Saturday, September 13, 2008

Don't Fence Me in

A favored landscape for me is the mesa-and-butte sprawl of Arizona, a place where in real life you can actually find stores that sell Wolf Brand chili, a place known variously as Keams Canyon and Second Mesa. In real life it is a hub of Hopi culture set in co-mingle with tourists, no nonsense truckers, skeptical Navajo, and the odd anthropologist. In alternate universe life, it is the landscape of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, those iconic figures of yesterday's entry who play out their dharma on a regular basis. In another alternate landscape, equally reliant on mesas, buttes, tall stacks of sedimentary rock, and a merciless summer sun, those icons of the imagination of George Herriman, the eponymous Krazy Kat, Offisa Pup, Ignatz Mouse, and an ensemble to rival The Wire.

Nice when one area can bring you three separate universes, all of them brimming with the potsherds of human behavior. Nicer still when you can close your eyes for a visit to each. Such is the nature of place in story: Place assumes the same relevance, distinct qualities, and individuality as a first-rank character, sometimes bristling with small-town eclat or intransigence, sometimes as sprawling and impersonal as a major urban center. Sometimes, by its nature, landscape is the very place where an event is least suited to take place, creating an immediate sense of cosmic uproar. Other times, landscape is inhospitable, treacherous, menacing, as cranky as a kid on a hot day who has dropped his ice cream cone.

Much as I prefer a gritty, noirish or mischievous landscape, certain of these improbable places become prima facie apt, their improbability trumping their surreal nature, a warning to me and the reader than familiar, comfortable surroundings in art and literature are music to fall asleep by. A university is endlessly improbable to me, so are court houses, hospitals, department stores, publishing houses, supermarkets. Each of these attracts ordinary persons with needs, then transforms them into some aspect of its own improbability. The house rules of Second Mesa, the Hopi way, make beautiful sense, a transformative ethos shared by the neighboring Navajo, who actually have a saying, Go in beauty. The house rules of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner are in their way the equal of our own Bill of Rights. The governing forces of the comic strip Krazy Kat are informed by a lovely, whimsical logic that convinces us in short order that life within this landscape includes the rational and the irrational, where love may not triumph but nevertheless trumps all other distractions.

Finding a landscape is as troublesome as finding the proper character imbued with the proper quirks and needs. You must, I believe, make your landscape a haven for what you seek, buried perhaps, not readily apparent, but somewhere close to the surface. Or it must be a place of anomaly or a place where what you seek has a second home, somewhere at a great distance. Ladscape has the personality and smell and texture of someone you love, some place that "feels" happy to see you whenever you return.


Lori Witzel said...


Central Texas earth: Hard chalky caliche, coarse pink granite, the smell of Hill country cedar, sloughs and canebrakes, mustang grapes, mockingbirds.

Or the Davis mountains: Dark red pumice-y columnar fissures, the turpene smell of creosote after a rain, cottonwood leaves turning yellow as the sun, springs seeping into maidenhair fern.

Or...the high desert north of Flagstaff, or the lily-filled lake where my grandma taught me to fish, or, or, or...

So many places that stole my heart and love me back, so little time.

Anonymous said...

Describing landscape is difficult for me. But ladscape, as you actually have in your post, sounds even more foreign and treacherous. .

Anonymous said...

Landscape, for me, is all tied up in questions of safety. Sometimes a landscape that seems banal and safe to some is tainted by danger and abuse for others. Liek when the suburb becomes hell to an abused wife or child. I remember sleeping in the car in the parking lot of a cop shop at two a.m.- at the time, the safest palce on earth. And my own neighborhood at times is safe and other times, menacing, depending on my mood...

Querulous Squirrel said...

I agree with Sarah about mood and landscape but would like to add that for some of us, nowhere feels happy to see us, nowhere feels like home. I think the southwest and west are particularly evocative even to those of us passing through, though it may not be home.The particularities Lori and Shelly describe simply don't exist in the eastern part of the country which has none of the majesty. It is, frankly, mostly flat and boring, without much dramatic landscape to distinguish one place from the next except for the stark generic contrast between rural and urban and the relationships among people in each -- social class, race, religion -- so that the emotional landscape becomes far more salient than the obvious drama of the external beauty of nature and is therefore that much more difficult to capture.

lettuce said...

landscape as personality (and vice versa) - i was thinking about this today, in relation to a new Hardy adaptation beginning on TV tonight (Tess)

i've enjoyed catching up a bit on your wit and wisdom and wonderful words

Lori Witzel said...

Ah, so Squirrel reminded me of the eastern part.

Here's what sticks with me. (I guess I'm a person for whom place speaks louder than people or characters...)

Virginia: Fat wet snow for sledding down that's as granular and slushy as a snocone, fringed with dried shafts of ragweed poking up like masts from tiny sunken ships.

New York State: Runnels, ponds, streams (aka "kills" from old Dutch/German settlers), a place laced with water. Blue cornflowers like bits of the sky stuck in a cow pasture. Wild strawberries, the size of a ladybug, that turned into fragrant sweet-tart heaven the very second they touched my tongue. Old gravestones rotting under lichen and moss. Old stone fences gone feral with vines and shrub.

Long Island: The briny breath of the Atlantic on and in everything. Grasses with sharp edges that cut into my leg's memory.

Okay, I'll stop now.