Saturday, December 11, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
December 10, 2010
In drafting the inside and outside space/place essay, my main focus was to give a vivid description of a place near and dear to my heart. Though essentially I spoke about the same place in both essays, there was no shortage of description involved within the analysis. Though more description than analysis proved to be somewhat detrimental to the overall outcome of my score, I couldn’t help but notice similarities in description to those of Thoreau in his readings we covered this semester. Being that it proved detrimental the first two attempts, I would rather focus more upon the correlation of analysis with Cable’s Belles Demoiselles Plantation than the descriptive nightmare that is Thoreau. Through literary works of Hubbard and Cable, we can analyze not only the similarities with my inside and outside space/place essays, but also decipher what makes this place a place.
Phil Hubbard personified the course from day one when we first read his essay describing space and place. From the beginning of the course, the focus was to define space and place within our various readings. The two terms, after all were posed as sort of a brain buster to the class as we were asked what we thought the two terms meant. As various answers were given, we would learn that the two terms often had close to the same definition. According to Hubbard, this is indeed the case for the most part when trying to differentiate their meanings. Hubbard tells of these two terms as being “fuzzy concepts” that are often “used interchangeably”. Many times throughout the course we saw these two terms used similarly in instances, much like in Cable’s Belles Demoiselles Plantation, or maybe a home, landscape, or a region. Hubbard defines a place as “typically understood as a distinctive (and bounded) location defined by the lived experiences of people”. When sampling from an essay of Yi-Fu Tuan, Hubbard seems to take the next step into this analysis of what makes a place a place, describing the “emotional attachment” exclusive only to that of a place, not a space. The emotional attachment between house and home and family are what led me to analyze the story of Belles Demoiselles plantation against my own places I’ve written about.
There is an enormous emotional attachment within the story of the Belles Demoiselles Plantation. Within the first four paragraphs of the essay, the story is defined as Hubbard had said
On the plantation stood a great mansion. This mansion was Belles Demoiselles, “the seven beautiful daughters for whom their home had been fitly named Belles Demoiselles”. The house itself was old.
“The house stood unusually near the river, facing eastward, and standing four-square, with an immense veranda about its sides, and a flight of steps in front spreading broadly downward, as we open arms to a child. From the veranda nine miles of river were seen; and in their compass, near at hand, the shady garden full of rare and beautiful flowers; farther away broad fields of cane and rice, and the distant quarters of the slaves, and on the horizon everywhere a dark belt of cypress forest”
Ah yes, the description. Much like myself before ever realizing the similarities in passion and beauty of such a description, there is, just like in my own place, a house. This house, to me is nothing short of the key to my childlike heart. Much like this house, it was merely a house until it was named. For the Count it was Belles Demoiselles, beautiful. For me, it was Tante’s house, my little German aunt in the country.
Belles, meaning beautiful, characterizes the Count’s beautiful daughters. So beautiful, in fact, that he so fitly named an entire estate after them. This goes as far as to suggest that though there was a family tie to the estate, that the bond between daughter and father is what made the estate what it was, more so than the shear size of it. To the Count, there was no place like it, as was the case for me. This would prove true as the Count attempted to purchase Charlie’s home.
“Now the long-standing wish to buy out Charlie troubled the Colenel. He had no desire to oust him unfairly; he was proud of being always fair; yet he did long to engross the whole estate under on title.”
Charlie lived in a house owned under the De Charleu family. Charlie is a new generation of the family, living under the name De Carlos. The point of buying out old Charlie was to keep the name of De Charleu alive. It was never about Charlie’s house however. His house was just a house. As opposed to the plantation home, there was no significant value to that of old Charlie’s run-down home on the estate. Yet it was the family tie; the upholding of the old family name that drove the Colonel to want to buy the estate from Charlie. Charlie, aside from all the tries of the Colonel would always decline because he was content with his home. See, to the Colonel, Charlie’s home would best be classified as a space, nothing more than what Hubbard describes as simply a landscape. To Charlie, this was a place, his home: the object “expressed in the landscape” (Hubbard 43). What is interesting about the situation between the Colenel and Charlie is the aspect of family. Without family, both homes would essentially mean nothing besides a place of rest. Other than family and rest, the estate itself is essentially falling apart, seeming to mean that family is the only thing holding it together.
“Belles Demoiselles, the realm of maiden beauty, the home of merriment, the house of dancing, all in the tremor and glow of pleasure, suddenly sunk, with one short, wild wail of terror –sunk, sunk down, down, down, into the merciless, unfathomable flood of the Mississippi.”
At first sight, this brought the Colonel to his knees in tears, as it seemed his livelihood was sinking into the Mississippi along with his home. The plantation itself stood for pride and identity. Outsiders looked it at as a positive welcoming place, very symbolic of a family atmosphere. It is something that could never be traded or bargained for much like the houses of De Charleu and De Carlos.
My place is simple. It might not be a mansion sitting on top of a hill next to a river, but I, at one time called it home away from home. The town itself was simply nothing compared to the house itself. The house itself was one of the nicer ones on the block, but if nobody had known that house and what it stood for, it would be another house. By understanding what the house meant and what it stood for, one would have had to live there and interact within it to fully understand the emotional toll that comes with giving that house the meaning it has. The differences between these two essays is on sort of a deeper level. Where the house itself was lost, but family was preserved in Cable's story, the family was what was lost from my place. This is not to say that this loss now means my place is now a space, but rather that the nostalgia associated with myself and that house still holds that sense of placeness within my heart.
