In some distant corners, the border bushlands of Botswana, for example, there are writers so unaccustomed to human contact that they journey into London for their book tours only to jump at sidewalk cracks, thinking puff adders are underfoot. Authors living in remote Rocky Mountain cabins built into shale, tethered to the publishing industry via the last bar payphone in the world. People who are reticent to move among the thought-scattering, thing-gathering townies below. These storytellers have forgotten their social skills, misplaced them under a pile of words, leaves, and snow. It’s the writer-as-madman, the old coot (or tangle-headed banshee) who comes down the mountain or treks out of the desert just once a year or so, when injured. Or when his truck is.
Everyone sees him in his glorious leonine dishevelment and marvels.
I wonder sometimes if it’s really possible to write about people without being among them. If there’s a way to store up human truths, the ones that don’t expire, anyway, and then disappear into the land of bear grass. Perhaps reclusive writers have found some way to keep themselves undiluted by our herky-jerky business down below. Or, less generously, it’s possible they are doing themselves and their writing a disservice by drawing a line and building their cabins on one side of it. Who defines the world, and why would you want to play cartographer? I suppose it’s merely a choice, and as such, it is meaningless. As long as they keep writing. There are still those brief moments when civilization must pull them in, at least for a new fan belt. Time enough for a draught of humanity.
After all, one can’t draw a steadfast line in rock.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how important having a “place” is. Whether you can move away and take that place with you. And whether “placeness” is even real. If you ask me where my place is, without hesitation I will tell you it is Montana. My husband jokes that when someone meets me for the first time, within five minutes they will know how much of my life was, and is, centered on our four years living there. When I’m feeling especially romantic about it, I am certain I will be writing about Montana for the rest of my life, even though my Montana is not necessarily the same as a hunter’s Montana, or a developer’s Montana, or an equestrian’s Montana. Of course, the bitterroot doesn’t care about such trivial distinctions.
Can there be one place for a person, or many? I want to go to Iran, and Morocco, and I want to return to South Africa and find my way back into the mess of people and puff adders, so maybe those are my places too. How will I know?
Even here, on the other, more metropolitan side of the country, I want to be no less than a zealot in my quest for placeness. I want to see everything. There is the easy beauty of the spider living in the hollow of a lopsided oak, but there is also the extraordinary beauty of a subway rat in New York City, persistently making its way along the smooth, steel tracks, searching for food under shards of glass and soot and cigarette butts, eyes evolving to a life of darkness and the sporadic, subterranean earthquakes of human passage. Say what you will, but not a one of us has the toughness in the last segment of a rat’s tail.
Right about now, I feel like a subway rat plucked from its shadowy life under the city, left to squinny around. The first weekend we drove out to a park on Long Island Sound, looking to get away. We got honked at twice on our way there, found a sandy beach covered with shiny, tattooed bodies, chicken bones, tailgate barbecues. I had to fight my old urge, my Montana urge, to disappear into the periphery, find some mountain to climb. It was chaos, or life. Basketball. Loud music. Puerto Rican women in cut-out bathing suits taking glamour shots of each other with their cell phones. I looked for animals. Twice a gull flew by, having adapted a new city camouflage, some smart slate gray color mixed into the feathers.
Each morning I walk in the woods here, what constitutes woods, tracts of precious land purchased by cities and rich benefactors whom I’ve never bumped into once. They are eerily empty. A handful of turkeys and doves, a dozen or so squirrels. I trip over the rocks, my footing still awkward after a month. I routinely hear sirens and people’s conversations in the suburbs around these acres, creating the impression that I’m inside a movie set. Trees marked for cutting are bound by plastic, yellow tape. This is not the wilderness.
I can’t get lost. I’ve tried.
This is a start. I am good at this, this moving, this adapting to new places, new accents, new habits, but in the beginning, there is blindness. Temporary, but acute. Sometimes all day it’s a single question in my mind, on a loop: “Okay, okay! Turn where?” Perhaps it’s a different kind of lost. What they say is true. It’s faster here, crowded. One keeps looking for mountains, but comes up empty. But it’s not all bad, just different. And I can’t yet see it.