The Peculiarities of Place

"At night, the murmur of traffic sounds just like the wind rushing through the pines up in the Sierra. As white noise goes, it's not bad." -- Timothy Ereneta on living in Oakland Ca., Oatmeal 1, 1992.


Place is an important element in shaping lives. The sound of a freight train traveling through night air, the awkward hesitancy of a taxi cab horn in the darkening twilight, a child crying in the corner of the room at recess. All of these instances can shape and define us. The glimmering hope from behind the wall of all too slippery time.

Growing up in Northern Wisconsin gave me a particular perspective about place. Shaped by smoke stacks and pine trees, the hum of snowmobiles in the winter months riding past our orange house on 6th avenue, the buzz and creak of bullfrogs of burgeoning summer days, the quiet of the woods and the suggestive sound of cooing mourning doves.

All of these altered my thoughts and ideas. I grew up disliking my hometown for all the wrong reasons -- it's smallness, the lack of tangible things to do, the seeming smallmindedness of its inhabitants. Yet it has shaped me, primally and culturally. I feel the rhythm and cadence of small town life within my bones, even as I have moved to larger places. I remember the side streets, the small triumphs and losses of life, the verities of childhood moments -- an only child, I created worlds for myself out of fact and fantasy, recording them before I could even write.

Place names are an inadequate descriptor of the world. Feeling is more important. Our senses tell us different things than our emotions. The streets remain tangible to us, even as they change. I'm not sure if we can know the places we live in as we grow older as well as we did as children. My mind has been jaded by all the moves; I remember my 7th year better than I remember my first apartment on Wyatt Street. (That place had a strange, funky smell -- a ghostly presence of rotten food). My 7th year contained a trip to South Dakota (Wall Drug is underwhelming). I don't remember many of the place names but I remember their presence. Muddy logging roads, the fresh stink of blueberries in the bog, the sound of a car accident near my house, a man bleeding in the doorway, the smoke stack of the paper mill where my dad labored for 30+ years -- these all factor more expansively then town names or proper addresses. These are important too, but they cannot capture the presence of a place or the people in it.

Place is slippery; we remember it as connected to moments in our lives. It shapes us through relationships with others. Our minds won't let it stand alone. Place and connection leaves an indelible mark. We are intricately connected to those places that have shaped us, even when we can't remember the particularities of their touch.

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