I chose to relate my writings to that of Cable's Belles Demoiselles Plantation because of the relation between place and family. The emotional tie that binds the two, as defined by Hubbard are what truly distinguish these essays as places. Just as a house is merely a house, or simply a placeless space with no attachment, emotion and warmth, followed by security and authenticity are what distinguish it as a place.
“Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small, that we can never get away from the sprawl, living in the sprawl. Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains, and there’s no end in sight.”
Throughout the semester, we have read and interpreted a multitude of literary works that deal with how people understand the places and spaces in which they live their lives, as well as examined how we individually experience specific outdoor and indoor locations. Excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, as well as an album entitled The Suburbs by the band Arcade Fire prompted me to think about how development and urban sprawl effect the way spaces, places, and landscapes function for people in general and myself personally.
In “My Neighbor’s Field,” Mary Austin is intrigued by the way people’s use of the land effects it, a problem that is frequently talked about yet rarely challenged in today’s society, as urban sprawl occurs at a rapidly relentless pace. Austin speaks of the land’s many owners and criticizes them for damaging it, until she eventually reveals that the current owner, whom she calls Naboth, “expects to make town lots of it” by turning the field into a developed area for people to move to and live off of (Austin 55). So much of this section is dedicated to describing how beautiful the field is, and how it is “one of those places God must have meant for a field” that is experiencing a rebirth now that the owner has enclosed it with a fence. It becomes its own entity through Austin’s personification of the land. The plants in the area seem to have a mind of their own, as the clematis only secretly blooms when no one is “coaxing” it and “the horehound comes through the fence and under it, shouldering the pickets off the railings” on its own terms (Austin 52). This reminded me of Mitchell’s definition of a landscape, which he says is “both an outcome and the medium of social relations, both the result of and an input to specific relations of production and reproduction” (Mitchell 49). While the landscape is literally what is on the land, the trees, plans, and flowers, the arrangement and manipulation of them carries social implications. The landscape was influenced by its owners for a long while, and now as Austin observes, it is in its own state of reproduction. Although Mitchell seems to view the landscape as art created by man, Austin’s personification of the landscape allows his definition to apply.
Furthermore, when it is revealed that the land will soon be developed, Austin explains the land will “hardly be happier. No, certainly not happier” (Austin 55). Because of the growth she witnessed, she has certainly become attached to this land in a way that allows her to feel remorse for its inevitable development. But at the same time, she does admit that the field “may serve a good turn,” or be very useful for the people living nearby if it is transformed into an extension of the town.
I think the struggle Austin seems to feel as she accepts the fate of the field, despite an apparent longing for its perseveration, speaks volumes for the development of our world today. We discussed in class how no one will admit that they are a proponent of urban sprawl, but on the same hand, so many of us who will not speak in its favor take advantage of its conveniences in our day-to-day lives. We can say that we oppose the new Starbucks conveniently located adjacent to a Target Greatland, but when the time comes and these establishments are up and running, it is difficult to not frequent at them on our drive to work or during a busy Saturday afternoon.
The development of land was an issue I thought of when I went back to my outside place essay. My Papa’s six-acre property in Des Moines, Iowa was the heart of this paper, and I discussed the memories associated with the gardens, lush forests, swimming pool, and lake that accompany the beautiful house. I described how because of this, the landscape, or “specific arrangement” of the “pattern of things on the land” definitely played a part in making the house one of the most important places in my life. After turning in this essay, the comments I received brought about thoughts of how designing or constructing a space to become a place, as my grandparents did, could be problematic, because it doesn’t allow for spontaneous connections to the land. I think this ties into Austin’s problems with what was to come for the field. She seemed to think it was at its happiest state when its plants were free to grow independently with little disturbance or control. Clearly, my grandparent’s property was manipulated to be aesthetically pleasing and complimentary to our lives there. Although the changes in the land were made to foster growth and nature, they were done for our benefit. If this is the case, would Austin argue that my family’s attachment and love for this land wasn’t necessarily warranted or “right?”
Yi-Fu Tuan’s ideas of topophilia state that places are “created and maintained through the ‘field of care’ that result from people’s emotional attachment” (Hubbard 42). To me, this suggests that my grandparents’ nurturing of the land, although “unnatural,” allowed our emotional attachment to form through our experiences and memories at the house and on the property. However, Edward Relph states that modern planning and architecture has “created placeless urban environments where there is no authentic connection between people and place,” which insinuates that the purposeful arrangement of flower beds, trees, and a swimming pool forbid the land from truly becoming a place for myself and my family (Hubbard 43). With that being said, I think that my personal experiences lead me to disagree. In my outside place essay, I quoted Jane Austin who said, “to sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment.” In today’s world, I do not think its fair to say that because the vegetation was planted by the hands of man with the purpose of creating an aesthetically pleasing environment, it cannot yield the same refreshment and pleasure as a natural garden or forest. I think this dichotomy is enhanced when looking at larger urban developments, however, my grandparents’ house, though surrounded by forest, is still considered a product of sprawl. It was once an empty plot of six-acre land without a house, driveway, pool, or planted gardens.
