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How to Be Where You Are

Sometimes brief conversations can leave a real impact on you. You can find yourself thinking about them days, weeks or even months afterward. That’s the case with a short exchange I had with a clerk at the gift store of a historic site I visited in New Brunswick on my way to Cape Breton island. I had stopped in at the Monument–Lefebvre National Historic Site in Memramcook. It’s a great site, particularly if you’re interested in gaining a better perspective on the Acadian French experience in the maritimes of Canada. I’ll talk a little more about the site itself in a future post. 

Plaque explaining the history of the Monument-Lefebvre National Historic Site in Memramcook, Canada

Back to the conversation, which had flowed along in a very typical, transactional way. The clerk had made approving remarks of my purchases—two Acadian cookbooks and a history of the area—and pointed out specific pages of interest. I’d thanked her for the information and now we were waiting for the computer to process my charges. We waited. And we waited. And we waited. And then she said, “I’ve been taking pictures of the tree in my yard all year.”

“Oh?” I said, intrigued but also a little bemused by the nonsequitor. 

She went on to explain that she had been photographing this massive maple tree in her front yard every morning at the same time since the first of January. Now it was almost time for the leaves to change and a new phase of her project to unfold. I listend as she described the tree, explained how she got the idea for the project, and recounted the daily joys of watching this tree only a few feet from her door change across time. When our conversation reached a natural lull, she realized that my transaction had cleared, and as if obeying our duties as clerk and customer we returned to the more rigid formality of signing receipts and exchanging scripted pleasantries. As I left, I stopped to wish her luck with her project and a genuine, distant sort of serenity washed across her face again. I imagined her receding mentally back to her yard, her place that she’d found a way to see anew. 

As for me, I got back to the business of traveling; navigating new terrain, taking in sights and cataloguing them with my camera, hunting down a pleasurable meal. But the conversation stuck with me and in many ways inspired this blog, which is about slowing down in travel and in life. Traveling slowly, living slowly is not a thought that comes as second nature to me. 

I’ve always enjoyed reading about a person’s relationship with place. It’s probably why I enjoy travel writing. Here are a few reads that I enjoy because they are considered mediations of place. 

Image of the book Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk.

The first, FADO, written by Andrzej Stasiuk is a collection of essays about place. “Carpathians”, in particular, sticks out to me. Both because of my general fascination with the area vis-a-vis my childhood reading of Dracula and adulthood appreciate of Jitka Hanzlova’s photography and also because it starts with Stasiuk talking about his own front yard. His focus is not on a tree, but on the snow that comes each year. 

Image of the book North Sea by Dorthe Nors and Henrik Saxgren.

Another great book of place is a collaboration between the writer Dorthe Nors and the photographer Henrik Saxgren titled North Sea. As the name implies, writer and photographer trace a portion of the North Sea coastline and interpret their experience with it in their chosen medium. I knew about this book before it came out because I’m a fan of Dorthe Nors’ fiction. I ordered my copy directly from the publisher, Gads Forlag, in Denmark. You can get an American edition of this book titled A Line in the World through Graywolf Press. It will not include the photographs by Saxgren, but it’s a lovely, compact edition of Nors’ essays.

Image of book Land's End: A walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham.

Finally there’s LAND’S END: A Walk Throught Provincetown. Michael Cunningham’s work on the famous Cape Cod village is the kind of book of place that invites you to dip in, savor the descriptions of the physical and human landscape and retreat into your own imagination. I hope you’ll dip into one of these works and as you read, consider not just how these writers see the places they’ve inhabited, but how you might come to see the places you inhabit. 

In the meantime, if you have a book about place that you love and would like me to know about, please put it in the comments!