“…a culture’s most cherished places are not necessarily visible to the eye – spots on the land one can point to. They are made visible in drama – in narrative, song, and performances. It is precisely what is invisible in the land, however, that makes what is merely empty space to one person a place to another. The feeling that a particular place is suffused with memories, the specific focus of sacred and profane stories, and that the whole landscape is a congeries of such places, is what is meant by a local sense of the land.”
— Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams.
My MA was called Writing, Nature and Place. The ‘writing’ and ‘nature’ parts are always fairly easy to explain to people, but they are generally a little more unclear about the ‘place’ part. Usually, for convenience, I just say that it was a nature and travel writing course. However, travel writing doesn’t really cover what is meant by writing about place. Isn’t place just location? someone asked me. I agreed that it probably is, but on reading the above quote from Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams I began to realise that I had been wrong. Location is just space, place is something that belongs to that space and yet is much more subjective.
Since completing my MA I have tried to read as much nature writing as possible and all this reading, including Lopez’s excellent book, has got me thinking about what is meant by a sense of place. I think about it when I’m walking the streets of my local area, when I visit new places, and when I visit places for which I feel a strong sense of nostalgia. On all these occasions I have come to feel that this sense of the land that Lopez talks about is in part a sense born out of attentiveness. I say attentiveness rather than love because I think through attentiveness it is still possible to capture the sense of a place one dislikes.
For me it is easy to dislike cities, but I live in a city and there are moments when the grey spaces around me become places. When I’m sat in a cafe in Picadilly Gardens, drinking tea and waiting for a train, the sudden flight of pigeons, chasing the suns warmth from roof top to roof top, transforms a noisy, busy space into a memory. I remember the flapping of each bird turned into fluid motions by the flock. I remember the golden glow of sunlight on Victorian brickwork. Or when I’m jogging along a road and a bus churns up an eddie of yellow autumn leaves that slowly float back down again, the moment transforms the monotony of the long stretch of tarmac.
It is these moments, and the spaces that excite these feelings that I want to write about in a series of posts entitled ‘A Sense of Place’. I’m not proposing to come up with a definitive answers, but it is something I’m intrigued about and I hope to be able to tweeze out what makes certain locations places. The first post in the series will be on Penryn, the small Cornish town that I lived in whilst studying my MA.