was a territory where humans seemed more restless than mountain goats. Again, Western writers sensed what was missing, the deep rootedness that comes from staying in one spot for year after year, slowly changing with the neighbors, the growing tree in the backyard, the buildings that rise and fall, the succession of tragedies and comedies that give a place its character.
That last point resonates with me personally. My own family, like the Dennisons in my novel The Shame of What We Are, bounced around the East Coast until I was about eight, then skipped across the continent to southern California, where we continued bouncing and skipping. If that sun- and smog-blasted area could ever have felt like home to me, my family’s continuous uprooting made that impossible. The experience has been shared by many Americans, for whom dissatisfied wandering is a quintessential characteristic:
“Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.”
That’s Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place,” an essay included in his 1992 collection Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. He also quotes Wendell Berry’s famous line, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
These matters came to mind the other morning when, stumbling up the sidewalk on my way to work, I noticed a neighbor decorating her sidewalk tree. In our ultra-urban locale, holiday decorations tend to be muted. First off, if you put a Santa on your stoop, someone will steal him, which might bring a lawsuit by the elves for reckless endangerment of an icon. (Certainly the elves have powerful sway over the politicians and mega-lawyers downtown; there’s no other explanation for much of what happens here.) Second, since the houses are three stories high and joined to the neighbors’ in a block-long row, the notion of stringing bulbs or reindeer across the roofline is best left to a few crazy drunks or professional roofers. Even the people who bang on your door after a snowstorm and offer to shovel the sidewalk for $5 do not offer to hang Christmas lights.
So it was unusual that my neighbor—I’ll call her Martha—would be decking an outside tree, and her style of doing so seemed even less common: a three-foot cone of green boughs around the tree’s base. Insensitive as usual, I teased her that she was perverting nature by turning the poor maple upside down—bare at the top, pine-green at the bottom. Martha explained that she and her daughter had seen holiday decorations like this on a trip to Vienna, and they had agreed to do something similar at home. The daughter had taken photos as a reminder.
When I made it to the office and slurped my second cup of coffee, an appreciation of this slight interchange began to dawn on me, and it had to do with a slowly emerging sense of place. After the dozens of relocations of my early years, I’ve become firmly rooted in this neighborhood, so much that I don’t even like to leave for vacations. Though writer friends go away on “residencies” at “colonies” or “centers” in order to escape the daily mess and concentrate on their work, I’ve no interest in doing that. My only request is that someone get my daughter’s dog to stop barking at the empty sidewalk. (Shut UP, Alfie!)
Thus I could fit Martha’s behavior into its social and environmental context in a way not possible in my wandering early years, when I was always a tourist. I could smile about bringing a taste of aristocratic Vienna to working-class Fairmount, Philadelphia. More important, though, was the personal context, and that’s the crux of this tiny story.
Martha’s daughter, who had traveled to Vienna with her and taken the souvenir photos of the outdoor trees, died this past summer. A woman in her thirties with a young child. A mysterious stroke, then another, then a diagnosis of a cancer that had supposedly precipitated the strokes, then debilitating chemotherapy, then weeks of bedridden suffering, then another stroke that killed her.
Martha and her husband had been devastated by their daughter’s quick decline. Clearly the sidewalk tree, with its small tepee of greens and a ribbon near the top, was a memorial. Martha didn’t have to say that, and I didn’t remark on it. But I understood and appreciated, and she knew that I did, and this constituted a brief and very human moment in our cold winter season.
In its essence, the sense of place is about this sort of connectedness—to the environment, the society, the neighborhood, and most of all the people. Architects and planners have latched onto the concept, and there’s even a blog about it by Marilyn Finnemore. But I’m still not very good at connecting; distracted, hurried, impatient, I walked past Martha’s tree several more times before noticing it again.
My lifelong symptoms of displacement are widely shared by Americans, I suspect, even those who weren’t hauled from place to place as children, and I worry about what this means for our cultural future.