Although Thoreau’s Week bears large differences from Austin’s book, I think his commentary on white men can help explain the acceptance of development. He says they are “strong in community,” with a “yielding obedience to authority.” This could speak for society’s apparent need for community centers, shopping malls, and playgrounds, as they serve as a way for people to connect and interact. Thoreau also explains that white people are “dull but capable, slow but persevering, severe but just, of little humor but genuine; a laboring man … building a house that endures, a framed house” (Thoreau 43). His descriptions conjure up images of the average, hard-working, Midwestern American, with little personality and no appreciate for the arts, but a nine-to-five life lacking passion and excitement. When looking at this passage again, I instantly connected it to the Arcade Fire lyrics, in which the band describes the people living in the sprawl, saying, “They heard me singing and they told me to stop. Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock.” It may seem strange to connect the words of a transcendentalist writer from the nineteenth century to the lyrics of a contemporary indie band, but I think their ideas are the same. Though Thoreau’s book obviously explores many other ideas, in this passage I think he is commenting on the void in the average person’s desire to explore and their overall lackluster passion for life. Arcade Fire seems to agree, as they describe being told to stop singing in the presence of the victims of the sprawl, and the fact that they would prefer the singer just “punch the clock” insinuates they see a dull profession that doesn’t call for intelligence or creativity as more important.
I kept these ideas in mind when reexamining my inside place essay. Bachelard describes our house as “our corner of the world,” and I expanded on this idea with my personal experience in my dormitory my freshman year at MU. This room was important to me in ways that a room had never been, and it was the first place that was entirely mine. While I agreed with Bachelard’s idea that “real houses of memory … do not readily lend themselves to description,” I was able to capture the emotions I felt in that room, specifically on a snowy day when I curled up in bed with some lovely music and a good book. I struggled with the idea that the dorm room was a home for so many other people throughout the years, and knew I was certainly not the last to cast “absorbing values of intimacy” within the room’s four tiny, white walls (Bachelard 9). I questioned what happens when a group of students who have created a home for themselves must dismantle their posters, empty their closets full of shoes and party dresses, and stack up the books they have carried throughout the semester, so that another wide-eyed freshman can move in and repeat the cycle. It would be so easy to characterize the room as a space, instead of a place, but I finally decided that it is the memories we create in interior spaces that make them places and that the memories can never be taken away from us. Therefore, I determined a place will always be a place and my dorm room will always render nostalgia for a year full of parties and a snowy day of solitude.
However, when relating this experience to Thoreau’s ideas of civilization, I couldn’t help but entertain the idea that my dorm was simply another aspect of development and sprawl, and my experience there, although unique to me, was just like anyone else’s. I understand this is a completely different idea that what I had previously explored, but I think it is one that most of us struggle with when creating places and memories in locations that might simply be considered spaces due to their average qualities and purposes. Jack Keroauc once said, “Colleges are nothing but grooming schools for the middle class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same time and thinking the same thing.” While I clearly buy in to the concept of college and spend thousands of dollars to attend this university, it is hard to ignore the fact that this campus could be a space that breeds unoriginality and instills the same predictable life plan for each of its inhabitants. Many will go through the motions of getting a job after graduation, finding someone to marry, having children, and buying the perfect house. I’m not sure whose to say there’s anything wrong with this, but it is an idea that is frequently discussed in our society. Thoreau also said that the degeneration of man is a result of civilization’s lack of the “heroic spirit,” and because of this, I think he would probably agree with Keroauc’s view of the college experience.
Hubbard explored the idea that “a place is often equated with security and enclosure, whereas space is associated with freedom and mobility” (Hubbard 43). I found this interesting, because if someone asked me if I would rather have “security and enclosure” or “freedom and mobility,” without further explanation, I would hands down reply with, “freedom and mobility.” However, in both of my essays this semester, I wrote about a location that I deemed a place because of the comfort and happiness I felt in these two separate, enclosed places. I have frequently put spaces within a negative context during this course. Now, while thinking of them in terms of freedom and mobility, I believe the only way to look at the two concepts (spaces and places) is to understand that both are necessary for a balance in life. Not every location can be a place, and sometimes spaces are quite necessary to get where we are going. Furthermore, I do not think we can allow definitions to bind our experiences within a particular location. As we discussed on one of the first days of class, an airport (which is a clear-cut product of development and sprawl) is most obviously a space. However, if a person proposed to the love of their life when picking them up from the East terminal, it would clearly be transformed into a place that houses a life-changing memory for the couple. They would not say that because of the multiple definitions of a space, that the location isn’t important to them. They would draw on what happened there to define it for themselves. While Bachelard said, “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality of those in the home,” Thoreau would probably disagree and say that experiences in nature could never be matched by those indoors. Therefore, the creation of places must be done on an individual basis, as a result of specific experiences and ideals.
I also believe we have to accept that we live in a world where Wal-Mart super stores, cookie-cutter houses on hillsides, and college educations are inevitable and far easier to come by than week-long river adventures and West Coast wilderness escapades. If Thoreau had access to an airplane, a GPS, and an iPod, would he have experienced his trip the same way as he did in the nineteenth century?
