Friday, July 25, 2008

Being and Place

I’ve been working on The Farm, here, for a bit over a year now, and I thought it might be worth reflecting on how it—and perhaps its author—have evolved in the process of posting weekly for the last thirteen months.

I began the effort almost under protest. Several colleagues whom I especially respect had flogged blogging as “the next big thing,” which is usually enough to chase this techno-dinosaur back into the cave. But as I said, I think well of these folk, and so began an effort that's become a kind of odyssey for me. A bit late in life, perhaps, but the entire experience has been both more enjoyable and more entertaining than I had ever expected.

Very early on (like day one) I realized that daily bleats would not be coming out of this sheep. It wasn’t until after I’d been at it for a couple of weeks that I started looking around at other blogs, and began linking the interesting ones to my own blog roll. I played around with design, managed to concoct a banner, and figured out that a more-or-less weekly posting schedule, involving short essays instead of quippy little daily bits was more my “style.” Every weekend (mine are currently four-days long) I’d spend a few hours over a couple of days and reflect on whatever was stewing around in the old noggin—usually in response to whatever was going on in the “real world” (as we call it on the Serenity forum). And because I was still working on More News From Nowhere, the musings would focus on what it was like being a utopian living in dystopia.

I recently started looking back over the early posts, and noticed a consistent theme: place. Not necessarily u-topian (“no-place”) or eu-topian (“good-place”) or even dys-topian (not-so-good place), but simply place.

And then I figured out why, and changed my blog-description to reflect what I had discovered.

Over my entire life I have formed attachments to a variety of places: Japan, Taiwan, the Owens River Valley in California, coastal Oregon, northwestern New Mexico, Greece, London, Long Island, Philadelphia, Chicago. And for the past thirty years I have been trying, sometimes painfully, to learn to love the prairie—specifically the particular part of the prairie in which I have found myself exiled.

While my children were growing up, I steeped myself in the natural history of the Texas blackland prairie where we live, and explored it and some of its surroundings (the Ouachita mountains in eastern Oklahoma, where I once owned a cabin I could never get to; the Wichita mountains in western Oklahoma; Copper Breaks and the Guadalupe mountains in west Texas) on backpacking and camping trips over a number of years. I volunteered at the Outdoor Learning Center for the Plano schools and at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, near where I now live. I learned about native flora and fauna, led children on nature trails, taught home-schoolers how to dissect frogs, and even held a voluntary “environmental ethics camp” for my son’s fifth-grade chums (whom I’d met on a week-long stint as a counselor at Camp Goddard in Oklahoma).

Although I eventually established an equilibrium between my longing for the western desert and the realization that I would probably never get out of Texas, the pull toward the west drew me away every chance I got. While my father and grandmother were still alive, I made sure I got “home” at least once a year, even if it meant flying—of which I am not terribly fond. I relished the long, beautiful drive through west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona (or the alternate route through Colorado and Utah). I even made it by myself once, the summer I had bypass surgery—blissfully unaware of what would happen to me only days after I got back to Texas.

A two-year stint in Chicago, while Beloved Spouse worked on his doctorate and I worked on my exams and dissertation proposal in a cheesy three-flat a block from Wrigley Field, had done little to help me reconcile myself to Texas. Even getting out of the suburbs didn’t help much, because we moved to east Dallas just as the tear-down era began in earnest. We bought our house in McKinney for the acreage (.5) and the preservation district that would insulate us from rampant sprawl.

The recent renovations that now allow me to gaze out onto the back .25 acre have salved my usual summer nostalgia a bit. Plans to go west over the spring break were thwarted by mis-matched teaching schedules, and the next trip lies somewhere in the dim future: perhaps next winter, perhaps the following summer. Who knows?

Toiling away on The Farm has thus provided a path toward a kind of consilience. The word has gained currency with the publication of E. O. Wilson’s book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in 1998. But I first learned it years ago when I was studying the philosophy of science and systems theory, and saw it as a useful metaphor to counter the prevailing notion that the sciences and the humanities amounted to separate ways of viewing the world. Consilience offered a way of using logic (inductive) to make connections among “data sets” that didn’t otherwise seem connected.

