I read about a study once in which anthropologists asked people from different cultures to view images of various landscapes and pick their favorite. The subjects were shown pictures of mountains and prairies, coastlines and deserts, tropical islands and frozen taiga, and again and again, regardless of where they hailed from, the vast majority chose an image of a grassy, mildly undulating plain. The researchers concluded that, having evolved on the savannahs of Africa, our species is hard-wired to prefer and seek out such habitat. They speculated this might even explain our apparently irrational drive—whether we live in the concrete canyons of New York or the bone-dry canyons of New Mexico—to create green lawn around the houses we live in. If they're correct about this, it means that every time we go out and cut the grass or rake the yard, we are trying to recreate (à la Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) a landscape that, though we never seem to get it quite right, we're sure would—if we could get it right—make us feel better, make us feel more at home.
Place. It is an interesting and powerful word. Think about all the thoughts, feelings, and images a simple place-name can generate: Tibet, Tahiti, Gettysburg, Paris, Kilimanjaro, Rome. Think about the important places in your life—the home you grew up in, the high school you attended, the site of your first kiss, the place where you met the love of your life. Place quickly becomes more than just a physical location, it can be as much a part of your mind as it is a part of the planet. Native Australians believe that every human being has a corresponding and special place somewhere on earth that is unique to them; it is the place from which their dreams emanate. In Aboriginal culture, it is an essential part of growing up to wander out alone into the bush to find one's “dream place” and, thereby, gain great power.
From a discussion of the physical—the science of anthropology—place has drawn us quickly into the metaphysical, the province of dreamers and artists. With its power to move and evoke, poets have long written about place, what it means to us, the ability it has, paradoxically, to take us out of ourselves, to take us, as it were, to another place. As part of the library's annual celebration of National Poetry Month, I will host a discussion of the poetry of place at the Easton library on Monday night, April 21, at 6:30. You can pick up a copy of the seven poems we'll discuss at the check-out desk the next time you visit either the main library or the St. Michaels branch.
Poet and essayist Annie Dillard began her best-selling memoir An American Childhood with the sentence: “When everything else has gone from my brain—the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.” I invite you to join me for an investigation of our race's mystical and enduring connection to place. Let's see where the poets can take us.