Sunday, May 18, 2003

The conversation continues amongst a nice group of people blogging places. We're looking for a few questions to anchor our thinking a little more and provoke some discussion about what it means to be blogging place. As usual, I turn to Barry Lopez in a crises such as this:

Over time I have come to think of these three qualities--paying intimate attention; a storied relationship to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place--as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you're intimate with a place, a place with whose history you're familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you're there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.

As a writer I want to ask on behalf of the reader: How can a person obtain this? How can you occupy a place and also have it occupy you? How can you find such a reciprocity?

The key, I think, is to become vulnerable to a place. If you open yourself up, you can build intimacy. Out of such intimacy may come a sense of belonging, a sense of not being isolated in the universe.

My question--how to secure this--is not meant to be idle. How does one actually enter a local geography? (Many of us daydream, I think, about re-entering childhood landscapes that might dispel a current anxiety. We often court such feelings for a few moments in a park or sometimes during an afternoon in the woods.) To respond explicitly and practicably, my first suggestion would be to be silent. Put aside the bird book, the analytic state of mind, any compulsion to identify, and sit still. Concentrate instead on feeling a place, on deliberately using the sense of proprioception. Where in this volume of space are you situated? The space behind you is as important as what you see before you. What lies beneath you is as relevant as what stands on the far horizon. Actively use your ears to imagine the acoustical hemisphere you occupy. How does birdsong ramify here? Through what kind of air is it moving? Concentrate on smells in the belief you can smell water and stone. Use your hands to get the heft and texture of a place--the tensile strength in a willow branch, the moisture in a pinch of soil, the different nap of leaves. Open a vertical line to the place by joining the color and form of the sky to what you see out across the ground. Look away from what you want to scrutinize in order to gain a sense of its scale and proportion. Be wary of any obvious explanation for the existence of color, a movement. Cultivate a sense of complexity, the sense that another landscape exists beyond the one you can subject to analysis.

We are not merely journalists. We are cultivating a nearly indigenous connection to the land in which we live. And this is an interesting exercise for me, as I was in the process of rediscovering my indigenous roots in Ontario before I left there in 1994. Studying and being on the land with Ojibway Elders helped me to cultivate a sense of place that was deeply connected to traditional teachings and morality. Now I find myself here on the west coast, and in a new environment too, and I find myself drawing on the ways of knowing that I have been taught to try to understand the land here.

That's why my tag line for this journal refers to Bowen Island by it's ancient name Xwlil Xhwm. That's the place I start, and this blog is an attempt to do what Lopex challenges us to do: to enter the local geography and get the heft and texture of the place.