Wednesday, 28 December 2011

A Passion for Place

I picked up a book I've had for 10 or more years the other day. It was "About This Life', the autobiographical writings of Barry Lopez a North American storyteller and sage. He writes about the landscape and about people with an intimate knowledge of their land or their world. He moves from artic landscapes to intercontinental air freight and subjects them to the same incisive gaze and sense of discovery.

I was reading his essay "The American Geographies" where he grapples with the question of what is the land we live in? He sees that his country is often glibly represented by billboards and, in film by internationally recognised emblems of North America and he argues that this devalues the true nature of the landscape. He observes that true understanding 'resides with men and women more of less sworn to a place.' In saying that he also says that it's not an encyclopedic knowledge that these people have but a deep love and familiarity. They inhabit real spaces rather than inhabiting an idea of a place.

That got me thinking. I have an uncle Paddy like that. Every time I visit him in the Richmond River Vally where he was born he constantly talks about the weather and the river and the fish and hunting and seasons. It's as if he is a bird hovering above the land taking it all in. He can describe the route from his place to anywhere in the district as if by touch and feel rather than by street signs. Barbara Kingsolver does that in 'Prodigal Summer', the most remarkable book I've ever read. Everyone else in my circle loved 'The Poisonwood Bible' but I was captivated by her intimacy with the landscape and the people in 'Prodigal Summer'.

Barry and Paddy got me thinking. Thinking about what I'd read and written this past year. I realised that the books I most remember were set in places I knew or could know: "The Body in the Clouds" - Sydney; " All That I Am" - London and Germany between the wars; 'Spirit of Progress' - Melbourne. These are all Australian authors (I'm in a local Australian Authors Bookclub) but their stories are universal while specific to real places. I also read a series of books by young authors which were well constructed, well written and with interesting plots but, while they were set in recognizable landscapes, these landscapes were not named and the sense of place was not the same. I want to learn about a concrete world as well as a psychological world.

In terms of blogs, I've read less this year but the few I read I read regularly. On reflection I am drawn to sites which are grounded in place or accounts of place. Two of my favourites have been Sara Toa's 'A WineDark Sea' and Jennifer Morrison's 'Realia'.

Sara writes and photographs her fishing life and fishing community on the southwest coast of Western Australia. It's her writing I love. It is so true to daily experience. It is so deeply simple in the way she captures moments like launching a boat as the sun rises over the bay or loading crab pots or reading the weather. It's much more than notes about a good days fishing. Hers is writing with the intention of telling a story and capturing the reader in the moment.

Jennifer, similarly, captures moments in a very intentional way. Her moments are often about people she encounters on the bus or train on the way to work. Small observation of real life in Toronto, Canada. Jennifer teaches writing to adult groups and has a passion for storytelling and, in naming the streets and the destinations, she builds a picture you can step in to or could step into if you visited and followed in her footsteps. None of this is new. Writers have been documenting and capturing the world they live in since well before Dickens. I can still, forty years later, close my eyes and find myself in Steinbeck's 'Cannery Row'.

For my part I realised that my writing has also followed this path. I am more interested in writing stories of real experiences and real people than fictionalised accounts from my imagination. To my mind my stories are no less creative; the fundamentals of good storytelling are the same and that's where the craft and the creativity reside.

At this point my focus has been on my personal experiences and encounters I have with the interesting and absurd. Family and memoir has been a large part of my writing this year. It occurs to me that the landscapes that Barry Lopez talks about do not need to be the exotic; they could equally be the immediate locality, my community. How can I know my community and my local history better? What better way than to examine it, observe it and write about it.

I don't make New Year's resolutions but I'm hoping this idea might have a life beyond this immediate blog.

Happy New Year for next week.

Link to Barry Lopez on Storytelling


Jennifer said...

Funny - and of course I'm truly honoured you should mention me in this piece, as I was reading I was thinking about my father, and his attachement and awareness of the place he was born (Manitoulin Island, Ontario). It's a spiritual one - though he would hate that word. But like your Uncle Paddy, he lives in it almost by touch rather than by signs. He KNOWS it.

I think you're right on the money, about knowing your own community and local history better by observation. I hope the endeavour doesn't extend entirely outside your blog - because, funny again perhaps, your *place* - your world, is very much exotic to a reader like me.

Thank you Steve, and this piece inspired me to do some thinking. And reading.

Have a wonderful trip.

sarah toa said...

So am I! (honoured, that is). I also love Barry Lopez' work and have been delving into Desert Notes, River Notes lately.It's quite trippy in a seventies kinda way.
My boss Old Salt is a lot like your Uncle Paddy and whenever he feels me get bored, he'll launch into a story about how the mullet lay up in that bay 'over there'. He says that nature is his God, the old heathen, and I think he's spot on.
It's funny that these old blokes who know what they're on about when it comes to nature, are usually people who hunt something for a living. Now that that is becoming so unfashionable, we are desperately trying to 'connect' with nature through 'authentic experiences' and fussing our brains about it all. A conundrum ...
Happy New Year in NZ Mr Hat(one of my favourite places). We are off bush for a week and I'll post some stories from the salmon gums when I get back.
Thanks again, Sarah

Anonymous said...

I believe the best writing comes from experience, most of whatever I produce has its base there. I don't do Resolution Lists either (too disappointed at the end of the first month to bother with the next 11)

Dr Michelle Frantom (aka Dr Grafix aka Munted Doll) said...

I think you are onto something here. I have this saying: "Follow the passion".

The best stuff is created from a real connection with the subject. I look forward to reading it.