Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A stretch of river XXVIII: "Geography Songs;" or, "Nothing that is not there/And the nothing that is."

I have been thinking about the notion of place, especially as it pertains to the blogosphere. It's a weird idea. I mean, once I get past this blog's dumb joke of a title and consider it (the title) seriously, I'm a bit stumped when I ask myself where/what exactly this "Meridian" I speak of is located/locating. There's also the notion that this blog has no physical existence to speak of; it's "held," I guess, in one of Blogger.com's servers, but it'll be "held" only so long as Blogger pays the electricity bill or the server doesn't crash or Blogger doesn't decide it's an affront to humanity.

What complicates my thinking, at least, about this is that I don't think we're all that good, still, at thinking about the notion of place in the physical world.

An easy example of what I mean is this ongoing "Stretch of River" posts. I don't know what you assume about their origins, but those of you who have read them know that the conceit, at least, is that they have as their starting point my twice-daily walks with my dog Scruffy along both sides of a half-mile stretch of the Little Arkansas River in downtown Wichita which passes close to where I live. This is a physical place. Sometimes I write about the place and things and people I see there. But sometimes not. In those latter instances, the physical space becomes less something to be described and more like a blank slate--or, more appropriately for this particular medium, an empty text box with a blinking cursor in it. I don't think I do the materiality of that space any injustice when that happens any more than Thoreau does when he turns his soundings of Walden Pond into an elaborate, book-length analogy of his self-soundings for "the essential facts of life" along Walden Pond's shore. (And that, by the way, is the point where any similarity between Thoreau and me ends.) Even so, what happens in such moments to the river is that it becomes subsumed by an agenda that has used it as a starting place but ultimately has nothing to do with it. I look into its waters and I see Me; I don't see it. Even Thoreau has to ask of the pond as he gazes into it, at least on occasion, "Walden, is it you?"

You'd think that cities that are almost 300 years old would have had all this sense-of-place stuff worked out, but perhaps age complicates matters. Consider the case of Galveston, one of my favorite places, and its recent hiring of a consulting firm to seek out advice for how to polish its image. Galveston, you see, has the misfortune of being located at a spot on the Gulf of Mexico where the currents carry natural and not-so-natural flotsam and jetsam of all sorts onto the island, thus making its seawater and beaches the dirtiest in the state. Needless to say, according to the consulting firm, people don't go to Galveston for its refined-sugar sands. Jimmy Webb's "geography song" "Galveston," you'll notice, has Glen Campbell sing about the beach where we used to run without getting us to, you know, actually see it; we're more worried about those seagulls flying in the sun (pooping hazards, they are).

Well, then: let's see how the firm's recommendations are playing among the locals:

Promoters are eager to exploit the town's magnificent architecture and often tragic history to lure tourists, but they are far less keen about other North Star recommendations.

The firm had recommended taking part "in a big way" in the national "Talk Like A Pirate Day" on September 19, an idea at which locals and tourists alike scoffed.
Jean Lafitte used to hang out there, true, and pirates are trendy these days; but, as fun as September 19th is, that sort of frivolity just isn't "Galveston." Whatever its identity problems might be, it at least knows what it is not. What it is, is the sort of place where, even if you're just driving down from Houston to relax for the day and eat some good seafood (the demographic of an astounding 70% of Galveston's visitors), you'll end up learning something . . . and more often than not, what you end up learning is that it has, historically-speaking, sucked to be Galveston. The island's first known European visitor, Cabeza de Vaca, neither arrived nor stayed there by choice and so had his own reasons for naming it La Isla del Malhado ("Isle of Ill-Fortune"), but it'd be hard to argue with its continuing aptness. But how appealing would be a truth-in-advertising tourism slogan like, "Galveston: Like Cabeza de Vaca, you'll have a hell of a time!"?

Well: enough of that. On now to what really started my thinking this morning as Scruffy and I walked along the river.

Not too long ago, I discovered and immediately linked to a relatively new blog, A Lake County Point of View. The proprietor of that POV, an ex-patriate Texan named Hank, is possessed of an intellectual curiosity that simply will not rest until it gets to the figurative as well as literal roots of things. This means, more often than not, a considerable investment of time on his reader's part: Hank is no hurry because he knows that the things of which he writes have taken centuries to reach the state that they're presently in; moreover, it's clear, he himself has invested considerable time in seeking out what he shares with his readers. So neither should you be in a hurry as you read him. But reading him repays in ways that I can only dream about.

