For an audio version of ‘The Places That Shape Us’ please click the play button
Certain places follow us, like shadows. At times they lengthen and stretch implausibly tall until they tower above our lives, or slant decisively away as if trying to flee. Occasionally they appear not to be there at all – so exact is the overlay of self and place, so precise the meridian sun. Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves.
We were on holiday in the north of England when I first glimpsed what would become my own shadowing landscape. A flat grey sky sheeted above the mysterious, treeless moors as we drove a narrow road in North Yorkshire. On either side of us the heather unrolled like bolts of rough, dark cloth, its dull purple flowers scattered like a fall of ripened berries. I remember the pockets of spectral mist that dissolved the second they were seen; the solitary, wind-stooped shrubs; the beautifully forlorn light.
I was almost twelve that summer, and while I stared through the windows transfixed the land began tilting me away from the enclosed space of the car towards a different kind of interior: luminous, revelatory, confiding. As I watched the ghostly moorland dimple away into nothingness, eventually merging with the solemn proclamation of sky, I became aware of a close and immediate attachment, a need to return. The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me.
* * *
“…we are not strangers in the world if we remain open to awe…”
– Terry Tempest Williams
I’m thrilled to announce that my book manuscript, from which this short passage is taken, has just won the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World explores some of the myriad ways in which we come to be at home, and how connections to the natural world can be deepened when an equality of perception is applied to our relationships. From a caterpillar carrying its house of leaves to transhumant shepherds ranging the high Prespa mountains, from a quail seeking cover on a seemingly empty steppe to the plight of a Turkmen family emigrating from Afghanistan to Istanbul, the narrative spans the common, and often contested, ground that supports both human and natural communities alike. It seeks the smaller stories that sustain us. The book will be published in the autumn of 2013 by the excellent University of Georgia Press.
Not only am I extremely honoured by the award, I’m also deeply moved by the words of the judge, Terry Tempest Williams, who describes the book in such a generous and humbling way in the official announcement, a writer whose wisdom and work have long been a guiding spirit and inspiration to me. Many thanks to all of you who have supported, read and encouraged Notes from Near and Far these last few years. I’m deeply grateful for all your interest, and the time and thought you’ve given to these posts. I will be writing more about the book as it takes shape.