July 01, 2003

Shaped by Place

The Ecotone Writers About Place are collecting responses to the question "How we are shaped by the places we live?" We had a dozen responses to "Why write about place" on June 15, so check the page for the July 1 group-blog collection, and the associated page of discussion on this topic. (The essays may trickle in over a day or so).

How are we Defined and Shaped by the Place We Live?

It is the year 1803. I am a Scots-Irish immigrant seeking independence and a few hundred acres to farm, so that I might carry on the traditions of my ancestors, in the western wilderness of America. I hold here a handbill stating that there is cheap land available in far western Virginia, along the New River. And everything I will do and where I will go and how I will get where I am going... all of these are determined by the nature of the place. The pitch and grade of the primitive trail determines where I can and cannot go as I move generally westward. And it limits the size and weight of my wagon, and therefore the belongings I can bring with me. The weather and season effects when my animals can find browse, when dry paths will allow travel, when I must seek shelter or die. My destination of three hundred acres of my choosing on the newly acquired Indian lands will be absolutely mandated by the nature of the place: where will I and my animals find water; how does the land lie for crops, can my oxen clear the forest; is the soil rich and deep; and where will the staples that I cannot make or produce myself come from? From day to day, once I arrive and over the years make my home, my life and livelihood will be determined by the nature of place: I must have a lover's knowledge of every fold and hillock and holler around me, because it is from this physical place that I kill game for food, find herbs for medicine, select just the right kind of wood for the tools I craft in order to survive. Place determines whether I live or die, and I respect it's limitations, honor it's provision and will spend a lifetime living in an uneasy balance with it and seeking to understand it.


It is the year 2003. I am the direct descendent of the settler from two hundred years ago. I live near where my ancestors settled in Southwest Virginia. His notions of dependence on the providence of place is foreign to me, neolithic and repugnant. To assume that place shapes us and constrains us in any way is to acknowledge that there are forces or conditions imposed on us by our physical surroundings. This is a very alien and archaic way of thinking in our modern age of freedom from the effects of place upon people. In my day, it is place that is subject, and places that are being changed, shaped, altered by our living here, as we think best. This is the modern way of thinking about place. If there is a mountain where we want a city, we take it down. If there is a stream where we want a road, we divert it into underground pipes. We modify and control every aspect about where we live... our microclimate, ambient noise, the texture and color and order of everything from our clothing outward... to suit our vary narrow tolerance of comfort and preference and pleasure. Indeed, it is this capacity to alter and control our place, our world at all levels for efficiency, economy and predictability that epitomizes mankind's ultimate conquest and dominion over his environment. We need accept none of the givens of where on the earth we live as my forefather was obliged to do, since nature is subject to our whims and malleable to the power of our technologies. What higher good is there than this, than to be free of the constraints of place?


How we think about place has undergone a sea change in two hundred years. Basic human biology and the fundamental workings of nature have not. We have allowed ourselves to be dulled to complacency by the prevailing political hubris that the health of humanity is measured more by the economic than biological yardstick. This is a dangerous delusion to which we have succumbed. I fear for our future if the physical world... our forests, parks, seashores, prairies, pastures and woodlots...continues over the next two hundred years to be reduced to nothing more than a quaint backdrop for SUV commercials or pleasant scenery for our brief vacations away from the narrow comforts of our manmade cocoons.

I am pleased we are asking this question of how place shapes us. And answers will come from a better understanding of our dual role as both object and subject in regard to place... learning how to better live in it, and let it live in us. Our ancestor of 200 years ago understood his physical, emotional, spiritual and re-creational needs and attachments to place that we poorly understand, but can reclaim.

Posted by fred1st at July 1, 2003 04:47 AM | TrackBack

Fred: it's amazing how you get this landscape to have a *personality*. I hope you will keep this in mind as you get your book together: it's very compelling. The personality shifts depending on the viewer--depending on the viewer's era--but it doesn't disappear. Good work.

Posted by: Pica at July 1, 2003 08:39 AM

I cannot read the first portion without my mind tagging on a brogue. Then the tone changes, subtley yet undeniably. And then, again you come in with a bit to say that is still different in tone than the rest. Three completely different voices. I think I will be shaking my head on that one for some time. "How did he DO that"? :)

Having read a number of these responses to the "about place" question, I find it interesting that quite consistently the reader learns more about the internal landscape of the writer than the external. And I've noticed a similarity in personality among the folks who think themselves the least defined by place. I did not expect the emotional responses this question has provoked. It's really interesting and thank you for making it so easy for us non-writing blogger-people to participate.

Posted by: lisa at July 2, 2003 09:20 AM

Hi Fred,
Found the style as well as the content really engaging. I guess we are writing as generations of experience and it's good to find ways of releasing that, letting it through.....

Posted by: Coup de Vent at July 2, 2003 03:39 PM

There is a different take on place in NPR's Susan Stamberg's collection of interview excerpts, "Talk". In her introduction to a conversation with Tom Wolfe (January 1978), she writes, "Always, on a story, we look for natural ambient sound that we can record to give listeners a sense of place." And, later, "Sounds ought to be distinctive to a place...."

Posted by: Cop Car at July 3, 2003 06:59 PM

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