Capturing a Place With Words

Some writers have a knack for capturing the essence of a place with just a few words. You can hear, feel,  and smell the place almost as if you were sitting there. This was brought to mind early this chilly, spring, overcast SLC morning when I opened the local paper to the opinion page where I always count on finding master story teller, Garrison Keillor. In a flash I was taken with him to Columbus, Georgia with these simple words:

“…sat on the porch of a little shotgun house on 7th street in Columbus, Georgia, and breathed sweet and spicy air of magnolia and camellia and honeysuckle, the whole orchestra of Southern fragrance out and about, comforting the afflicted, and I thought of words I’d never ordinarily use, such as “suffused” and “redolent,” and listened to Georgia friends talk about ancestors and their recipes…”

“…was taken to Minnie’s for fried chicken, collards, butter beans and slaw, and to a barbecue joint in an old bus station…”

“All I had to do was throw in a phrase or two, like “Well, bless their hearts” or “Don’t mind if I do.”

I don’t specifically remember being in Columbus, Georgia, but I’ve been to other Georgia towns and cities many times, and for all intent and purpose much of Georgia could serve as sister cities (or brother if you insist) for the part of northern Florida where I grew up. Keillor made me long for the food of my childhood days and wonder if an intensified  google search might just turn up mail order souces for some of those good old speckled butter beans, field peas, or sticky okra pods that are either scarce as toads toenails here in the near-desert, or about the price of gold per pound. But no matter–even if I did somehow miraculously find them, they’d never quite match the succulent bounty indelibly inked from childhood memory into my heart and soul.

Some may wonder why I would ever leave a place that I continue to rhapsodize about after all these years. The feasible answer would have to be that I left because I fell in love and decided I could and would be happy anywhere in the whole wide world as long as he were there too. (Still true.) But again, Keillor answers more accurately for me as he relates a conversation with country singer Chet Atkins who confessed how lonesome he had been in his teenage years…

“What he (Chet) remembered about Georgia was snake tracks curving in the dust of a dirt road on a hot afternoon and a strong urge to go somewhere else as soon as possible.

I remember having those same feelings too. So I’ll be ready to leave Georgia and the south again (mentally) just as soon as I find something even remotely southern to eat. Maybe some instant grits will do it.

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3 thoughts on “Capturing a Place With Words

  1. I think you have to leave most places to know how much you really liked them and how much of your affection was rooted in childhood familiarity and fear of leaving that familiarity. Leaving forces you to reckon with this question: how much of my experiences had to do with the actual location, and how much could have happened anywhere as long as the same people were there?

    I think that, more and more, that question matters as corporate development has changed the landscape in so many places. In a lot of cases, the degree to which a place has developed in the last decade makes a place what it is, and I think this means that the kind of writing that invokes place so strongly is all the more important.

    A lot of young people who’ve grow up in larger cities have a sense that if there isn’t a starbucks, there’s no there there. To some extent, that seems true to me; while a Starbucks isn’t essential for life, it’s become a marker of “civilization”–if you have a starbucks, you have a strip mall; if you have a strip mall, you have a decent sized grocery and somewhere to buy things; if you have somewhere to buy things, you can make dinner and hopefully find somewhere to go out to dinner. All of that makes for a better place to live…

    But having strip malls probably also means that the places you have to buy things are small chains of larger corporations, which in turn means that where you shop has less variety in brands overall, and it also means that where you shop is identical on many levels to the place that somebody else shops three states away.

    This fact of modern life ultimately means a more homogenous existence for people who don’t live in larger cities where, along with those strip malls, you have small businesses and thriving local entrepreneurship, and with them, local color and unique human capital. I don’t think even Garrison Keiller could transport readers to, say, Lima, Ohio with the atmosphere there. Sure, there’s a there there, but how would you write about it without it sounding just like a there somewhere else–and on top of that, would it be a there that anybody could actually be compelled to think deeply about it as you do about Columbus, Georgia? Of course, bigger cities in Ohio have a lot of wonderful unique qualities. But a small city in Ohio is very much like a small city in a lot of places.

    I wonder too, if Keillor wasn’t writing about a Georgia from the past would he or his readers would be able to point to its unique features as a place as it exists now? While the south tends to hold on to traditions (good and bad) longer than the rest of the country, I do think that the coroporate model is bringing homogeneity that way with some speed.

    Even things like native plants are no longer a reliable marker–you know more than most people what it’s like to live in a desert with fountains, lakes, and palm trees brought in from California (and of course, palms aren’t even supposed to grow in parts of California!).

    I guess that moral of all this is that you need to keep writing about places you have been and places you go, just in case it’s all one big parking lot and strip mall (or worse…a closed-down walmart across from another walmart!) 100 years from now. People will need writing like that to remember how important it is to be able to distinguish where you are from where you’ve been, and know whether you still would have become you if you had been somewhere else…

  2. Wow! What a long comment. But a thoughtful one that makes me feel better about writing all this trivia that no one has asked for. At least I’m not wasting paper.

  3. Leaving “home,” Staten Island, New York, and moving to Las Vegas! Now that was a mind-blowing experience, but not for me — [but] for my friends and family. No one could understand how I could leave family and friends and move out West – where I hardly knew anyone. What they did not understand was that when I visited out West on several occasions, both alone and with my mom, I felt a certain “tug,” like I was finally coming home. There is a certain feeling you get when you visit places – like you have been there before or have been there in a prior life… but when I put my roots down the very first day in Las Vegas, I knew I was home. Now, it has nothing to do with gambling (cuz I don’t) or any of the other “Sin City” matters, but with the wide open spaces (that still exist, thank God) and the smell and feel of being here – it is warm, brown, gold, dry, bright blue, sunny, fuzzy sunny, old, new, big, awe-inspiring… whereas New York was old, grey, crowded, familiar, smelly…. What is really nice is that I have my memories from New York that are personal and have nothing to do with the place itself, but are mine alone (the family gatherings, smells of food on Thanksgiving, the ping-pong games in the basement…) all those feelings and smells came with me to my new home and enhance my new surroundings; but it is here that I finally feel I have arrived.

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