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Mapping the Country

Wallace Stegner believed that writing from and about the American West was ignored, and as he became known throughout his home region, he chafed against being considered regional—when considered at all—by the East. I remember watching a television interview with Stegner in which he mentioned that something he had written had not been reviewed or recognized properly.

“Because it’s provincial?” the interviewer asked.

Stegner just stared at the poor man as the silence swallowed him.

“No,” Stegner finally replied. “Because the critics are provincial.”

His point was simple. There is danger in writing about your particular place, if your particular place is not Manhattan or one of the outlying provinces currently in favor with Manhattan. It was the New York critics who were the regionalists, and their region was a tiny crowded island.

This is a lament still heard, sung in a bitter warble, from the mouths of writers from the Midwest, the South, the West, even New England. How true is it, or if true once, how true does it remain in our supposedly decentralized age? It is not a question I can untangle, certainly not in this short space. It remains a fact that despite the proliferation of small presses, those brave microbreweries of publishing, and the blogification of reviewing, it still takes less than a day’s hike to cover the city blocks that form the territory of many of the largest publishers and most influential magazines. Does this geographic proximity influence what they review and publish? It would be hard for someone who edits a magazine called Ecotone to say otherwise. On the other hand, some of our very best regional writing comes to us pumped through the pipes of Manhattan.

In my particular field of nature writing the word regional has traveled a long road, from a pejorative to a high compliment to its now-more-confused place somewhere in between. When a genre basically begins with some guy extolling the virtues of his backyard in Concord, it is by definition regional, and regional it has remained. Wallace Stegner might not have liked being considered regional, but his region deeply concerned him, and the writers who followed him, in the sixties and seventies and spilling into the eighties, brought forth a virtual celebration of home regions—from Gary Snyder in northern California to Terry Tempest Williams in Utah to Wendell Berry in Kentucky to a hundred others. Scott Russell Sanders, who celebrated his own homeground in his essay collection Staying Put, also celebrated those “tough-minded” writers throughout the country who became “cartographers” of their own backyards, neighborhoods and watersheds. He writes:

As we walk our own ground, on foot or in mind, we need to be able to recite stories about hills and trees and animals, stories that root us in this place and that keep it alive. . . . We cannot create myths from scratch, but we can recover or fashion stories that will help us to see where we are, how others have lived here, how we ourselves should live.

This stirs me, and I bet it stirs you a little too. It is, in effect, the distilled rallying cry of a generation or two of so-called nature writers who judo-flipped the insult of “regional” and then made it into a badge of pride. It is also a notion that—with some hedging that I will get into below—I have staked my life on. The need to know the birds, plants, people, paths, trees, parks, coffee shops, bars, and creeks where we live. To know our places. To tell the stories of our places.

The author's neighborhood on Cape Cod
A map of my neighborhood on Cape Cod, from the frontispiece of my first book, A Wild, Rank Place.

My own commitment to place may at first glance look less pure than those that Sanders describes. I have spent many years living in New England, many more in the South, with seven or so years out west thrown in. In this way I am the antithesis of Sanders’s burrower—a migrant, a mover, a polygamist of place. Which means that my profile fits that of a lot of my fellow citizens of this restless country. And which leads to the question: can I, and other migrants like me, create a non­native lore for our own territory, our own watersheds, our own neighborhoods?

The answer, I think, is yes. I’ve come to believe that moving once in a while does not disqualify one from being the kind of cartographer that Sanders extolls. In fact, the art of celebrating regions, not a region, has an even more obvious lineage than that of the literary homeboys­—for every Thoreau a Whitman or Muir; for every Snyder, a Kerouac. While the knock on those who come blousing through town is that they can’t know it as well as those who root down there, you could say that there is something positively American about celebrating regions while on the move. This is a country that was virtually founded on the premise of the road trip, after all, though those first road trips were in covered wagons and on trains and horses.

Last month I finished a novel that I have been working on, off and on, for the last thirty-five years. One of the characters, Stefan Ernst, spends some time each day mapping the same small patch of land, made up of dunes, scrub oaks, a kettle pond and a few fruit trees. What he ends up really mapping are the daily changes, which translate over time into the seasonal and annual and even decadal changes, the phenology of the place. You can flip through these maps like cartoon animation and see birds migrate and trees flower and dunes erode.

A map of my stomping grounds in Colorado, from my second book, Under the Devil’s Thumb.

I long dreamed of knowing a place the way my character Stefan does, but that was not my fate. It turns out, however, that the trade-off has not been so bad. Instead of place I got places; instead of a map I got maps. A few years ago my family and I almost moved to the Midwest, and though I don’t regret the choice not to move in most respects, I do in one way. It would have been nice to have a deeper knowledge of living in the middle of the country, the kind I’ve gradually gained from living on the southern coast, the Northeast, the foothills of the Rockies.

I concede that my own knowledge can never be as deep as that of a true local, at least a true local with eyes and ears and nose and mind attuned to the nuances of their home. But I have been happily surprised how deep one can go, despite this handicap. And at the same time I see an advantage of perspective in being able to compare the dry Colorado trails to the sandy soil of Cape Cod to the humid landscape where I now live, in comparing a Steller’s jay to a blue, an eastern or southern red cedar to a twisting desert juniper. If these were just items to tick off on a list that would be one thing. They are more than that, however. They come not from some sort of strained encyclopedic knowledge, but from having fallen in love with a few places over the course of a lifetime, places that, as it happens, are in some cases a thousand or so miles apart. I can picture these places as if they are right down the figurative street from each other, the rocky bluff on Cape Cod Bay, the place on the mesa trail where I could look east toward the plains or west toward the true Rockies, the giant piece of driftwood we call the dinosaur bone where I can sit and stare at the Cape Fear River. Not regions, but places. All one, all connected. And more and more I see connections: when I look at the homes being rebuilt after hurricanes on the Outer Banks, I see also homes being rebuilt after the fires in the Colorado foothills. Less profoundly, and more personally, I have delighted in small, sometimes coincidental, connections between the places I love, as when I recently learned, while researching a new historical novel, that the rocky beach I have known all my life was once called the Devil’s Beach—a perfect match with the Devil’s Thumb, the rock whose shadow I lived under out west.

A map of my journey down the coast, from my book about osprey migration, Soaring with Fidel.

I can never ascend to the level of Sanders’s mystical cartographer, but wherever I have gone I have drawn maps. I’ve included here the maps I made for my first two books, one about my love of Cape Cod, mostly written in Colorado, and the next about my love of Colorado, revised on Cape Cod. The third map is something different. It is a map of migration, specifically of the fall migration of ospreys that nest in the Northeast. It was while following that migration that I began to see that, while I love Sanders’s idea of rooting down and staying put, I love more the idea of connecting the places that matter to me. In the case of the birds it means their key stopover points as they make their way down the coast from the cold north to the Outer Banks to the tip of Florida and on to Cuba and South America. In my case it means the places that are always with me: Cape Cod Bay, the Colorado Foothills, the urban wilderness of the Charles River, and now, more and more, the creek I live on in North Carolina. Places that, taken together, create a larger map, not just of an individual place, but of my life.