Saving Place

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Modern city building and planning produces stark anonymity. Dropped blind into any major mall in North America, you’d be hard pressed to determine where you landed once the blindfold was pulled off. The Gap, Smith and Hawkins, the multi-plex playing the top 6 movies of the week, the food court with MacDonald’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell, Orange Julius and whatever, all blend to create a non-singular place. A location without place.

Again this occurred to me as I read a review of a re-published work by Marc Auge, Non-Places: An Introduction to Super-modernity. While Auge focuses on airports, what he says becomes universal.

At the same time, people travel seeking ‘new’ experiences shirk from risk. The “all-inclusive” beach resort in Mexico or Cuba provides no local culture beyond the daily commuting staff and a slightly different view, one resort to another. The same resort could be on any number of white sand beaches in any tropical or semi-tropical land—Florida to Brazil.

The Hilton in Singapore clones the Hilton in San Francisco, clones Rio.

There are options. Boutique hotels are sprouting up in the major US cities. Twenty to fifty rooms and a distinctive character derived from the neighborhood or the owner or the region. Often with an international flavor, one of my favorites in Seattle hosts a tremendous sushi restaurant.

The reason I am musing in this manner is a recently arrived white envelope addressed in thick black magic marker mailed form the British Isles. Now sitting on my desk next to my computer, the envelope is visible proof snail mail still operates. The envelope contained three copies of Nigh-No- Place by Jen Hadfield. Jen recently won the T.S. Elliot Prize for Poetry. This slim book of poetry written partially while traveling in Canada and partially from her home on the Shetland Islands reeks of place. You can smell the rotten kelp on the beach in her words and feel the constant mist, rain, turning into a howling North Atlantic storm coming ashore on these little rock islands with stone houses

Of Canada she writes in Narnia No More

Alberta’s a miserable monochrome—
a bootcamp of little brown birds,
no moose,
the grey, grey grass of home.

Place. Writing is all about place. The emotional place we occupy in a landscape.

Think of our addresses, now all numeric and flat. 1381 2nd Ave, Fernie BC V0B 1M0

And I look at the envelope the books came in with an address that reads like the land itself.

The name of her house, (the name, yes, the name). Where the house lies—Bridge End. The island’s name, then Shetland, with a last followed by a 6 figure postal code, which seems completely extraneous.

Her address is a place. A home, named. A land feature. An island. A region.

All of us should be so lucky to settle in a place that remains alive in language as well as in our daily life.