Tag Archives: sense of place

Serious Conversations, 5

It’s difficult to have an uninterrupted conversation. We can retreat to some quiet spot, turn off all our devices, put the do-not-disturb sign on the door, and chances are we will still have to deal with interruptions. Bar all intruders, but we cannot bar ourselves from the place where we are. A noise, the aroma of cooking, thirst or a rumble in the gut, a change in the weather or the position of the sun, the sight of a passerby, a bird or squirrel, a tugboat making its way into the harbor: it’s remarkable how little it takes to distract us or take our attention away from the conversation, stop us in mid-sentence or change the point of view.

If the interruption can be pinned on one of our party or an interloper, we are likely to go on the offensive, and start blaming. When we’re done, or if there’s no one to blame, we almost always go on the defensive: we try to go back to where we were, retrench or retrace our steps, restore equilibrium. The truth is, there’s no going back. If conversation can feel like a place we create together, then an interruption can feel like the loss of a world.

Or now it’s a world with a history. When we ask, where were we? what were we talking about? we are already speaking of ourselves in the past tense. There’s no need for nostalgia or remorse, and we shouldn’t lose time searching for a thread that is no longer there. The warp has changed. So must the woof.

Interruptions give us a chance to react, reset, review and recount, to advance new claims or make new demands of ourselves or of others, or simply to renew the joint commitment we made to having the conversation. So we should not think of interruptions merely as noise to signal, but learn to welcome them and think of them as an intrinsic part of the conversation itself.

Polite conversation may be a matter of knowing when and how to interrupt; serious conversation involves give and take, a socializing of attention. Interruption doesn’t have to mean talking over the other, but listening and then redirecting. We attend seriously to the matter between us by making reciprocal claims on one another’s attention.

To put that another way: conversation assumes a shared intention to shift attention.

Serious Conversations, 4

The sculptor Richard Serra tells the following story about a Charles Mingus session at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop, sometime around 1956.

The performance was in the afternoon and there was a fan on. It was really loud and Mingus was going through his set and they were recording, and the bartender turned off the fan. Mingus had an apoplectic fit. He jumped over the bar and practically throttled the guy. ‘That fan was one of my instruments,’ he said. And it made me think, as someone who wanted to be an artist, that you had to pay attention all the time to everything that was going on, because everything was of potential use, if you could see the potential.

Place matters, whether you are playing music, making a sculpture or — as I like to remind people — simply having a conversation. From Mingus, Serra learned “to pay attention to everything that was going on,” and that ambient attention or awareness of place has figured prominently in Serra’s own art, which frequently involves creating site-specific, large-scale sculptures that both fit with and alter their surroundings. Place furnishes the sculptor with context, material and ideas: everything is of “potential use, if you..see the potential”. Place can be both potent and useful, a power and a utility. For Serra, it’s all a matter of paying attention.

Serrasculpture

Richard Serra creates large-scale, site-specific sculptures that draw on and amplify the power of place.

How, then, might we tap the power of place and put it to use when it comes to serious conversations? How do we pay attention to the place we are and how does that attention get repaid?

This is a vast topic, so for now I want to set out a few markers, just to get the discussion started.

First and most obviously, place situates the participants. We can talk about place in this basic sense as the setting of a conversation — not merely a location, site or spot; the setting is more like a scene in which we are the actors. I am not entirely sure about the theatrical metaphor (which is inescapable when we talk about place as a scene or setting): I don’t mean to imply that conversations are performances for the benefit of anyone other than the interlocutors, that they require an audience, or that the place has the temporary and artificial qualities of a stage or set, put up or constructed for the sake of staging a conversation. That all sounds too contrived, and it implies a grand designer or author behind the scenes. Of course every conversation involves some element of make believe and there is a performative aspect to all conversation, but we ought to imagine an unscripted play, spontaneous or at least unplanned, in which the actors themselves are sole authors and creators — an improvisation.

Place sets conditions and defines limits: this is where we are, not over there, not elsewhere, maybe not even where we most want to be, but here. Limits imply presence, a here and now, and it’s up to us to recognize and attend to that. Our attention registers the basic obligation we have to one another, which is simply to be in this place (and in this conversation). The word ‘obligation’ here shouldn’t be misleading or mistaken for mandate or coercion: when a conversation is serious, we are not under any compulsion. We claim each other’s attention. It makes sense, then, to talk about place as a space of commitment, a setting to which we can both lay claim and which permits us to make some simple claims: stay and talk awhile; listen to me; help me understand what you are saying.  As I’ve said before, you can’t just walk away or start playing hula hoops and I can’t take part if I am whistling Dixie or daydreaming of someplace far away. This place is not just incidentally a backdrop for our conversation and our conversation is not a backdrop for some other action that will define or disrupt the place; our mutual presence here commits us jointly to the conversation. Attending to place helps us respect and keep that commitment.

