How many of us still feel the grip of place — the long span of a life traced out in the growth of trees planted by someone you knew, a family history measured in memory and change, the sudden clutch of knowing that it will end, life and memory both, that love and sorrow cannot be separated? To learn the names of trees and grasses, the times of their seeding and flowering, the glimpse they offer into the grand cycles of nature is to see your own life written there. To know the geography of a place is to know why we have always made stories in which our own human stuff is indivisible from the stones and creeks and hills and growing things.

To Understand a Story

footprints on sand dunes in death valleyTo fully understand any story you must begin with its setting — in this case the spare and aching Great Basin country running east from the Sierra Nevada, a land that rises and falls in an endless iteration of mountains and valleys. A march of desert, 200,000 square miles of it, backlit crenellated hills stretching north and south: a touch of trees in the high places, a drift of luminous clouds across empty territory, of lonely highways through deep and lovely valleys. A threadbare blanket of ragged shrubs draped across the land, the scent of dust and sage in the afternoon air…

—Christopher Norment in Relics of a Beautiful Sea, University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
Photo of Stovepipe Wells sand dunes, Death Valley National Park, California, USA, by Richard Semik.

Freeing Your Life with Words

woman in a park writing in her diaryThere were baby cardinals in the apple tree that spring, scraggly and brownish. We began bird watching and were even visited by an indigo and a painted bunting. Clarence planted winter wheat around the yard and soybeans in the summer so I wouldn’t feel boxed in by tall corn. I enjoyed watching the soybeans sprout, grow and develop fuzzy pods. Sometimes tornadoes passed by…
I wrote poems about morning in our yard and about light. I wrote tornado poems. I wrote about Clarence and his wife Grace. I set a stool in a corner of the yard looking over the field sloping toward the woods and wrote poems about corn and wheat and seeds and crickets. I wrote about my own overgrown garden…

Places can inspire poetry… I look for places made of poetry for me, places alive with history, wildlife and mystery. Then I move in if I can.

—Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge in poem crazy: freeing your life with words, Three Rivers Press, 1996.
Photo by Valentin Simeonov

So Roomy is the Universe

moonrise over harvested fieldBut near, the crickets are heard in the grass, chirping from everlasting to everlasting, a mosquito sings near my ear, and the humming of a dor-bug drowns all the noise of the village, so roomy is the universe. The moon comes out of the mackerel cloud, and the traveller rejoices. How can a man write the same thoughts by the light of the moon, resting his book by the side of a remote potato-field, that he does by the light of the sun, on his study table? The light is but a luminousness. My pencil seems to move through a creamy, mystic medium. The moonlight is rich and somewhat opaque, like cream, but the daylight is thin and blue, like skimmed milk. I am less conscious than in the presence of the sun: my instincts have more influence.

—Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), June 18, 1853, in The Journal: 1837-1861, Edited by Damon Searls, New York Review Books, 2009.
Photo by Miloszg

Beauty Pierced Him Like a Sword

Golden Gate bridge and fogThe day had been unseasonably hot for June, but now at five the fog was beginning to come through the Golden Gate, and the air was fresh and cool. From his father’s house, Edward could see it banked like high-piled snow, filling the gap between the land masses to the right and the left of the Gate. Soon a mist began creeping over the Bay, penetrated here and there by shafts of sunlight. He watched with concentration, as a person who sees the phenomenon of the afternoon fog for the first time . . . Wispy shreds settled on the flat land below him. Etched on the fog were the shadowy forms of the eucalyptus trees. Beauty pierced him like a sword. Once many things had held elements of beauty for him. Was the capacity to discern it coming back to him?

—Alice Tisdale Hobart in The Cleft Rock, 1948. Photo by Songquan Deng