A few years back I realized that I’d crossed a boundary, and not one I’d hoped to be crossing: I had lived longer in town than in the woods. I grew up in rural South Carolina and, despite having lived most of my adult life in cities, I’d always thought of myself as a person of rural places. It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. And it had kind of sneaked up on me. While I was busy working and making music and writing poems—too busy, almost, to notice—my identity had slid cityward.
So when we decided on the theme for this issue, more than a year ago, I was thinking about the moment of panic I’d had and what I might do about it. What had I lost in letting myself live in town for so long? What of the woods was I missing? I knew it was too much ever to measure, the feeling of being held by the Southern piedmont, my home landscape—even as I knew how much I’d needed to leave the place where I grew up, and how vital it had been for me to live less alone, closer to friends.
We imagined that the Country and City Issue would make room for conversation about the places we’re from, how our identities are shaped by those places. The Ecotone team’s brief, spirited discussion about which word would come first barely hinted at the fierce feelings people have about the rural and the urban. Some of us naturally and strongly gravitated toward “city and country,” others “country and city.” (Of course you can see where we landed—woods first. But I thought I’d be a gentleman and at least record the conversation.)
We were fortunate to read a lot of fine writing for the issue, and even as I’m mindful of the many aspects of urban and rural worlds we couldn’t include here, I’m happy we’re able to offer so much thoughtful work—a map of Mystic Island, New Jersey, from Brian Hayes; a comic that shows the splendor and difficulty of lowcountry South Carolina, from Kayla E.; essays on some of my favorite subjects—postcards, walking—from Michael Martone and Lia Purpura; stories of making new lives, from Blake Sanz and Maggie Shen King; exquisite poems from Anna Maria Hong, Amit Majmudar, H. R. Webster, and many more.
In our Poem in a Landscape essay, Wayne Miller explores the relation between poetry and the city, touching on a favorite poem, Brenda Shaughnessy’s “Panopticon,” which ends,
to stay home with my own pair of binoculars, in the dark, watching whoever is watching me, watch me.
Miller writes, “One’s actions, once observed, reflect the largeness of the human matrix—that observation is a kind of acceptance into the party of human action.” In our opening story by Nathan Poole, although the action focuses on humans, the party can be seen to include creatures other than humans as well. Eva, a white woman who’s grown up in rural Georgia, watches through another set of binoculars as a young university professor moves into a house near hers. As she does, she sees where she stands—where she lives—more clearly:
All this, this bright diorama, opened up toward the innocence of the empty woods, just as her own house did, so there was no need for blinds or curtains; these lives were being shared with the woods, with the watchful things, their hearts up in their eyes, their brains in their eyes, nothing but eyes, their senses keen with curiosity, with otherness; these lives were public domain, and what was wrong with that?
That otherness, of a fellow human or a fellow creature, is familiar, a comfort. To take such comfort the way Eva does turns out to be trouble, as you might expect—unique to her place and situation, but of a kind that will be familiar to people more used to city spaces too. The conditions of seeing and being seen, and the things revealed to us in the process, may vary depending on the place. It’s one reason I seek out, and rely on, writing from all over.
But the conditions of being in company with the other—with others—are startlingly similar, wherever we find ourselves. We can only hope, those of us from the country, the city, and in between, to be startled again and again into the recognition of one another—our humanness, our creatureliness, our kindnesses and needs. The best chance for it, I think, is through this kind of talking, or writing, and listening, or reading. Such acts are a stay against meanness and misunderstanding. Are a little brightness.
We begin this issue with one of them—a poem from the great Gwendolyn Brooks. I’ve been thankful to find spots like it this fall, in there along with the too-ugly and the too-familiar—efforts to say what’s hard to say about where we’re from, how we live and hope to live; newly enlivened efforts to give genuine attention to what others are saying.
Maybe hearing the meanness get louder calls more brightness up. Sends us looking for it, in ourselves and in the work of other writers and artists. That’s a hope I’m holding onto, anyway. I think the work in this issue supports the notion.