Every day, one of our department’s staff, Sharon Johnson, sorts our mail. At her request, I return the stack of empty envelopes to her desk. She turns away from her computer to flip through the pile—"Look at this. Alfred Hitchcock on a stamp! Haven’t seen that one yet. Where did it come from?"
Of course, stamps are known to please, but Sharon’s fascination goes farther. She collects the white, metered stickers stuck there by the postmaster in place of a stamp. No colors, no pictures, no scalloped edges. So, why these? Because, Sharon explains, they show exactly where the mail came from. "Sometimes, you’ll get obscure towns you’ve never heard of," she says. "Addison, Texas. Bucksport, Maine. Russellville, Arkansas," she reads off the labels. A closet geographer, Sharon examines the tiny writing on the wall, delights in the discovery of unknown locales, and keeps the labels as reminders of somewhere. "I always look for new places," she says.
So do we. And as places seem to be getting more and more homogenous, we think it’s a noble, important quest. The post office, at least, leaves you (and your mail) in a specific place.
To honor the uniqueness of place we think we should do more of what Sharon does: look at what seems generic and take note. Because at the bottom of it all, where we are (exactly) does matter. The hard part is figuring out just where that is and why it’s so special.
What might help, as William Least Heat-Moon here, is changing our route, even our mode of transport, to find a new perspective. Or maybe we need to bring geography more fully into our lives—as Franco Moretti does when he creates an atlas of literature. By placing the settings of novels on a map, he uncovers relationships previously unnoticed. For the literary critic, Moretti argues, this is invaluable. And for the rest of us?
Could it be that the basic tools of geography—exploration, observation, documentation—might enable the discovery of other hidden relationships, ones that would allow us to value what is important and interesting about any place? We think so. And the good thing is that these tools are also those of the poet, the artist, and the scientist.
For the poet’s verse is as much about space, imagery, and discovery as the cartographer’s map. This, at least, seems apparent from Patricia Ranzoni’s glimpse at the docks of coastal Maine, from G. Timothy Gordon’s lessons in the larger-than-life western states, and from Kimball McKay-Brook’s keen bird’s-eye view of the land below.
As well, the artist must seek out new territory (or freshly interpret the familiar) and pay attention to detail in order to create something. Photographer Kristin Giordano finds a stillness as well as a human presence in her photographs of empty places. Her own method—to let a place reveal itself—is sound advice for us all. We have to be willing to wait and watch.
Celebrating the idiosyncrasies, the peculiarities, the singularities of different places requires patience. In David Yetman’s field, patience is recorded in the height of a tree-turned-timeline and by those who have for decades sought its fruit and shade. And today, that patience is tested by the forces that push small, isolated places into the "global system," where life hurries along and exact location seems to matter less and less.
Those of us who venerate the character of place will have to slow things down and watch out for glib sales pitches. If David Prytherch’s essay about the "un-city" is any indication of a larger trend, we should certainly know how to read landscapes for ourselves. By doing so, we might better recognize the complexities of the relationships between our surroundings and ourselves.
Such relationships will never bore us. They are why we delight in the tale of how a boy from Malaysia remembers a river and why we are intrigued by the account of how the flat, prairie horizon once drove homesteaders mad.
If we learn to take note, we might see that place helps shape the basic text of our individual stories. After all, no two people share the exact same geography. We’ve lived in different spaces, traveled different miles, and experienced landscapes differently. Hopefully, this issue of you are here will serve as a reminder of that—just as the objects in Richard Robbins’ poem serve to invoke the past for those rapidly forgetting it.
At the very least, we hope the contributions in the pages that follow speak to a growing sense of desire to remember and record the distinction between here and there. Cheers to Sharon for reading the fine print, the where on the stickers that most of us overlook and discard.
In you are here we’ll do our best to take up the slack, though. Because not every place has a post office.
© 2009 you are here and the department of geography and regional development at the university of arizona