I feel the pain and confusion of Arcade Fire when they question if we can ever get away from sprawl in our small world, but I think the only way to maintain passion and purpose in life is to accept it and make the best of creating places in our lives that foster happiness, creativity, and love. At the same time, we must not be afraid of the freedom and mobility of spaces. I disagree with the idea that “spaces are not places, but neither can places be spaces” (Hubbard 43). In today’s world, I think life could be seen as the constant transformation of spaces to places, as we experience its joys, sorrows, and excitements in each geographic location we visit.
December 9, 2010
A Barbaric look and a Compassionate Nature
The sun is setting over the vast rolling hills of the New England landscape. The smell of a warm summer’s day still lingers in the air as the… As mankind discovers more and more ways to detach themselves from their origins in nature, our personal identifications as members of the animal kingdom are slowly left by the wayside. When comparing the two literary works, The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin, and, McTeague, by Frank Norris, it is clear that the authors have very different views of the landscape and humans when compared to being animalistic.
Nature is an unavoidable aspect of life. This is a view indirectly presented by both authors throughout their works. Whether it be through an unfortunate circumstance or by choice, people cannot avoid their roots in the circle of life, however people can choose to limit the allotted time within nature. Austin’s approach to nature is one of empathy and compassion. Austin sees the usefulness and wonderment of nature. To her nature is beautiful and the idea of man using it for one thing or another doesn’t make the land any ‘happier.’
“It is a still field, this of my neighbor’s, though so busy, and admirably compounded for variety and pleasantness, - a little sand, a little loam, a grassy plot, a stony rise of two, a full brown stream…” (Austin 54).
Austin has a fondness of simplicity, which is made clear in this passage. It is when there is an imputation of human activity that the simplicity is disrupted. The mankind that imposes an agenda of our own on nature is different from the agendas of the Shoshones, another group of humans that coexists and cooperate with nature. During that last part of this passage, which leads to the end of the chapter, Austin asks herself how she thinks the field will welcome this change to its life.
“… it occurs to me that though the field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be happier. No, certainly not happier” (Austin 55).
Norris’s McTeague takes a far different approach to nature and its uses. The descriptions of nature are in the gold mines or used to ranching. This rape of the land seems to be the only thing it is useful for. Either you are in control of nature or it is in control of you. In Norris’s novel, Marcus, one of the more major characters, makes the decision to leave him home and start ranching. This is a clear example of man’s control of nature for his benefit. Another example discussed during the reading is the idea of gold mining. The gold rush of 1849 was a huge reason for settling in California during this time. Though the novel for written fifty years later, gold was still being mined in parts of the state. This is just another example of man bending nature to his will and for personal gain and agenda. Austin tends to give more merit to the style of living that does not result in gains only on the side of man.
At the end of Norris’s story, nature is the one that gets the best of man. Since the control of their fate was left up to harsh environment of Death Valley, both men were doomed to perish under the blazing heat of the mid-day’s sun. Whether or not this was an intentional idea of Norris’s, it is interesting that he either shows man in control of nature or the other way around. It seems that he is showing this struggle between the things that occur naturally as opposed to things that can be influenced by the abstract thought of man.
The analysis of animalist characteristics is a second and very large part of each authors’ analysis of the human psyche. To Norris, it appears that the embrace of our animalistic tendencies is a digression in mankind’s evolution. McTeague is described as a person with these negative animal inclinations that are harmful to mankind. “It was the red flag in the eyes of the bull” (Norris 235). McTeague is a brutish man who is driving by passion and lust. This individual rarely uses the use of thinking skills and his ambitions are inward and selfish. Even the love of his wife is something for his own gain. He does not seem to care much for the woman that has entrusted her love and life to this man. Norris attributes most of the selfish behavior in his book to being selfish and self-centered. Each person that displays these walks of life (the three main characters) live stressful and horrible lives and all meet a violent or torturous demise.
“But her resistance was the one thing to drive him to the top of his fury. He came back at her again, his eyes drawn to two fine twinkling points, and his enormous fists, clenched till the knuckles whitened, raised in the air” (Norris 285).
This description of one human taking another’s life is very different form the approach the Austin gives her readers. Norris describes an animalistic killing as brutal and excessively violent. Austin however, gives a very different look at killing and a respect that goes along with it. In Austin’s version of an animalistic killing, the Shoshone people see that a member of their tribe has not been able to perform his task. Because he has lost his purpose he is to be executed as punishment. Even though death is a severe punishment, it is not done with a sense of distain or resentment but with love and compassion. It pains these men of nature to have to dispatch one of their own.
“So much has the Indian lost of savageness by merely desisting from killing, that the executioners braved themselves to their work by drinking and a show of quarrelsomeness. In the end a sharp hatchet-stroke discharged the duty of the campoodie” (Austin 40).
There are no fists that were brought down upon this medicine man. For the natives, living things should be met with a quick and painless death. McTeague on the other hand, beats his foes to death with his own hands. Using his tremendous size to overpower his enemies. Trinia, his wife, was not the only person to meet his fists of fury. At the end of the tale, McTeague turns his brutish strength on his friend Marcus as the two fights over a sack of money. Though the two are trapped in an inhospitable environment, they are still driven by their own pride and selfish egos. When the Shoshone people decided to kill a person it is with reason and purpose, never for personal gain.
Comparing people to animals in never a bad thing if Austin is the one giving the analysis.
