June 15, 2003

Writing about Place

The Ecotone: Writing about Place is opening it's doors, and invites you to come read our initial responses to a 'group blogging topic', adressing the questions below. We'll be offering more, and making a few more changes, perhaps, to our 'front page'; but we're eager to have you come by this week. Be thinking about posts or images that you have written or will write 'about place'. Come, read, look around, and get a feel for what 'place' means to some of us, and offer your own thoughts as well.

The 'wiki' is a little different at first, but basically you can click around and read any posts, and add your own comments or make changes to any page by clicking 'edit this page' at the top or bottom of each page. It has been a great format for pulling together our group and 'home page' which we are called The Ecotone... a new word for many, but it has a definition that suits what we hope to discover among those who come there, to share and grow.

BiWeekly Blogging topic for June 15: "How did you start thinking about 'place", and why did you start writing (or blogging) about it?"

Thinking and Writing About Place
by Fred First
June 2003

Sometimes the most difficult ground to see is that which is under our own feet. Knowing how to answer these simple questions should be easy, now that I've been writing and thinking about place for more than a year. But what started the 'thinking' and what compels me to write about place? That terrain is not as apparent as I would have thought, and I'll ponder it as you look over my shoulder.

Short answer: I live in a unique and beautiful world and enjoy creating images of it in words and pictures. I want others to know this place and share the experience of living here. But I'd like to look deeper than this. Maybe the trail to an answer can be followed, at least for a mile or two, using two metaphorical tools: maps and lenses. Let me see if I can explain.

In college I discovered the magic of maps. When I began to travel on my own across the south to backpack or canoe, I discovered that maps were almost magical in the way they could condense into a single page of lines and symbols the rivers, roads and trails where I had never been, portraying a truth on paper about a larger truth some real place on the ground. They provided landmarks from which to orient, so that I could find my way in a strange and unfamiliar land. At larger scales, as if going higher above the unknown, maps oriented and connected my tiny square of ground where ever I happened to live or be, to a round, spinning planet, and gave me an appreciation of connectedness, of belonging somewhere, some place, within the Whole Earth. Maps made me aware of places and of my place. I have made sure both my kids understand the value of maps, because I want them to be able to find their way in places they have not been, to know where they are in this world, and to come to understand their own 'place'.

Image copyright Fred First
It was by studying maps and traveling through them that I began to comprehend the uniqueness of the Southern Highlands of North America, the Appalachian Mountains-- where I have lived all my life. From my maps I learned that this terrain is unique in all the world, sharing a common orogeny, having in common the rock underground, wearing the same forest and inhabited by a common cast of creature-residents. These mountains unite us, imposing common hardships and blessing with a bounty of good things on the people who have settled here since the days of the Wilderness Road. These old mountains are uniquely different from the beaches, prairies, or rain forests where others live, as we are different from the people that inhabit those places. Across the world, we are all different within and because of place, and we are the same depending on the resolution of the maps we construct and the landmarks we chose to place on them. I have only recently begun to appreciate the uniqueness of my vantage point in space and time and am a novice in this exploration. I consult my maps often and am happy for fellow travelers.

I started writing about place a year ago because I see things here that I want to tell about. I see my part of the world through a lens that is uniquely my own.

In my life, the real lenses of the camera (and the microscope, during my biologist life) have made me more acutely aware of the beauty and form of 'ordinary' things, given me a different appreciation of things than I might have had without looking closely and with interest and awe through these wonderful devices that focus the mind on detail. Photography is an important part of my exploration of place, and in some ways, the images that I share from time to time are as important as the words, bringing my place immediately into yours, bridging both distance and the otherness that separates strangers. Through my lens, you can see through my eyes, share my sight, insight, and vision.

Lenses are real, and they are metaphors for anything that lets us or makes us see the world differently. Each of us has a 'philosophical lens' that molds our thinking and our writing. It clarifies, magnifies, distorts, and colors our perceptions and understanding of the reality around us. When I write about my particular place here on Goose Creek, I portray it through a refracting lens that bends and molds my view of life in a way that is unique, even from my neighbor's. Yours lens, too, is as distinct as your thumbprint, and when focused on that ground under your feet, your words about what you see, and your pictures offer us worlds about you in your place we would never have known.

When we write about place we explore particular coordinates of geography and landform and private experience, guided by our own life maps, seen through lenses that can bind me to your world across the globe's wide curve. And doing so connects us person to person, territory to territory. It puts real places on the representational map that is the internet. Can this writing about place bring us into each other's world and build "real" community? I trust we will see.

I write about place to invite strangers to know and understand my world, perhaps to see their world differently having come here. I'd like to think they may have new and useful landmarks on their maps when they leave here. So perhaps I write, too, as an open page of hospitality, a way of saying "my house is your house, and my creek and valley, likewise". Maybe I think and write about place because, as I believe Wendell Berry has suggested, if you don't know where you're from, you won't know where you're going. In some small or great way, it may be possible in writing on this topic to help each other know where we're going by better understanding the places from which we have come.

Posted by fred1st at June 15, 2003 06:31 AM | TrackBack

Lovely post, Fred.

Happy Father's Day!

Posted by: Da Goddess at June 15, 2003 12:58 PM


Happy Father's Day. I love what you have writtne here and I used it to launch Econton on my Parking Lot weblog.

Thanks man.

Posted by: Chris at June 15, 2003 05:05 PM

Fred, I'm sticking Ecotone on my blogroll too, and am grateful to have been invited to participate. Stuff to follow soon. Thanks, and belated Happy Father's Day.

Posted by: peggy at June 16, 2003 10:02 AM

I'm looking for that exact Wendell Berry quote in the end. Could anyone tell me the exact words and where he said or wrote it?
Many thanks!

Posted by: DJ at April 5, 2004 01:16 PM

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