Lori Bradley is a graduate student working on her the Master’s Degree in Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. She holds graduate degrees in art and art education and teaches in the Art Education Department at UMD. She maintains a studio in New Bedford (http://www.hatchstreetstudios.com) where she creates art that embodies a sense of place. She loves dogs.
My mother always referred to my hometown in the flat Lake Ontario basin of northern New York State as “Nowhere.” I grew up with that idea, but I also knew differently. I knew there were mystery and drama in the flat farmlands and small towns. We were not in the least living in “Nowhere”.
All this was confirmed for me in later years as I read Joyce Carol Oates’ novels set in the vast hinterlands of New York north-of-the-City. Later, I became even more deeply attached to the region after spending a wonderful summer in the Adirondack Mountains reading Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and hiking through the same atmospheric woods.
Literature generates a sense of place – a connection that sometimes leads to love. Through reading, place becomes a character in it’s own right, filled with mysteries, intensities, and idiosyncrasies – like any human being. Embodying love, a sense of place can lead to increased desire to preserve it. Proponents of today’s deep ecology movement stress the value of reading in developing the strong sense of place that inspires preservation efforts.
And, preservation doesn’t extend only to wilderness. This weekend, I went to a local film festival and was gratified to see fresh stories about my new hometown, New Bedford, 150 years after Melville so compellingly portrayed the city. Young residents are creating a series of short films about the people who call New Bedford home. The stories reflect grittiness, struggle and grime but also a determined sense of pride, protectionism, and love for the city.
Having a literary sense of place leads to understanding. My mind was filled southern stereotypes of southern culture when I moved to Atlanta to go to school. Our literature professor admonished his northern transplant students to read and then “get out of the city and experience the real south you are reading about.”
We started taking weekend rides through the rural South. And we did establish deeper connections with artists and southern cultures we’d never have developed had we stayed within the safer boundaries of Atlanta. Throughout our travels and encounters, we were inspired by our readings: Richard Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Styron, Walker Percy, Thomas Wolfe and others.
I returned south to teach years later and chose to live in the still-rural city of Stone Mountain, GA. Soon after, our brand new, culturally and racially diverse suburb was confronted with the horror of a massive police-sanctioned Klan rally in the sprawling field at the end of our street. My readings in southern literature came back to me, and instead of feeling intimidated, or reacting in a knee-jerk manner – putting our house on the market the next morning like some of my neighbors did – I felt oddly detached from the rally.
That sense of literary detachment gave me courage to climb through the barbed wire fence bounding the field and take an amazing photograph of an enormous charred-black wooden cross silhouetted against Stone Mountain with a big full moon rising in the background. It was a formidable scene but I wasn’t fearful. I remember feeling curiosity and thinking, “Oh, so they really do burn these things.”
Literary examination of sense of place, embodied in the competing ideas of the Old and the New South, allowed me to transcend a momentary experience of shock and horror and take a positive action. I even had a glimpse of understanding: the local Klan, made up of mostly of a leading farming family and friends, were now watching their ancestral fields chopped up – bulldozed and replaced by rows of suburban tract houses. Perhaps, rather than racist diatribe, the Klan rally was really a pathetic, misguided, cruel attempt at preservation.
Perhaps too, the rally is an example of a darker side of sense of place – when it becomes grasping. I too had feelings of rage upon returning to my hometown and seeing it transformed into an extended strip mall. Again, books helped me deal with that – identifying with the mourning of loss of place in Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, and in Kerouac’s writings. Perhaps, at its best; literature imparts a sense of place, in addition to an ability to cope with the inevitability of change – an ability to take positive action beyond impotent, blind lashings out in violence and terror.