Of course, my approach is not nearly as mechanical as I’ve probably made it sound. Inductive logic, in fact, is the more intuitive, common-sensical way in which human reason works (as opposed to deduction, which is the more formulaic). Consilence is even closer to what Charles Saunders Peirce called “abduction”—which allows for instructive connections, whether or not they’re “valid.” That’s a fancy way of saying that even if the connections aren’t entirely solid, the differences can still teach us something about what we’re observing.

I insist to my students constantly, whenever I have a chance, that human beings are metaphor makers: homo translator. All learning is grounded in what we already know (which is why the more we know, the more we can know). But metaphor allows us to make connections by locating similarities and differences, exploring them, and then learning from that exploration. And herein lies the beauty of blogging, for me, at least. By essaying into a question or an observation, and by following where they lead, I never know where I’m going to end up; but when I get there, I know where I’ve been, and I can usually see the path.

And now, as I look back on this essay, I see exactly how my focus has shifted; even my metaphors are spatial. The Chinese-American philosopher-geographer Yi-fu Tuan coined the term “topophilia” (Greek for “love of place”) to describe the tendency of human beings to become attached to particular places, and I guess I've been inflicted with it ever since I can remember. It might even help explain why I've had so much intellectual trouble with living in Texas.

Tuan occupies an altar in my brain next to William Morris, because his work has so significantly influenced the way I have come to see the world. As a stranger in a strange land himself, Tuan has written cogently and poetically over the years about everything from landscape to imagination to ethics to aesthetics. Recently he mused about the experience of exile an instructive letter in his “Dear Colleague” series. In it he notes that in addition to being a disaster, “it cleanses the mind and promotes fresh ways of thinking.”

I thought of him the other day, and about this remark, when a colleague of mine echoed a sentiment I had uttered years ago, after I left Chicago. She admitted that although Dallas is a hard place to live in, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—because it keeps us from becoming complacent about the condition of the world. I once noted that living in Chicago was “too easy” and that having to survive—intellectually, politically, philosophically—in Dallas could actually build character. Removal from a beloved place does, in fact, increase one’s appreciation for what’s distant; and living in a place that tries one’s philosophical patience on a daily basis can stimulate the little grey cells in ways that a more satisfied existence might not.

The Farm has thus provide me with a way of exploring life in what amounts to a self-imposed exile. It sounds a bit silly and self-serving to think of it that way, especially in comparison to what real, political exiles suffer. Although I’m pretty well stuck here, I love my job, we have a great house, my daughter’s relatively close by, and the weather isn’t always as hot and tediously damp as it’s been these last two weeks. In fact, it’s cooler today and the A/C’s back off (it’s only 85 right now, on its way to a high in the mid-90s), so I’m not confined to one or two rooms and may be able to get some work done.

Before I “leave” (another spatial metaphor that plays with the notion of cyber-space), however, I'd like to offer my gratitude to my readers—both those who post comments and offer their views, and those who discuss the topics with me in person or via e-mail. It’s been an enlightening experience, I’ve met interesting new people, reconnected with family members, and I’m learning more with every post. The conversations have also helped to change my perspective on this particular place. I still don’t “love” it; but I’ve become more interested in it, and less annoyed with the fact that I’m here. And at my age, that’s a real accomplishment.

Photo: An old postcard view of U. S. Highway 395, Main Street in Lone Pine, California, where I was born, taken in 1947, the year I was born.


Margaret said...

Well, I love reading your posts, Candace. You put so much thought into what you write, and it's incredibly refreshing to find a little haven like this in cyberspace. I look forward to reading this blog for many years to come!

krimzon11 said...

Wow. I can't believe it's been a year! On the topic of North Texas, I saw this article in the DMN at Freebirds, about the strange climate here. I too yearn for other places, mainly driven by wanderlust, and the fact that I'd like to enjoy a summer that wasn't riddled with sinus headaches. To meNorth Texas seems to be America's rug that all the dust gets swept under. I'm just ready to see new places, and as droll as N. TX may seem, it' will always be home.

Owlfarmer said...

Thanks, both of you, for actually making it through this post in the first place. I was beginning to think that my Uncle Art was the only one who read any post that featured my home town (which he remembers much better than I do). He's too shy to comment, though, so I look forward to his weekly e-mail reviews. You folks make it worth looking in the mailbox, and make it much more fun to keep at it.