As his blog makes clear, Hank's attention is drawn in particular to things of and in the earth: gardening, dogs, horses, birds, and wood, especially old, worked wood. Sailing is about the most-advanced technology he writes about at length. Whether or not he's conscious of it, he's using a decidedly postmodern technology to repair something the modern era began doing and postmodernism finished: the broken connection between human beings and the physical world. Like every other native Texan of a certain age that I know (he and I, if I had to guess, are within about 10 years of each other), Hank intuitively understands that "land" is something bigger and grander, something more essential to identity, than "property" can ever be.

Here is what this remarkable man has to say about place, as least as regards his blog's title:
There are twelve Lake Counties in the United States. They are all over. I'm sure they are all different. I'm sure each is unique in attitude and personality. But I'd bet they all share a few commonalities too. I live in one of them and it doesn't matter which. It is Lake County. You know what it is. And that's where I am.
You may not know where he lives, but you know exactly where he's coming from.

Imagine my initial dismay, then, when I visited Hank's blog yesterday morning and found a post called "Leaving Lake County." As it turned out, he meant the place . . . but the blog is so obviously, to his mind, an outgrowth of that place that he wonders:
I hope it will not be too fraudulent to continue the Lake County nomenclature. I mean, who really cares? Right?
Good question. I myself have wondered what will happen to my blog's "Stretch of River" posts when I eventually move away from here. Will the string end, or will the inarguable fact that Scruffy requires walking lead me to find another Stretch of something?

Anyway. The number and nature of the comments in Hank's post compelled him to write a response which consists, mostly, of amazingly generous tributes to those who responded to the previous post, along with some footnotes and footnotes-within-footnotes well worth getting lost in. Close to the end, though, he says something both funny and revealing:
I was actually thinking of toning this blog down a bit... writing less.

But words like [those of my readers] make me want to actually work more diligently at this... like maybe... uh... I'll start... uh... doing something... uh... different... somehow. Like maybe, I'll shave before I post. Something like that.

Or maybe I could work at learning more stuff... which would be, well, harder than just shaving or something. I'll do it. Somehow. (Hank's ellipses and italics)
Galveston has an undeniable is-ness to it that resists the projections of those who would want to make it Trendy and Hip and Now; but Hank realizes (unless I'm misreading him) that something of his blog's essence is constituted by what his readers respond to. A blog and its readership is less a place than a community and as such is shaped by its visitors and commenters--if, of course, the blogger takes postive note of them. I know that in the case of good old Blog Meridian, it is at its best when not self-indulgent but is in some way responsive to what readers say they like without, on the other hand, pandering to them.

And now you know the chief reason why there are, thus far, only 28 Stretch of River posts: sometimes, there is just no there there.

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debra said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this. I also just found Hank's site (via your Technorati Favorites widget, actually) and so this was especially meaningful.

I don't say it often enough but thank you. Thank you for your observations and for being able to put into writing what I feel but have not mastered a way to express.

John B. said...

Thank you for your kind words.

R. Sherman said...

And now you know the chief reason why there are, thus far, only 28 Stretch of River posts: sometimes, there is just no there there.

Oh, yes there is.

Too much here to discuss in detail, but I like the discussion of the blogosphere "Place" as a "community."

I've thought often of a sense of place inasmuch as I am currently typing about ten miles from where my initial ancestor to this country wound up. I think "southern" oriented people have a better connection to a place than others. I'm not being critical, but I think that's true. Like the citizens of Galveston, we know who we are and where we come from and we don't try to be anything else just to fit in.

I'm rambling now and need to think some more about this.


Winston said...

Well written and thought provoking post! I think of the "blogosphere", not as a place, not really as a community - though it has some of those attirbutes, but as a loose, unbounded connectedness. There are no rules. There is no governing hierarchy, or any other kind of hierarchy. Threre are no requirements, no rewards, no penalties, other than what our individual needs and activities might be.

For all those reasons, our connectedness is unlike anything that has ever been.

I started this with an entirely different thought, but wound up here. Oh, well, that's one more element of this activity that is different. Now I need to go check out Hank and Lake County.

The County Clerk said...

Most thought provoking.

Well done (as usual).

I like what Winston (above) had to say about connectedness.

I'll have to reread this a couple of times. There's a good bit here.

Have a happy holiday.


Camille said...

I have one word: geopiety.

We don't love places because they are hip, but they might be beautiful. We don't love places because of their convenience. We might love a place because it was the first place we opened our eyes and realized we were somewhere. When we finally realizes there was an inside me/outside me dichotomy. Places only truly exist somewhere in the gray matter between our ears, in our memories, our associations, in remembered smells, or sounds, even in the scars places leave on our skins. So places are as much a part of our bodies as our blood, or our organs. As for blogs, they exist in our minds, the flux in a delicate congress that connects my thoughts to yours.