“Very clean and handsome, quite belying his relationship in appearance, is Clark’s crow. That scavenger and plunderer of mountain camps. It is permissible to call him by his common name, “Camp Robber:” he has earned it” (Austin 23).
The crow is described not as a mangy scavenger but as brilliant and resourceful. He takes advantage of the was provided by man and fills himself with nourishment. Thus, being animalistic in this sense would be seen as she described: clean and handsome. He has earned his title.
A bit later in the text, the Shoshone are compared to the coyotes. Though this is a blatant comparison, no harm is meant by it. Back on the same page as the quote from above, the coyote is described as a “lazy dog,” that will eat that which has already been killed. This shows the same resourcefulness as Clark’s crow. This resourcefulness does not leave anything wasted and is a characteristic of those who are clean and handsome.
We have established that in Norris’s text, either man takes control of nature or nature takes control of man. It also important to remind the reader that Norris often compares and characterizes his main brutish character, McTeague, to an animal and having animalistic characteristics. It is then interesting to realize that the man who sets himself after McTeague, post the murder of Trina, would be a man who is a rancher (Someone that, as a profession, presides of a large expansion of land). This is another example of man (Marcus the rancher) needed to try and take control over a natural opponent (McTeague). In the end he lets nature get the best of him and is killed by McTeague.
Selfish animalistic behavior is seen to be something negative in the eyes of Norris. In a harsh environment such as the one Norris’s tale takes place, it is easy to see how the people themselves become harsh and self-centered. This is not seen in the same way Austin sees it, probably due to the unforgivable conditions Norris’s characters have to live with. In Austin’s environment, there is a much more abundance of life and life sustaining environment. Austin is able to express her fascination far more easily than Norris because of this reason. There is not the same stress for her characters to live under.
To Norris, the environment is something to fear and respect because of that fear. Those who inhabit that land need to live with the same ferocity to live otherwise they will perish. If they are not strong others who are fighting for that same right to live in that landscape will overcome enough them. For Austin the environment is something to be in awe of and respect because of the awe. She was able to observe a landscape fit for a peaceful life. In contrast to Norris, Austin’s subjects are not subjected to test of strength and survival like Norris’s characters, rather they can live off the land as scavengers if need be, not brutish killers.
Norris and Austin differ on views of landscape and nature because of the environment in which their stories take place. It is due to these different landscapes that there are differences of opinion. When comparing the two literary works, The Land of Little Rain, by Mary Austin, and, McTeague, by Frank Norris, it is clear that the authors have very different views of the landscape and humans when compared to being animalistic. Norris does not see nature as reliable as Austin; to him she is a harsh mistress. To Norris, the environment is something to fear and for Austin the environment is something to be in awe of.
Experiences within Spaces: Comparing experiences from "The Country of the Pointed Firs" and experiences from my own life.
In apartment 303 there are many reasons that you could identify this space as a place. A space where someone moves, breathes and lives but the memories of this space don’t come from this apartment, they come from the past. The past where we can thrive on the memories that once were alive. We might be able to think about what once was, but we will never be able to re-live these memories, the only way they can survive is through brief moments that draw us back in. A place can be significant to anyone, what justifies a place to be more than just a random space filled with air? Is it the smell that captivates you when you walk in, is the stained tile floor that takes you back to a different time or its the people that live in these spaces that make them what they are. To me, spaces are not places until someone takes the time to make memories out of the things that dwell in these places.
The smell of this space is so nostalgic but the instant you step out of apartment 303, that sense of emotion is swept right beneath you. This apartment is a symbol of time, symbol of change and a symbol of loss. In this 600 ft square apartment you can look around and see so many pictures that inspire thoughts of what once was but it is the wonderful woman who lives in this apartment that makes these vivid pictures come alive. I have been blessed to have a wonderful Grandmother, who helps me accept things that I cannot change. She accepts time and change with open arms. She makes you feel like you will be young forever. Yes, she does live in a tiny apartment but the instant you walk in, it becomes a huge globe of ideas, thoughts, and inspirations. For me, going to apartment 303 is like walking into a space where time stops. It’s a space where all anxieties of life go out the window, my Grandmother is a symbol of hope. She gives inspiration in a space that someone would see as a jail, but in this space she see’s it as another opportunity to do something with her life. When reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, there is a character that is a mirror image of my Grandmother. Mrs. Todd’s mother. The way that Sarah Orne Jewett describes her, gives me an instant reminder of who my Grandmother is. When Mrs. Todd is explaining her mother she describes, “She’s seen all the trouble folks can see, without it’s her last sickness; an’ she’s got a word of courage for everybody. Life ain’t spoilt her a mite. She’s eighty-six and I’m sixty seven, and I’ve seen the time I’ve felt a good sight the oldest” (Jewett 29). This brief description that Mrs. Todd gives to the narrator is an exact picture of who my Grandma is. These women take their age, their experiences and whatever life throws at them and try to make the best possible outcomes. Through a brief visit to Mrs. Todd’s mother’s house in the novel, there are similarities between the mother and my Grandmother that become so clear.
