Stories of place

Many of the stories we tell are stories about places. Sure, they’re stories about courage or sorrow or fun or work, but those circumstances usually occur in a distinctive place and well-told stories illuminate those places.

I’ve read a number of fascinating books this year that use place as main characters, and today I’m sharing a little bit of my own attempt of telling a story about a place.

Example No. 1 comes from a historical story about constructing a train to Key West, Florida:

“It’s an osprey’s-eye view here at Mile Marker 84, out over the patchwork-colored seas. Splashes of cobalt, turquoise, amber, beige, and gray alternate, then fall away to deeper blue and steel, and off toward a pale horizon where sky and water meet at a juncture that’s almost seamless on the brightest days. The variations of color have to do with the time of day, the cloud configuration, the nature of the sand or grass on the sea bottom, and the shifting depths of the water itself surrounding the Keys, which can range from a few inches to a few feet, and then plunge several fathoms and back again in an eye-blink.”

~ Les Standiford in Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean

Example No. 2 comes from a memoir set (mostly) in Kansas. The author’s descriptions of the state disabused me of my assumptions that Kansas was flat and boring (an opinion I have of North Dakota, mostly because I spent so much of my childhood viewing the landscape from the back seat of the car my parents drove from our house in Minnesota to my grandfather’s house in western North Dakota):

“Halfway between Denver and the Kansas border, I could still see the snow cap of Pike’s Peak hovering ghostlike in my side mirror. Otherwise, nothing but smooth grasslands defined the circular horizon. The land lifted and fell gently, meandering along dry streambeds. Two pearlescent cloud wings stretched toward us from our destination, where morning rimmed the earth in turquoise.”

~Julene Bair in The Ogallala Road: A Memoir of Love and Reckoning

Example No. 3 comes from the memoir I’m currently reading (and very sad to see coming to an end). Apparently, everyone in the world but me has read this one (seeing as it was in Oprah’s book club and made into a movie with Reese Witherspoon before I got to it). Better late than never, I love the author’s descriptions of her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail:

“Somber and elated, I walked in the cool air, the sun glimmering through the trees, bright against the snow, even though I had my sunglasses on. As omnipresent as the snow was, I also sensed its waning, melting imperceptibly by the minute all around me. It seemed as alive in its dying as a hive of bees was in its life. Sometimes I passed places where I heard a gurgling, as if a stream ran beneath the snow, impossible to see. Other times it fell in great wet heaps from the branches of trees.”

~ Cheryl Strayed in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail

Example No. 4: I attempted to use place as a character in my own memoir:

“While tulips bloom and snow is rare in other places in March, it’s just another month of winter in central Minnesota. Even for Minnesota, March 2002 was unseasonably cold and snowy. More than 3 inches of snow fell the weekend before Steve’s trial, muffling everything outside the house. … The landscape was dirty white as Steve and I drove in relative silence down Highway 10 to the well-appointed courthouse in Elk River.”

~ Monica Lee in The Percussionist’s Wife: A Memoir of Sex, Crime & Betrayal

So with those magnificent works (or at least the first three) as my inspiration, I’ve been turning over in my mind how to describe my hometown in north Central Minnesota in a compelling way. Here’s a start:

Wadena was a farm town that grew up at the intersection of Highways 10 and 71, roads which barely supported two lanes of traffic let alone four. It was, quite literally, set in the neck of the woods, straddling Minnesota’s three ecoregions: a tallgrass prairie to the west and south bordered a forest of pine trees to the north mingling with a forest of deciduous trees to the southeast.

Like the ecology of the town itself, the back yard of the house in the heart of Wadena where I grew up had three distinctive features: a box elder tree, a pine tree and a sprawling garden planted with neat rows of lettuce, carrots, peas and potatoes. The trees became hubs for kid activity. The knobby box elder tree was designed for climbing, and the children who lived in the house before us constructed a bench of sorts in the fork of the tree. Eventually, the bench became a tree house, an obvious shack in the naked winter but a cozy hideaway tucked among the leaves in the green summer. For me, the towering pine tree was an irritant, its boughs intruding on the sidewalk between the house and the detached garage, but for my little brother, the sandy soil shaded by pine boughs was Nirvana. He spent entire summers excavating, building and rerouting Tonka Truck roadways beneath that tree.

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