Saturday, July 09, 2005

The place within

"As time went by, I realized that the particular place I'd chosen was less important than the fact that I'd chosen a place and focused my life around it."

In his lovely book, The Island Within, Alaskan nature writer Richard Nelson continues: "What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame. Every place, like every person, is elevated by the love and respect shown toward it, and by the way in which its bounty is received."

Nelson's special place is an island on the coast of Alaska, which he leaves unnamed for fear of contributing to its despoliation. The island is a wilderness. But a place need not be wild to bury itself in the heart. Some of the best nature writing has come out of places as ordinary as our own backyards: Henry Beston's outermost house on Cape Cod; Edwin Way Teale's old farm in Connecticut; Annie Dillard's Tinker Creek in Virginia; John Hanson Mitchell's cottage on the edge of time in a suburb of Boston.

Two geographies in particular have been important in my own life and work: the path between my home and work which I walked for 40 years, and Mount Brandon on Ireland's Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. Because I am a writer, I have shared the bounty of those places. But one need not be a writer to know a place and love it. One need only turn off the TV, step outside, walk, and watch. Rocks, sky, flora and fauna, diurnal and annual cycles of natural and human history -- these things are there for the taking in any place, an inexhaustible munificence.