Paying attention to a place is an act of respect; observing the place over many years, taking notes on weather and time, and the comings and goings of the inhabitants–human and wild–is an act of love.
Two very different books, each portraits of their particular place, have come across my desk recently: Rainshadow World, A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands, by Susan Vernon, and Urban Dwellings, A Cincinnati Love Story, by Katherine Durack.
In Rainshadow World, Susan Vernon draws on years of observation and a finely-tuned sense of wonder to evoke the edge where the Pacific Ocean slaps up against the rocky archipelago of islands that dot the straits between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Washington State. These hilly bumps of land, worn by glaciers, weather, and time, hold an incredible array of life, from stately Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees, their lichen-clad branches cradling nests of bald eagles, to lithe sea otters and vivid blue camas, along with gumboot chitons, periwinkles, and startlingly green sea lettuce offshore.
Vernon’s short essays on the mostly-wild life of these unique islands are arranged over a calendar year, beginning with “Walking in the Woods” in January and ending with “Winter Solstice” in December. Each piece chronicles an expedition to meadow, forest, or shore, with vivid details on what she sees, hears, and learns along the way.
On a warm day in May not long ago, I took a walk along an upland trail at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories. … I stopped to look at a broad-leaved starflower that cast a tiny shadow under a towering fir, then watched a spring azure flutter by and land in the camas, promptly folding its wings and disappearing into the rich hues of the plant’s blue flowers. A bald eagle made slow measured turns high above the madrones, western red cedars, and Douglas firs anchored in the bedrock. … At Beaverton Cove, a sleek river otter came ashore and lumbered off through the understory of salal, western sword fern, and Oregon grape.
Whether or not you know the San Juan Islands, this book is worth the read as an example of the treasures yielded by paying focused attention to a particular place, and taking note of the inhabitants and changes over time. (See my full review of Rainshadow World at Story Circle Book Reviews.)
Katherine Durack’s Urban Dwellings began as an occasional series of essays for Cincinnati Public Radio on the stories she discovered behind bricked-up windows, hidden in private gardens, and through encounters with other residents in her downtown neighborhood. When Durack and her husband, avowed suburbanites, moved to the city “as an experiment,” they had no idea of what they would find, or how entranced they would become. As she writes in “From the Suburbs to the City,” the first essay in this slim volume:
It was the promise of park views that attracted us to the apartment building in which we live. That, and square footage. While we had downsized significantly during our moves from state to state and from suburbs to the city, we still had more stuff than would fit into most of the apartments that were available downtown. We simply rented the first affordable place that would accommodate our too-large furnishings and our too-numerous possessions: a corner unit on the rear of the building. It wasn’t long before we discovered the unexpected pleasures of living above an alley and a parking lot.
These brief essays celebrate “the joy and richness” of the community they found. There’s the story behind the legend that Henry Ford built his first assembly line in Cincinnati before moving on to Detroit; the parade celebrating opening day of baseball season, complete with bagpipers playing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and a precision lawn-mower troupe; the tale of the Cincinnati premiere of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” deliberately scheduled at tax time; the street-person sewing who reminds Durack of her mother and aunt, only this seamstress is seated “on the edge of a planter on this city street corner, the sunshine her sewing lamp, the city street her sewing room.”
These two books remind me of the words of writer Wallace Stegner: “No place is a place until it has a poet.” To be poets of our place, Vernon and Durack seem to say in these two very different approaches to portraying the places they love, requires time and a sense of wonder—and an open heart.