Wild Places and Story Maps

I will not be traveling this year. I’m sure I am not alone in that. I hope, for the sake of each individual member of my species, that I am not. (Goodness, what a melodramatic thing to say—yet here we are.)

For two months now, I’ve put little thought into the future beyond, first, cancelling all my plans. And then the small, crucial dailinesses of living: Did my arugula seeds sprout yet? Should I plan for rain on my walk tomorrow? What’s for dinner? To live in the present moment—as all the sages worth listening to say you should—has never been so simple. Notice I did not say ‘easy.’ It was…a shift.

I don’t plan to stop living only in the present. It’s enormously freeing, allowing me to get out from under that global cumulonimbus of constant, electric anxiety. But I know, as summer is opening up, and the air begins to smell like it’s time to visit my river and redwoods (to name just one trip I’m disappointed not to make this year), that I will, on some level, miss—and need to grieve—the present I am not living. 

“My” river, with whom I will not be visiting this summer.

I have been discussing a book called The Wild Places on Twitter, in an informal reading group with two other thoughtful humans. My co-readers have already read the book; I’m in progress. In practice this means I say something about my experience related to a particular chapter or concept as I meet it, and then the three of us (with occasional others) range far and wide in loose response, over hours and days. Two things we keep coming back to: the many ways to keep time beyond the 12- or 24-hour clock—dandelions, fossils, patterns of storm, falling in love—and the many ways to map both place and time. 

“Story maps” is the term Robert Macfarlane, author of The Wild Places, uses, to remind us that the maps most of us think of when we hear the word—the sort with grids and numerical coordinates—are not the only way to understand how to travel to, or inhabit, a given place. His habit of collecting physical touchstones—a feather here, a literal stone there—creates one kind of story map.

I am not, myself, much of a collector. (My co-readers, like Macfarlane, both have wonderful collections of objects that serve as ongoing conversations with specific wild places and times.) I do have a few place-objects, though: pieces that spoke in the moment, and now recall to me the origin of our intersection. Fossil-bearing slabs from a sun-steeped September weekend in the Painted Hills. Rainbow rocks from a sparkling-fast midnight river met in the Icelandic highlands. The salmon-stone that flashed out to me from “my” river only last year, while I was crossing the mouth of one of its tributaries, picking my way without shoes. I am wondering if these might be my anchor-stones, and my dream-maps, in this long quarantine. 

My wondering is not original. For which I’m glad. Witness, for example, Christina Riley’s gorgeous project, The Beach Today. This shared impulse toward personal time- and place-mapping is a huge reason I’m drawn to the story-map idea as a way to honor—and mentally survive—this global moment.

Jenny Odell, in an interview with Ezra Klein, talks about how awkward it feels to generalize from one’s own experience of this time, because everyone’s experiences are so immediate (and many are painful), yet their particulars are so diverse. We are trying to come together and find common ground beyond our lives have been upended in some way—and the intensity of the upending event makes that harder than ever. Perhaps it’s more important, then, to speak our own experience, and to share it. And not to expect any particular return, but to know that someone will find their echo in our response. If it resonates, we can take it to heart. And if not, we can discard it.

So I’m thinking about how I might experience my personal wild places very differently this year. The folks at The School of Life pointed out recently that we often forget to give memory its due: why travel, if you’re just going to put the remembrance on a shelf while you seek new journeys?

Maybe this is an opportunity: a whole year (I hope it’s only a year; who knows) of spending intentional time with the memories of my own wild places, of reconfiguring and retracing my personal maps. Of physical wandering that keeps unusually close to home, and of only occasional dreaming (untethered to particular timelines) of the next adventure afield. When I put it like that, it doesn’t sound as bad as the usual shorthand: Isolation. Quarantine. Physical distance.

I do not say—again—this is going to be easy. But it may be fun, or useful, or edifying. A preserver of sanity, and compass to re-locate joy.

I’m a poet and an essayist and (sort of) a photographer, so I suspect any retracing will take one or all of those forms. I’m excited to see where it goes, at least, and that sense of excitement matters in itself. 

And what about your own maps? What collections of objects; what poems, stories, songs; what musical keys and time signatures; what drawings and paintings and sculptures speak to your sense of a particular, loved place?

Maybe you can’t go there. Or maybe you live there and you can’t go anywhere else. Either way—and they are such different ways—how would your relationship to place change, if you mapped it? How would you experience your own story through a refocused lens?

One thought on “Wild Places and Story Maps

  1. I can relate to this as we all draw back from exploring distant locations and are finding joy closer and at home. A daily walk, time in my garden, preparing new recipes, and contacting old friends. Not the former normal but the new normal.

    I hope you continue to express yourself so well and find daily sparkles.


    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

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