The introduction to W. Scott Olsen’s 2003 essay collection Gravity begins this way: “Imagine northern Minnesota, late summer, late at night. Highway 200 between Floodwood and Jacobson is a dark path of broken asphalt lit by a waxing moon.”
I don’t have to imagine it. I know that road.
Or John Keeble’s short story “The Chasm”: “In winter the glazed bunchgrass and wild oats tuft the sides and edges of the fields. In spring the exhausted grass will be there still, a blond whiskering to the green. Through summer the dry stalks of last year’s grass memorialize winter, the pale of the dead fringing the alive in this place that has become Jim Blood’s country. In the heat of summer, it takes a powerful leap of imagination to remember the snow that covered the fields. Usually, the winters in eastern Washington are kind enough, but not too many years ago the cold came early.”
I know what that looks like too.
One of the things I'm interested in these days, both as a writer and a reader, is the juxtaposition of reading a book in its setting. What happens when you read William Kent Krueger up on the Minnesotan Iron Range? What happens when you read Bill Holm in Iceland, Gretel Ehrlich in Wyoming, Bruce Chatwin in Australia?
Kathleen Norris in South Dakota, Debra Marquart in North Dakota.
I know some of these places because I’ve been there. Some of these places I’ve been long enough to change my address labels. I know what the land looks like. I know what the air smells like, I know what the grass feels like. I know the angle of sunlight and how it differs from the other places I know. In 2005, I sat on the bare expanses of Inis Mór bedrock with Tim Robinson’s Labyrinth in hand and realized that there’s something wonderfully seductive in reading a book in its setting. It’s one of the most intimate experiences a person can have with a place and a book. There must be something here, something special. Somebody picked up on it once, put it to paper, and here you are, sitting in this same space. Maybe you feel it right away, maybe you don’t. But the fact remains that there is something here that inspired great words and you’re right there. What will you pick up from those pages that can’t be discerned when away from the original inspiration?
Faulkner in Oxford, Hawthorne in Salem, Longfellow in Nova Scotia.
I remember when we'd pack up the Blazer (or in later years, the Suburban) for our trips to California or elsewhere, Mom would help us pack a monster box full of books. I'd go through them at least twice before we got home. Of course, this was in the days, the Dark Ages, before kids got their own portable DVD players and iPods. We had two tape players to share between the three of us--and you can probably surmise how well that went over. We were readers, raised to be readers. Even now, I'm grateful for it. Of course, there's a lot of territory we covered that I have no memory of, because my nose was buried in a book, but better that than lost in a movie. Nancy Drew, after all, was responsible for me winning the spelling bee in sixth grade, with "espionage."
I remember sitting around an unlit campfire in the afternoons on our camping trips when my sisters and I had already explored the campground playgrounds and designed obstacle courses for each other (which would turn into timed races), played in the pools if it was hot enough, or finished putzing around the camper itself. It was usually in that space between play and dinner, when it was just a good time to read. Our parents would be reading Louis L’Amour—the only books they both liked, so that cut down on half of the books they needed to bring—and we’d read whatever we’d taken from the box (and I never considered until now what it was like to read L'Amour while in the West). The chairs were not particularly comfortable. And so when the time came for me to consider my own camping chair—in which I expected to spend considerable time reading—I knew there had to be something better. I found it at Gander Mountain, one of those stupendous zero-gravity chairs and if you haven't sat in one of these, it will be impossible to convey in words how amazing this chair is. You might think that "zero gravity" is a trick of advertising, but it's not. Gravity flees at the sight of it. It’s magical. Really.
Eiseley in Nebraska, Kittredge in Montana.
It's obvious that there is something in these places that inspires the writer to write, something that is so compelling that the words can't stay inside. Something important that they feel absolutely driven to put to the page. But while this relationship between writer and place and reader may be very successful when read away from the original setting, what happens when gravity brings the reader closer to the original place? What will the reader internalize that couldn't be found when reading anywhere else?
What is the effect of that gravity when one is reading in a gravity-free chair, next to a fire that is burning down to coals for dinner, surrounded by wind that blows conversations from neighboring campsites into pieces too small to hear, when a connection is deep enough that even the laws of nature are unsure of how to react?