The Architecture of Place

The sun casts a loving glance over the trees in the back yard. I stand with my coffee, caught for a moment in time and place. My neighbor is moving today after more than 50 years. I imagine him looking at his yard a final time–where he gardened, where his children played, where his wife hung the laundry in the sweet breeze. Place. It’s who we are, where we’re from, what we are in this house of self.

From as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by place. What is it? The place we were born, the place we visited, the place we dream about. Robert Frost had his farm in Derry, New Hampshire, William Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha County, Marjory Rawlings had her Cross Creek — places that served as muse, that nurtured and inspired them. But place belongs to us all; it’s part of the house of being in this world.

When I was a child of four or five, I watched the movie Green Grass of Wyoming. And I have been fascinated by the word and the place Wyoming ever since. I thought it was Wyomy at first. I was only a child, and one that could not yet read. Later, I figured out it was Wyo-ming. And I said it over and over aloud and in my mind, Wyoming, Wyoming. I imagined its grassy prairies and tan buttes, its sharp mountains in the distance rising like triangles from the earth. It seemed a wild and fine place to me, and the name became welded to place. It’s a place I’ve been in love with since I first heard its name. Place. It’s a type of house, isn’t it? It’s an exterior house or an intimately interior one. It conjures up all we are when we encounter it, all we were when we lived there. It’s an architecture of self, long and broad, spare and cozy, a landscape, a room, an idea. It’s one story or 50 stories high. It’s the architecture of place.

Later in my life, I often dreamed of the house we lived in Ashtabula Ohio from 1959 – 1964.

My parents told us, we are moving to Ashtabula. What kind of place was Ashtabula? I looked it up in books. It was a small town on the shore of Lake Erie, east of Cleveland, west of Erie. Its Finnish roots, sailors and merchant marines who sailed the boats of the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Lake Superior, the wild treacherous lake, its famous gorge, its harbor with a drawbridge. When I was 14 we left it behind and drove off in our pale blue and white Ford on an August day with our neighbors the Stottles following along in their own green Plymouth, waving and shouting goodbye.

I did not know it then but we left behind our entire life as a family, really. The leaving of that place was fundamental, absolute. The place we called home was gone forever. After it an air of dissolution and melancholy settled around us thick as fog. So I dream of Ashtabula, even now, a half century past, that little ranch house at 1408 Allen Avenue with the vast backyard and its line of elm trees and meadow beyond, with its little blue bedroom once mine. I dream of being in the basement there but the cement floor is all askew and shifting, undulating blocks so that I must run to save myself. I leave the kittens behind though there were no kittens there, all the kittens straddling the shifting floor and I run for my life. It’s a dream of place that’s in my blood now, that never has left me. Place. It becomes part of us, the real and the surreal, the actual and the dreamed.

It’s place that haunts us–deep in the rooms of self. Where we grew up. Where we fell in love. Where we lost everything. Where we blossomed.

And of course, there are other places: Moline, like a girl’s name, a place I’ve never seen but one where my Johnson relatives lived, on the Mississippi River, a place where my Swedish family first found home in America. Then there’s Karlskoga, my mother’s home in Varmland, Sweden, a place that conjures up lakes and loss, family and love and heartache and farewells. Karlskoga, a place that has an architecture sweet and watery, full of melody and sorrow. Such a Swedish word with three equal syllables. Place. There are places I’ve visited that never left me again like the White Sands Monument in New Mexico, a wilderness so great that when we first beheld it from 2,000 feet up just below the pine forests of Cloudcloft, the sands look like waves rolling on forever. Or a little ghost town in New Mexico called White Oaks where Billy the Kid hung out, it is said, a dried up old graveyard on the edge of nowhere. Pioneers laid their bones down in this lonely place where the wind talks over the Ruidoso Mountains. That’s place. Or the great wetland hammocks of the Ocala National Forest. Micanopy, a beautiful word, a tiny hamlet, where the writer Rawlings lived that helped her write her greatest works. Where she often went out alone in a rowboat through the winding waterways, all the way to the St. Johns river, alone. Place is muse, sometimes. Chautauqua is that for me.

What we remember about our lives is interwoven with place. Who we are, what we become, what we will become is all tied up with place. I’m thinking all this on a rainy day in mid-May as I stand out back and look out over the back yard and the adjacent yard that belongs to my neighbor Henry. The silver maples and red maples have stood there six stories tall for generations, longer than we have been alive, longer than Henry has lived there, which is a virtual lifetime. I am thinking, Henry will say goodbye to those trees and this place. I can’t imagine what it will be like to look out on that place — his backyard, his now fallow gardens, his wood piles, the shed he built for his four sons–and know he must move on to another place. The time has come. I stand in the rain here and feel the loss.

For when we leave a beloved place, we close a door softly as poet Donald Justice says. But we carry that place with us.