ver a three year period, I left home numerous times to go some place unfamiliar. Some journeys took me more than a thousand miles, some just a few hours. But all were forays into the unknown. As a writer, I was looking for the freshness of seeing things in a new way. As a middle-aged woman, I was looking for a sense of self outside of my roles as mother, wife, daughter, and teacher. At times I didn’t know what I was looking for, and at times I was a pilgrim on a quest. On all my journeys I was looking for borderlines, most particularly the border that earthwork artist Robert Smithson called the “slurb”—the border between the suburban and the wild.
I grew up in northern New Jersey. (Interestingly, so did Smithson). As a child, I lay in bed late at night reading about the archeology of Troy, the Maya’s sacrificial well. Surely something lay beneath my suburban existence. I just couldn’t find it. Digging a garden, we turned up a broken Dutch tile edged in pale green. I was as excited as if we’d found a Viking burial. Throughout my life, and in many ways, I continued to look for what was buried.
Seven Places in America really began with my relationship to the National Parks. When I was almost twelve, my family took a vacation by train to the Grand Canyon. What I saw completely changed my New Jersey eyes. For many years I visited the parks, and wrote in them. This process became formal with a residency at Everglades National Park and continued with the Petrified Forest. The Everglades was itself a series of boundary lines. My private theme for being there was how one kind of space turned to another, water to land, agriculture to everglade. National Parks tell the visitor where— and how—to look. They direct our attention to marvels, but my process was also to look in nooks and crannies, off the beaten path, at destruction as well as beauty. In the Petrified Forest time was a concrete thing. Erosion showed geologic time as clearly as a wall calendar. But space and time do meet. The geographer YiFu Tuan notes that space has a temporal meaning and that time is also a measure of distance. In this intersection, I wrote my poems.
Two of the places were art sites—The Land in Mountainair, New Mexico and Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York. Both pieces of land were beautiful but essentially ordinary—except for the fact that so much attention had been paid to their topography and meaning by so many artists. Both places felt saturated by vision. The land had been marked, changed, and interpreted, by other people. Working on these sites was like walking into a collective dream. Robert Smithson said “the physical site is a destination…a ‘tour’; recalled through snapshots and travelogues.” By definition I was a tourist in these new places where my residence was brief and temporary. And my souvenirs were words.
My project had two sites that I thought of as lines—and interestingly both involved rivers. One was the Santa Fe River, just a few blocks from my house, and one was the line of archeological sites of the civilizations that built the mounds along the Ohio and Mississippi. These were the more personal sites for me—I had determined them and although both sparked plenty of interest I wasn’t a designated writerinresidence at either. Both close to home and far away, these were more places to wander through than to live.
The last place of the project was the Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. By seeming coincidence, it combined many aspects of the other places. It was a designated place with a purpose, like the national parks. It even had three reflection spots for each writerinresidence to write about. These long term ecological reflection spots, like the art sites, were repositories of multiple visions. And like the rivers, Andrews was a place about watersheds, a small place in the larger context of ecosystem. I went to Andrews innocently. Unlike my other forays I had little idea or theme when I went. I had done no reading, or research. It was late autumn, cool, rainy, dark. If the forest had an unconscious mind, I had fallen into it, or perhaps into my own. When I woke up I realized that I had been working on a book all along. And that I had only understood this once the book was done.
“Solitude is a condition for acquiring a sense of immensity” writes YiFu Tuan. My longest residency was two weeks, not a long time by the standards of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, or by May Sarton’s Journal of A Solitude. However, In my own life, two weeks felt substantial and lavish.