Place creates new possibilities in the conversation, as participants discover and avail themselves of their situation in all sorts of ways. This is close to what Richard Serra is getting at when he talks about paying attention to everything that’s going on — a noisy fan, the voices of children playing nearby, the smell and feel of the lush green grass, the roar of traffic or the flow of a nearby stream, a tweeting bird or a passing cyclist, the wail of sirens or the approach of the police, the patter of the rain, the creak of the wood as we settle on a rough-hewn bench. The important point here is that in conversation we experience a place from the inside and in company with others. To keep company is to be a participant, not merely an observer of the place, looking in or looking on from the outside. Our conversation is what’s going on there — or at least one of the most important things going on.

Place is intrinsic to the unfolding of conversation, the warp to its woof; and to an appreciable extent, place and conversation may be indistinguishable — especially once things get going. Or it might be easier just to say conversation is the place we create between us. It’s not a question of your place or mine. It’s ours.

Dips

scarabgrub1Yesterday I had vertigo for the better part of the day. What set my world in motion is still not clear: too little sleep, too much booze the night before, dehydration, antihistamines, chocolate, a migraine, the inner ear. The first few bars of Thelonious Monk’s ‘Four in One’ looped in my head, a spinning, dizzying syntax.

I had planned to bring a tall ladder to the garden and prune the lilacs — which have already bloomed and gone. Negotiating the staircase proved hard enough. So, instead, I kneeled and, when I could not kneel, sat in the dirt and listlessly pulled a few weeds.

A copper-headed scarab grub made his way, with difficulty, out of a rotted tree stump and into the daylight. He writhed and pushed and lurched his fat body forward, but his legs twitched, as if in a palsy, unable to gain traction. As I left him, he had started to burrow back into the moist darkness of the decayed stump.

In the evening, when I was again able to focus my eyes, I went back to my book, and read about Archimedes, who ran naked and dripping wet through the streets of Syracuse shouting Eureka! He had, he explained, discovered the force that kept him afloat in the bathtub.

 

Walleye and the End of the Known World

Since the 1970s, Lake Superior temperatures have risen an average of five degrees Fahrenheit and ice cover has reduced by fifty percent. This makes the lake less hospitable to the fat siscowet or lake trout that favors its cold depths and more susceptible to invasive predators like the lamprey.

Walleye can now live in more areas of the lake than ever before. The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, who run commercial fishing operations on Superior, have been raising walleye at their hatcheries since 2005, according to an article that ran last week in Scientific American.

Walleye

A canny adaptation, but it’s clear from the same article that continuing change will require something even greater — a whole new orientation.

“With the changes in temperatures,” the article says at its most thoughtful moment, “the intimate knowledge of the lake that tribes and other anglers have cultivated over the years no longer jibes with reality.” Evelyn Ravindrian, a KBIC natural resource specialist, puts it this way: “people used to know, ‘Well, whitefish will be here this time of day, this time of year.’ Now they have to look around.” This is the bit that stuck with me.

The lake that fishermen came to know intimately is vanishing. It is undeniably a loss, and I found myself wishing the article had more to say about it: the end of a long intimacy, a bereavement, a disorienting absence — the kind of thing one feels after divorce, death or displacement. The end of the known world. I suppose an article written along those lines wouldn’t have had much chance of making it into the pages of Scientific American; but it would have gotten much closer to the heart of the matter.

As the new environmental reality takes hold, a social and cultural reality slips away: all the things “people used to know” about the lake, the seasonal and circadian knowledge that they cultivated and shared and that bound them together, as a people, or simply as Lake Superior fishermen.

They probably took most of those things for granted: that’s the nature of cultural habits, local knowledge, familiar ties — all the things that make up our sense of place. We know where we are without even trying. Now people will have to “look around,” as Evelyn Ravindrian says. They’re in a new and unfamiliar place, even though they have lived around Lake Superior and fished its waters for as long as anyone can remember.