When Henry David Thoreau went to Cape Cod, he literally lost all sense of proportion, finding his normally acute sense of space curiously flummoxed by wide expanses of sea and sky. A surveyor by trade, Thoreau was trained at judging distances and was famed among his neighbors for being able to eye the amount of cord-wood that could be harvested from a forested lot. But when Thoreau walked the treeless beaches of Cape Cod, he felt lost in a landscape devoid of familiar landmarks. How can you judge the relative size of objects, Thoreau wondered, if an almost-empty scene lacks objects that give any sense of scale?

Cavorting dolls

At home in Keene, I take few broad landscape shots, focusing instead on small, familiar objects shot at close range. When I visit a stunning seascape, I feel helpless when it comes to shooting the scene: how can I fit that much sea and sky within the frames of a tiny view-screen? Without something finite and frame-able to focus on, I struggle to understand an otherwise picturesque scene: how can something larger-than-life be sliced and segmented into a snapshot?

In the essays that would be collected in his book Cape Cod, Thoreau describes himself as disoriented because he cannot reliably judge visible phenomena such as size and distance. At one point, for example, he describes two men salvaging a “large black object” which was “too far off for us to distinguish.” As Thoreau approaches the object, it “took successively the form of a huge fish, a drowned man, a sail or net, and finally of a mass of tow-cloth.” In the absence of familiar landmarks, Thoreau cannot judge the size of objects: he notes that “Objects on the beach, whether men or inanimate things, look not only exceedingly grotesque, but much larger and more wonderful than they actually are.” Thus, another object which Thoreau estimates to be “bold and rugged cliffs…fifteen feet high” turns out to be “low heaps of rags…scarcely more than a foot in height.”

Chillin' out by the pool

When you find yourself in a new place, isn’t it natural that your sense of disorientation would swell all out of proportion?

Last week, I took a bus from Boston to Provincetown, the very tip of Cape Cod; today, I took one plane from Manchester, New Hampshire to Newark, New Jersey, then another, delayed plane from Newark to Greenville, South Carolina. As I type these words, I’m sitting in appropriately Spartan dorm room at Wofford College, a group of kind souls from a local philanthropic organization having agreed to shuttle visitors like me from the airport in Greenville to the conference here in Spartanburg. I’d been to Provincetown only once, and one of the things I remembered from my first trip was the colorful assortment of Barbie and Ken dolls, fittingly paired into homosexual couples, that cavort in the fountain outside a bed & breakfast called Romeo’s Holiday. I’ve never been to South Carolina much less Spartanburg, so I have no memories to prepare me for what to expect. Do things down south look bigger, smaller, or pretty much the same as they do up north? Here in South Carolina, where does Romeo holiday?

Two by two

As I remarked during one of two trips to Ireland last year, it always takes me a while to shake off my initial sense of disorientation when I visit a strange-to-me place. Having accustomed myself to the look and feel of Keene, NH, it takes me a while to figure out what is truly noteworthy in a place where everything seems different. Although Provincetown is a whole lot closer to Keene than Spartanburg is, life on the beach seems more foreign to me than life in a southern city. South Carolina has echoes of Ohio; Spartanburg, of Columbus. But Provincetown is nothing like where I grew up, and it’s like nowhere I’ve actually lived. Yes, Boston is a coastal town, but I lived far enough inland to forget the sea: the waterway that dominates my memories of Boston is the Charles River, not the Atlantic Ocean. Even on an early June weekday, before the carousing parties of late summer weekends have begun, Provincetown is a wilder place than Boston or certainly Ohio ever was: a vacation spot where otherwise upstanding citizens come to let their hair down or to watch other’s wild-hair-days.

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Viewed against the backdrop of the expansive sea, even the largest of humans looks doll-like and small. Viewed from the perspective of a holiday party, one’s workaday life looks colorless and mundane. Juliet’s holiday, like Romeo’s, brings the rest of the world into proper proportion: hanging out with their best girlfriends, Juliet and Barbie alike find a spot of serenity that even dour old Thoreau, strolling the beach with one serious-minded companion, missed. When life gets distorted out of proportion, it can be corrective to kick back, focus on the little things, and forget the rest.

    Yes, I’ve safely arrived at the ASLE conference in Spartanburg, SC. The conference officially starts with Tuesday night’s opening reception and a keynote speech by author Bill McKibben. You can follow conference updates (and access presentation podcasts) on the conference blog. Enjoy!