On place

“I began to consider the different ways – three by my count – that Americans connect to place, each one a way of living.

The first evolves out of the idea that place is movable, that you can take home with you or create home wherever you are.  This becomes an easier proposition because so much of what makes place unique has been lost in America, swallowed up by the tide of homogenization.  If one place looks identical to the other place, then place is no big deal.  And losing place is no big tragedy.  Place is not only movable, it is disposable.  

The second notion of place is the way a historian or social scientist sees it.  Place becomes your subject and as a subject it must be kept separate from your soul.  You can live in such a place, become a student of such a place,and even find a measure of accord with that place, because it is your home and your laboratory.  But the place is never you and the changes that come to it are never taken personally.  You live above the fray.  This was the sense of place that informed my writing about Los Angeles.  

The third notion of place is one of deep roots and intimacy, a direct connection between a person and place, right down to its earth.  I am bound to this place.  You cannot separate me from it.  As the land is being remade, where is my place?  I am tied to this place, and yet as it abandons itself, does it also abandon me?  In this way, place is not simply geography but a spiritual relationship to the geography, and it is this relationship that gets lost as the land becomes transformed. “

West of the West, Copyright 2009 by Mark Arax


For some time I have kept a folder of notes on the subject of place, an accumulation of thoughts, impressions, assessments and appreciations of this place where I live in the upper left corner of the US.  

These notes were my personal take on matters that define it, such as geography; the two mountain ranges, the prominence of Mount Rainier, tallest peak in the Cascade Range, forests of evergreen trees, valleys carved by ancient glaciers, majestic freshwater lakes, the vast inland sea, the source of life for generations of indigenous people and a portal for the European explorers.  

Other notes were sensory; the cool, grey, dampness which define the weather for the greater part of each year, the several qualities of light which shape and change familiar scenes, the spicy scent of alder wood smoke from chimneys, the taste of salmon, the muted sound of boots upon forested trails, the glitter of droplets from the blades of the kayak paddle as my boat glides silently over the surface of the water.

In reviewing them, these notes seemed to match the third understanding of place suggested by Arax, that of “…a direct connection between a person and place.”  Having lived a lifetime here, in several homes each a short distance from the vast inland sea, I suppose I have believed the qualities which define this place also defined me.  

But several months ago, I deleted the folder and the notes it contained.

On that day, while reviewing various unfinished writings, it occurred to me that the place notes had, unknown to me, been stored past some expiration date which I had failed to notice.  The writings no longer matched the way I feel or see myself.  Something had changed.

This place where I have lived has undergone many changes.  Much as been said and written about it, as the city and the region have evolved from a smallish remote port at the beginning of the last century to a center of industry and technology bursting at the seams.  There have been changes to the land, to the people who have lived here and those who continue to arrive, to the culture, the food, the downtown skyline overlooking Elliott Bay, to the economy, the corporate giants present and past, the housing market, the newspapers, to the water and air quality, the traffic, to a shift in what some see as the very character of it.

I have friends and family who interpret these changes only as things which have been lost.  I hear them when they say it’s not the way is was, or the way they remember or prefer it.  They disapprove.  And I understand, but only in terms of empathy.

My own reconciliation of change has taken the form of acceptance, a rather practical view that everything changes, that change is reality.  Inevitable, certainly.  Unavoidable, always.  But not necessarily undesirable or unsatisfactory.

In reviewing my notes on place that day, I was surprised to find that somewhere along this new part of the journey, at some point when I must have been focused on other matters or thoughts, my relationship to place had changed.

While reading the notes, thoughts cultivated over the course of sixty-odd years here, I began to realize with a mild astonishment that I no longer see myself as “…bound to this place.”  For the first time I became aware of my writings as a reflection of who I had been, rather than who I am now.

It is not the changes to place that have produced the schism, although I hear others who bemoan the size, the density, the congestion, the bustle and the complexity which has come with the passage of time and growth, and who long for the place as it used to be, simpler, quieter, perhaps more innocent.  Since the clock can’t be unwound, they seek out other places, less developed towns of the region, or perhaps to no town at all, miles from freeways, congestion and other trappings of urban life.

As I searched within, it is not the changes to place themselves which have precipitated the shift in my perception.  It seems to be the changes in me.   

I no longer feel as though it and I are inseparable, as I have for so long.  I no longer feel the need to be here.  In reading the second notion of place by Arax, I find an affinity with his assertion that “… the place is never you and the changes that come to it are never taken personally.”  In my current analysis, this place where I have lived my entire life does indeed feel “…separate from your soul.”

I do not feel the loss my friends and family feel.  I find no sentimentality in the realization that my perception of place and my relationship to it has changed.  

It is merely interesting.


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One Response to On place

  1. Brian Lee says:

    Good day:

    I enclose some photos of part of our collection of art done by Luc Cossier dit Walles.

    Luc continues to paint in Place du Tertre, his easel being located directly across from La Mere Catherine.

    When we saw Luc last October he gave us the large oil painting depicting toy sail-boats in Luxembourg Gardens; I reckon he appreciates our patronage!

    When we return to Paris this October (our 13th visit!), we shall of course try to reunite.

    We have a large home but are running short of wall space!


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