Apartment 303 is a retirement home where my Grandma lives, she has been living there for 6 years. Before moving into to 303, she lived in the same house for 50 years. My grandmother, like most older people, accepted that she could no longer take care of a big house and made the decision to move into a place that would be easier for her to live. For myself, my Father and the rest of my family, it was heartbreaking to see her move out of the house. It was symbol of growing up and to her; it was her life that she was leaving behind. Most people would be devastated to move out of place that holds so many memories but for my Grandma, it was just another chapter in her life. Every Tuesday I am blessed with the time to go have lunch with my Grandma. It is the same thing every time, we get the same order, we sit in the same place and it is a time and place that I know exactly how things will go. As an anxious college student I am always worrying about what will happen next, what I’m supposed to do with my life but when walking into her apartment, it is a place where I, along with my life, stops. If you were an outsider looking in, you would be amazed at the inner youth my Grandmother holds. Like Mrs. Todd’s mother she is a, “delightful little person, with bright eyes and an affectionate air of expectation like a child on a holiday” (35). She understands the meaning of life, what we are supposed to do, how we are supposed to deal with things. For someone whose life is close to an end, she lives everyday like she has a thousand more left. Her ideals mirror Mrs. Todd’s mother because she has this sense of time, that there is an infinite amount. When the narrator is describing Mrs. Todd’s mothers house, there is a sense of remembrance and I feel a connection to the narrator because like her, walking into a retirement home is nothing meaningful but seeing my Grandmother’s apartment is like a rush of emotion, seeing her life through her memories.
There are certain distinctions in The Country of Pointed Firs that make Mrs. Todd’s mother’s house on Green Island very distinct. It’s not the house that makes it so special, it is the woman who lives in this house that makes it exclusive. When Jewett describes the house and the objects within it, it is easy to compare her feelings, to my Grandmother’s feelings about her objects within her house. My Grandmother’s table. It is the exact same table that has been in her life forever. This table is not just a table where you eat; it is a place that has shared many conversations, many late night talks and things that forever change who I am. My Grandma hasn’t had the easiest life, she was divorced and raised two children on her own. This table represents her life, it is made out of wood but each chip, mark and stain has a story, just like her life. Every Tuesday when I make the trip to apartment 303, I see this table and I remember every memory she has shared with me that has happened here. Yes, we do eat at this table but it’s the things that are shared between us at this table that makes these instances special. Even though everything is the same at these meals, the thoughts and stories are always different. When talking with my Grandma, I always forget that we live in two different time periods but with every story, she has some sort of advice or encouragement and one would never know that she was 85. When the narrator is speaking to the mother, she states, “ you felt as if she promised a great future, and was beginning, not ending, her summers and their happy toils” (38). My Grandma instills a sense of hope for me, that I am young and that I have so many decisions and choices to look forward to. I feel that Mrs. Todd’s mother does the same, that everyday should be a beginning for that next something.
“She loomed larger than ever in the little old-fashioned best room, with its few pieces of good furniture and national interest. The green paper curtains were stamped with conventional landscapes of foreign order” (39). This description of this special room is not special unless you can relate to the “green paper curtains”, which in my case, is very similar. My Grandma owns a very vintage recliner. It looks like it is 1,000 years old and no one in their right mind would have it in their house but she has had the recliner since I was born, it is something that means a lot to her. She sits everyday and drinks countless amounts of tea and reads. This is her life, this is what she enjoys. To some people this may seem boring but to her, this is what she aspires to do every day when she wakes up. I enjoy walking into her apartment and seeing her in that chair because it is familiar. It is something that I have seen many times before. It brings me back to simpler times. I have a picture in my mind of her sitting there at Christmas drinking tea and reading a Christmas Story or a picture in my scrapbook where I, once a child, am wrapped up in this chair sleeping. It is a small memory but to me it is a picture and an object that brings me back to reality, that even though we cannot stop time, we can always remember things and objects that brings us home again.
Photos. Everyone has photos that they love to share, my Grandma has the most awkward montages of photos on her walls. People might think the way she hangs these photos are crazy but to me, it symbolizes movement. You can walk through these awkwardly hung wall photos and realize what a great life my Grandmother has lived and still living. It starts from her traveling days, to her married life, to her children and then to us. “She had the gift which so many women lack, of being able to make themselves and their houses belong entirely to a guest’s pleasure, - that charming surrender for the moment of themselves and whatever belongs to them, so that they make a part of one’s own life that can never be forgotten” (46). The same intuitions that people have for Mrs. Todd’s mother are the same feelings people have towards my Grandmother. Jewett’s makes it seem like there is a gravitational pull towards Mrs. Todd’s mother, which is very similar to the way I feel about my Grandmother. There is an instinctive pull towards her once you are inside of her house, these objects in her house are old and outdated but every memory she shares with you about these objects pulls you into her life and her experiences. This space is a dull, old place for her to live but I don’t think she would be the courageous, inspiring woman she is without her apartment.
Places can be just places but I believe it is the objects and the experiences you share in these places that really make them significant. My Grandmothers apartment is old, it’s located in a place that no one wants to live but the joy my Grandmother has in her life, is something to aspire to. She carries these rigid, old objects that no one would understand the meaning of but once you are engaged into conversation with her, you can see into the past and you can see the beauty in each of these objects that have made her life what it is. “Conversation’s got to have some root in the past, or else you’ve got to explain every remark you make, an it wears a person out” (61). My Grandmother speaks from the past but encourages for the future. She has encouraged me to accept things that I cannot change and to make the most of every opportunity I have. To her, every inch of space can be transformed into a place but more importantly; it’s the people and the memories that you carry to every place that make it significant.
