This past Tuesday, Ecotone celebrated its one year anniversary. For those of you not familiar with Ecotone, it describes itself as “a portal for those who are interested in learning and writing about place. It came about as a meeting spot for a number of webloggers who write extensively about place in their own blogs and were wishing to work more collaboratively, as well as raise awareness to this genre of weblogs.”
This time last year, I wasn’t keeping a weblog; this time last year, in fact, I wasn’t writing at all. If I remember correctly, I was burned out on teaching; although I managed to muster the energy to teach a two-day-a-week Summer School class, I was mired in my dissertation and going nowhere with any sort of writing deemed “creative.” I certainly wasn’t “writing about place” in any sort of real way; instead, I was procrastinating on a dissertation that was supposed to focus on “spirituality of place” in American nature writing but instead was focusing on not much in particular. In a word, I was lost, tired, depressed, burned out: although I wanted to be writing, I didn’t know how or where to begin.
When I started writing my “Pedestrian Thoughts” essays last August, I started with a simple rule: start where you are. As a way of dealing with the burnout I felt writing scholarly prose about other people’s places, I decided to start writing essays about Keene, NH, essays I’d send via email to anyone who expressed even a remote interest in my corner of the world. “You have to start somewhere,” I thought to myself. “Why not start here?” My very first contact with Ecotone happened because one of my “Pedestrian” readers–a friend of a friend, a person I’ve never met–emailed me the link to Lisa Thompson’s field notes. He figured I’d find much of interest on Lisa’s site, and I did. Not only was she writing about her own neck of the woods, she linked to a slew of other writers–and an online meeting place for these writers–who wrote from the conviction that place matters and place starts at home.
My first contribution to Ecotone happened before I myself kept a weblog: on December 17, 2003, I posted an excerpt of my handwritten journal focusing on “Mythic Place.” (If you follow that link, mine is the 3rd entry down, under posts from Fred First’s Fragments from Floyd and a writer known as “P“). In that post, I came to the same conclusion as I had in my “Pedestrian” essays: place matters, and place starts at home. In my writing about “nature writing,” I always seemed to define “nature” as being somewhere else: surely Keene isn’t “wild” in the way that Henry Beston’s Cape Cod or Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Peak or John Muir’s Sierra Mountains are “wild.” But when you switch from “writing about nature” to “writing about place,” anything is possible. Place happens in cities, suburbs, rural towns…in a word, place happens wherever you find yourself. So place-blogging is simply about waking up and noticing, recording, and then sharing the mundane stuff that happens in your own backyard. When you think about it, how is that any different from what Thoreau himself did?
Although we Ecotoners have latched onto this term “place-blogging” to describe what it is that we do, I think many bloggers who wouldn’t attach that label to themselves do something very similar. Whenever Shane posts photos of the signs he sees in Los Angeles, I feel right at home: separated by an entire continent, we share similar eyes even though we find ourselves in distinctively different places. To my ear, Shane perfectly sums up the practice of place-blogging when he notes that he’s begun taking his digital camera everywhere and snapping pictures even though he claims to know nothing about photography. “I’m just fucking around,” he remarks, “and these images here are the ones I like and they’re from LA.” That, ladies and gentlemen, is place-blogging (or at least place-photoblogging) in a nutshell: stroll your neighborhood, fuck around, and share that fucking-around with the rest of cyberspace. Those of us in Keene find it oddly interesting that there are strip-joints in L.A. strip-malls: it looks like we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
So, why blog about place–why does place matter? For me there’s this constant desire to feel at home in a place, to feel at home wherever I find myself by noticing, recording, and remembering tiny details as they manifest themselves. Looking back to my childhood years, I vividly remember a particular picture book in which a child took a walk through a strange neighborhood filled with oddly shaped buildings in fantastical colors. When the child turned toward home, then, that walk was a retracing of the same buildings, shapes, and colors. Thus as a child I learned a valuable lesson: it is by noticing and remembering the sights, colors, and shapes around us that we become inhabitants of a place and thereby find our way home. Walking becomes a metaphor for paying attention and for remembrance, and even a strange neighborhood offers more delight than danger if you keep your eyes open.
I’d love to think that if any of you ever came to Keene, you’d recognize some of these sights: “There’s the corner with the lawn sprinklers!” “There’s that parking sign!” “There’s the building that was built in 1913!” These pictures, you see, map out a simple path to school and back: anyone looking for a scavenger hunt could look at these pictures and retrace my precise route. But ultimately, of course, these pictures and this blog–and this whole phenomenon known as place-blogging–aren’t about Keene: you needn’t come here and find the places I’ve seen. Instead, place-blogging is about going out your own front door and seeing the signs that greet you close to home. Blogging about place isn’t about extolling the superior benefits of any one locale: it’s about finding and noticing the particular charms of all places. Seeing what signs sprout spontaneously, like mushrooms, all over both L.A. and Keene, now you’ll find signs sprouting in your own neighborhood, some of them like mine, some not.
There are colorful people, memorable scenes, in all the world’s cities, in the country, in suburbs, and in various spots in between. Wherever there are people, there are eyes who have grown to ignore these details, thinking they’re a forgettable, second-rate opening act for the Real Thing. So when Mortality steps onstage, tuxedoed and top-hatted, to announce that this, ladies and gentlemen, has been the Main Event, there are gasps of shock and anger: is that all? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is all there is: this is your Featured Presentation, and you’re seeing it from within as it continues to unfold, no moment like any other. And since there is no way for you to petition Mortality for your money back–the ticket called Birth being nonrefundable–we might as well settle in to enjoy the show.
- This is my contribution for the anniversary of Ecotone. Ecotone is a wiki, which means it’s a website where anyone can add content, weblinks, etc. You don’t have to be a “place-blogger” to participate, so feel welcome to contribute to one of Ecotone’s biweekly topics (the one for July 1st is courage and place). Place, of course, is where you find it, and Ecotone’s a great virtual-place where you can meet and mingle with folks from around the world. Stop on by and make yourself at home.