PLACE was the topic that brought Julene Bair, Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home: A Life’s Journey), Dawn Wink (Meadowlark: A Novel), and me, together for a "standing room only" panel at the recent Women Writing the West conference in Golden, Colorado. Each of us talked about the power of a particular place in our writing.
For Julene, it was the west Kansas farm of her childhood that drew her as her nostalgia shape-shifted over the years into guilt as she realized her family’s culpability in the draining of the Ogallala aquifer that had, for millennium, given life to the prairie. “When I arrived at the Little Beaver, I discovered that the creek was now nothing more than a depression. Runoff from all the newly farmed pastureland had filled it with silt…there had once been sand, vacant and pinkish tan. In my childhood, the sand had poured sensuously through my hands, each granule having its own color, shape, size, sheen.”
I could almost feel the sand sifting through my own fingers as I read The Ogallala Road: A Memoir ofLove and Reckoning, my sense of Julene’s “place” moving from the larger Kansas prairie to the intimacy of the creek bed.
Susan Tweit, a gifted and scientifically trained observer of plants, ironically turned to the stars in her first memoir, Walking Nature Home, to get her earthly bearings. “Like stardust and the other materials of life itself, we are in constant motion, changing shape as we pass through our lives…” In her new memoir Bless the Birds (the story of her husband’s terminal brain cancer), we move through many landscapes—from the high plains of Wyoming, to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Colorado, to the sterile halls of Denver’s hospitals. Yet it is in the moments when Susan turns to the words in her husband’s journal after he has died, where I feel the deepest connection to Place—not a geographical location, but a place found only in the heart—the place where Susan’s world of the living crosses through that invisible veil and she finds herself again rooted to memory and emotion.
I knew when I read the opening in Dawn Wink’s novel Meadowlark, that for young Grace, Place could be either comforting, or menacing. “Grace went down the hill and straight to the corral, through the gate to Mame and put her arms around the mare’s neck, pressing her cheek against the warm gold of her buckskin coat…She lifted her eyes to the sod house just beyond the fence and saw a shift of movement behind the window.”
How then, is setting or location different? When narrative, story, brings a place to life, it becomes the Place where something happened. Keith H. Basso, in his book Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, gives wonderful examples of place names such as these:
Widows Pause For Breath; They Piled On Top Of Each Other; Two Old Women Are Buried; and She Carries Her Brother On Her Back.
These are not only geographical locations, but entire narratives rising up from the landscape, moving easily between the centuries. For Dawn, the story of Meadowlark rose up from the very ranchland where Dawn’s own mother spent summers as a child. And it was this same ranchland that yielded the answers to Dawn’s questions. “I walked the land and listened,” Dawn tells us.
When I first moved to Santa Fe, before moving back to Colorado, I forgot to listen to the land—forgot that, just because I did not yet understand the language of the New Mexico desert, did not mean that the land was mute. Then one day I saw the tracks of two coyotes circling a desert shrub, and saw frantic rabbit tracks and tufts of fur and blood. The land was telling me a story, and I began to listen. That place became The place where the rabbit died.
For each of us, and with each new story, Place will be different. At its heart will be everything that has ever been born, lived in, or died in that place, everything in the past, everything in the present, all energy— every sound, smell, ray of sun, every shadow, every sorrow, every joy.
Notes: The Denver Post book review of Julene Bair’s memoir The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning begins like this: “To write a sweeping story, it helps to have lived many lives within the one allotted to you. And to skillfully root them in a particular place.” For updates on Susan Tweit's next memoir Bless the Beasts, read her blog. For the latest in Dawn's writing life, read her blog Dewdrops.