The place where my Grandmother lives is 600 feet, it is white, boring and has no meaning to me. But the stories, objects and the person moving around in this space makes this non-relevant space a place to me. This area makes me realize that time doesn’t stop but to make the most of the time that is left and to see beauty in every place you are given the opportunity to see. My Grandma helps me realize that its not the space you are in, its what you make of it that defines it as a place.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Furs. New York: Penguin Group Inc, 2009.
The works of nature, mysterious, awe-inspiring, and humbling, can inspire humankind innumerous ways. The backyard from my childhood, from my outside space/place essay, and Mary Austin’s neighbor’s field, from The Land of Little Rain, inspired literary contemplation. There is a distinctly similar outlook toward these places, not spaces, between us, which produces the same result, or rather, reward. By examining, exploring, and reflecting on natural settings, a better understanding of one’s self, culmination of identity, and maturing of the mind and body can be achieved. By taking this approach to our respective places, our experiences and descriptions are similar. A comparative meditation can be made:
The grass feels cold and slippery underneath my little bare feet, refreshing in the stifling, humid air of the summertime. The tall pecan trees surrounding the area are like colossal giants to me, selflessly providing me shade to help beat the heat. The air smells of the sweet fragrance radiating from my mother’s garden of brightly colored flowers of blue, purple, and gold. The scenery of the back of my old, white house with the black shutters whizzes past my eyes as I swing on my old, slightly rusted orange and brown swing set, squeaking as I fly back and forth. My brothers appear out of the little white shed of a garage behind the house, riding their bikes down the rough cement driveway that interrupts the grass. I pick up my plastic bucket out of my green turtle-shaped sandbox, and get busy hunting up rolly pollies, slugs, caterpillars, ladybugs and inchworms to collect in it. Our two dogs that run about on long chains beneath the blossoming dogwood tree, for we do not have a fence, bark at a robin resting itself on the gray cement birdbath for a drink. I pet their soft tan and brown heads consolingly as they lick me with their slobbery tongues. This was a typical summer day spent in the backyard of my childhood home in the heart of downtown Ste. Genevieve, Missouri.
Austin uses similar methods to describe her neighbor’s field. The personification of the aspects of nature, plants, animals, the elements, etc., is a common theme. By giving human qualities, such as feelings, thoughts, movements, to these aspects, the qualities of one’s self can be reflected. Austin, though not in the same stage of life, appears to have a child-like fascination with nature. We both describe the tall trees as gigantic figures, for example. They are when compared to us. I describe them as selfless, giving them a humanistic identity. Austin writes, “it would seem [the pines’] secret purpose to regain their old footing . . . one of these has tiptoed above the gully of the creek,” describing the trees as plotting interlopers (51). Austin does more observation in her descriptions instead of interaction, however. She described the living things as an observer from a distance, watching through her window, for example. Conversely, I was out in my backyard, not just observing, but also collecting the bugs, petting the dogs, feeling the grass against my bare feet. Austin reflects a more environmentalist or naturalist perspective in not interfering with the habitat and lives of the living things.
My backyard was not a space, but a place to me. It brings back fond memories of my childhood spent playing in it, and the happiness I felt at the time. I absolutely loved that backyard, how it felt like my own little world, my Wonderland. Because I have such a strong emotional attachment to it, I consider it a place. It was not a public space, but privately owned by my family. It was a place not used for productivity or business-purposes, but one used for leisure, fun, and play. Primarily my family, and occasionally family friends used it. When the weather was satisfactory, I would play in the backyard almost every day. I became familiar with every inch of the place to the extent that I still remember it clearly today.
Austin addresses the concept of land ownership when discussing the field. She discussed the succession of people who “took possession of the field,” the land being bought and sold as a commodity (Austin 50). She refutes this notion of ownership, in that the plants and animals that inhabit the land will do so, no matter who owns it. I described my family as owning the land, however. This concept comes from not just living on the land, but also having a piece of paper to reinforce it, a notion which Austin would disprove of. The commonality, however, is both of our strong familiarities with the outside places. “Under my window a colony of cleome made a soft web of bloom that drew me every morning for a long still time,” Austin states (53). The instinct of routine creates a sense of understanding and connection with the places. Also, this is very much a solitary activity; both of us were alone with our thoughts and observations on nature. This promoted introspection, which leads to self-discovery. This encouraged maturity within me, and growth within Austin.
This place was used most often by me after my older brothers were old enough to go to school. After school they would sometimes use the driveway to shoot hoops in the basketball hoop, or ride their bikes around on it. My mother would use it to tend to her garden surrounding the back of the house, sometimes with me helping by digging holes in the black dirt and dropping in the tiny seeds. My father, being a workaholic, rarely used the backyard except on weekends when he would mow the grass. I, on the other hand, declared myself Queen of the Yard, and used it as my own personal playground. Playing whatever game of imagination I came up with that day, I would prance around the grass barefoot, against my mother’s protests. The only beings that used the place more than I were our two dogs, which lived outside next to the beautiful dogwood tree. To them, the backyard was their home.
