A sense of place is becoming increasingly important in today’s fast moving and disjointed society. To feel that we belong in a certain locality, where we have memories – perhaps some early ones – gives us that vital feeling of ‘rooted-ness’, of being part of something that has long preceded us and will endure long after us. Many great writers have evoked a spirit of place in their works. The American poet, Walt Whitman, often introduced city scenes, particularly of New York, into his free verse poetry.
“Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.
It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemm’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.” (‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry’)
Whitman dissolves boundaries between present and future, to the point where he reaches out to the people who will follow him, as if to join his experience to theirs. His powerful and direct engagement with place is somehow removed from ordinary time: he almost invites the future in to share the scene with him. A very commonplace, everyday scene now appears to be connected to some larger human purpose.
In a very different piece of writing, Richard Jefferies describes the kitchen of an ancient farmhouse (one very familiar to him that he has populated with fictional characters) with a strong emphasis on continuity from the past. The kitchen has been part of the life there for hundreds of years, but everything old in it still has a use in the present.
“In the kitchen at Lucketts’ Place there was a stool made by sawing off about six inches of the butt of a small ash tree. The bark remained on, and it was not smoothed or trimmed in any way. This mere log was Cicely Luckett’s favourite seat as a girl; she was Hilary’s only daughter. The kitchen had perhaps originally been the house, the rest having been added to it in the course of years as the mode of life changed and increasing civilisation demanded more convenience and comfort. The walls were quite four feet thick, and the one small lattice-window in its deep recess scarcely let in sufficient light, even on a summer’s day, to dispel the gloom, except at one particular time.
The little panes, yellow and green, were but just above the ground, looking out upon the road into the rickyard, so that the birds which came searching along among the grasses and pieces of wood thrown carelessly aside against the wall could see into the room. Robins, of course, came every morning, perching on the sill and peering in with the head held on one side. Blackbird and thrush came, but always passed the window itself quickly, though they stayed without fear within a few inches of it on either hand.
There was an old oak table in the centre of the room—a table so solid that young Aaron, the strong labourer, could only move it with difficulty. There was no ceiling properly speaking, the boards of the floor above and a thick beam which upheld it being only whitewashed; and much of that had scaled off. An oaken door led down a few steps into the cellar, and over both cellar and kitchen there sloped a long roof, thatched, whose eaves were but just above the ground.
Now, when there was no one in the kitchen, as in the afternoon, when even the indoor servants had gone out to help in the hayfield, little Cicely used to come in here and sit dreaming on the ash log by the hearth. The rude stool was always placed inside the fireplace, which was very broad for burning wood, faggots and split pieces of timber. Bending over the grey ashes, she could see right up the great broad tunnel of the chimney to the blue sky above, which seemed the more deeply azure, as it does from the bottom of a well. In the evenings when she looked up she sometimes saw a star shining above. In the early mornings of the spring, as she came rushing down to breakfast, the tiny yellow panes of the window which faced the east were all lit up and rosy with the rays of the rising sun.
The beautiful light came through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down, and then for the first hour of the day the room was aglow. For quite two hundred years every visible sunrise had shone in at that window more or less, as the season changed and the sun rose to the north of east. Perhaps it was that sense of ancient homeliness that caused Cicely, without knowing why, to steal in there alone to dream, for nowhere else indoors could she have been so far away from the world of to-day.” (‘Round About a Great Estate’)
Past and present are beautifully interwoven and there is also intimacy between the human world and nature. The sun and the stars feel like regular guests that appear through the small apertures of window pane and chimney. The light doesn’t simply emerge from millions of miles of vacant space: it comes ‘through the elms of the rickyard, away from the ridge of the distant Down’. Everything is joined. Sun and stars are part of the place as well, and the farmhouse is thus part of the universe. While Whitman is exuberant, propelling his love of the river and the teeming crowds far into the future, Jefferies, in quieter, more introspective language, guides the reader into the larger and deeper reality to which the rustic old kitchen belongs. What connects these two pieces of writing, I think, is their ability to show the scenes described as repeating patterns, not as one-off snapshots of random groups of people and objects. Whitman repeats words (‘others’ and ‘just as’) at the start of lines and Jefferies reminds us of the 200 years of sunrises. Everything in the scene is meant to be there, and needs to be there.
Places develop a dynamic reality when we encounter in them more than a simple reflection of our own times. Real literature of place conveys a continuity, a timelessness, a pattern, a sense of meaningful repetition. Great writers can bring these subtle possibilities to life because they perceive place as a whole. Jefferies and Whitman made their scenes part of the fabric of their lives. They were themselves spirits of place.