Another comparative theme is gardening versus natural growth of plants. Austin describes gardening as humans trying to manipulate nature, but not always being successful at it. Yet, there is this human drive to create plant life that both Austin and my mother and I share. The fact that we are all women may be indicative of it being some form of feminine need to procreate. But whether this is true or not, Mother Nature is a role that cannot be played by any other actor. Austin writes, “we spent time fruitlessly pulling up roots to plant in the garden . . . all this while, when no coaxing or care prevailed upon any transplanted slip to grow, one was coming up silently outside the fence near the wicket” (52). The view of the landscape being an imaginative place is another commonality. There is the personification of the vegetation, that it can move about on its own and such, which is a reflection of this view, but also there is the imagination of stories and spiritual aspects in nature. Austin alludes to a Native American story about the pines being “bad Indians” and running away from the granite range, the Chief (51). This reflects the same sort of imagination that as a child I possessed.
I have a strong positive emotional attachment to the place. It is where some of my fondest memories from childhood took place. The security of its location, being hidden from plain view behind the large house and surrounded by large pecan trees, and the beautiful aspects of nature, such as the living insects, plants, and flowers, act to generate this positive attachment. The place is very much designed to be child friendly, with its swing set and sandbox and basketball hoop. Therefore, as a child it appealed to me, and as I used it more and more, I became attached and fell in love with it. Now, the backyard represents to me a time when I was happy and ran wild and free.
Austin also has a strong positive attachment to her neighbor’s field. She writes, “when I had no more than seen [the field] in the charm of its spring smiling, I knew I should have no peace until I had bought ground and built me a house beside it” (49). The sense of familiarity from living next to it helps develop this attachment. She also has the same sense of appreciation through observation for the aspects of nature as I do. We both have happy associations with the places, whether it be through fond memories of it or by describing the place itself as happy, which is a reflection of one’s self.
The difference between a location being described as a space versus being described as a place is relative and subjective. A space is typically defined as a public location designed for productivity. Its layout and atmosphere are not designed to encourage people to want to linger there very long. It is used for productivity, people move through it quickly. A place, on the other hand, is typically defined as a private location; it’s more personal. It’s designed to encourage people to spend a lot of time in. It is used for leisure, personal activities, or inhabiting. Those who use it feel an attachment to it, and are very familiar with it. The defining of a location as a space or a place is highly subjective. For example, if someone works in a location others define as a space, said person may consider it a place instead. I consider my backyard as a place rather than a space because I used it as my personal private area, but someone who did not live there or use the backyard might think of it as a space. My front yard, on the other hand, I would consider a space because it faced a busy street and was a much more public area.
I would argue that Austin thinks of her neighbor’s field as a place, as well. We have a similar viewpoint, as they are places to us, but spaces to others. This stems from not just our appreciation, but also our use of the land. Other people may see the land in terms of its productivity and utility and use it as such, but we use it for leisure, enjoyment, and discovery instead. The Paiute Indians used the field as a campoodie, and the cattlemen used it as “a recruiting ground for [their] bellowing herds” (Austin 50). But, Austin uses it for observation and exploration of the natural world and its processes. “One day I discovered that I was looking into a rare fretwork of fawn and straw colored twigs from which both bloom and leaf had gone, and I could not say if it had been for a matter of weeks or days,” she relates (Austin 53). Austin, like myself, appreciates the place for its aesthetic quality, not for its utility. She has a positive attachment to it even though “the field is not greatly esteemed of the town, not being put to the plough nor affording firewood” (Austin 49).
As I think back upon this outside place and what it means to me, I realize why it is so special to me. It is a place that cannot be replaced by any other in my memory that can conjure up such a specific emotional response. I have lived in other houses with other backyards since then in which I also spent time, but to none of them do I have such a strong emotional attachment. Never in my life have I felt as profoundly free, carefree, uninhibited, joyful, curious, content, and natural as I did when I spent time in that backyard as a child. I had no restrictions or responsibilities, and was free to be myself. The space outside my place, the entire rest of the world, did not matter while I was happy and safe and free in my beautiful backyard of childhood enchantment.
Both Austin’s field and my backyard are transient places, they change over time, and what we depict is a memory. By the concept of ownership of the land, they are passed from one owner to the next. My family no longer owns the backyard, someone else that changed the landscape does. If I were to go back there today, it would not be a place to me. In the same vein, Austin’s neighbor aims to turn the field into lots for building development. She writes, “it occurs to me that though the field may serve a good turn in those days it will hardly be happier . . . no, certainly not happier” (Austin 55). This reflects her positive associations with it, and her change of feelings toward it. These places no longer can serve the purpose they encourage within us. In the natural outdoor settings there is a sense of freedom, which is key in enabling and promoting our exploration and self-discovery. One is free to be carefree, natural, and true to one’s self in these environments, which allows for growth and maturity. “It is not easy always to be attentive to the maturing of wild fruit . . . one can never fix the precise moment when the rosy tint the field has from the wild almond passes into the inspiring blue of lupines” (Austin 53). Like the plant life, one cannot determine the precise moment a child grows out of their innocence and naivety into self-awareness and wisdom. But, mature I did, like the bloom of the wild almond. Austin’s descriptions of the field as a place enabling vegetation and animals to mature and thrive are indicative of her own experience of growth within it. The land has affected her as well. Through her observations of the character and processes of the wildlife, she has made discoveries about herself. Nature can teach us many things about life and, through our reflections, about ourselves.
Work Cited: Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. The Modern Library: New York, 2003.