What is Place?

I feel Place in my soul. The power of Place in my writing is almost impossible to explain. Writers combine place with time and events to “show not tell” more than a description: who or what is in this place, why are they there, how do they relate to what is happening in that moment of time? Through the writer’s eyes and imagination. I have been told by some that I capture the essence of Place in my writing. Yes, I feel Place deeply in my soul: my heart, my bones, my blood, my muscles, my joys, my fears. With so much recent sadness – loss of people I loved and those I’ve never met, unkind actions, environmental crises and degradation – Place saturates my thinking. I have been privileged to be in so many places, yet it is a few that resonate most deeply through me, stirring my soul and spirit in memory.

My Childhood Place holds a spot nearest my heart. The woods, steeped with Douglas fir and vine maples and blackberry brambles and trillium. Trees whose trunks and branches grounded me to earth as I picked ripe red cherries or gripped branches to hide. The Willamette River lined with cottonwood trees shedding white fibrous floaters in summer and whipping cold rain soaked leaves in the darkest of winter, bobbing in its cool ripples during the summer and peering into its dark rough current during the winter. I was privileged to be in this Childhood Place, ruled by unconditional love, directed by few rules, few expectations my spirit didn’t already stretch to meet. I was lucky, for as a dark cloud grew around me, I was protected enough to ignore it and live my life as a kid. Unlike others whose Childhood Place stories are not like mine.

Not long after losing my Childhood Place, the cloud darkened, bursting in my Teen Place. And yet, even as I moved through the cloudburst, I met expectations and found interests to move me along as I floated from group to group, deep down not feeling fully authentic. Surrounded now by the City Place, creating new independence and understandings and exposures and fears. Whether by choice or lack of invitation I floated between jocks and straight A kids and popular kids and choir kids into my Place in gyms and sports fields and auditoriums and classrooms, knowing still – this was not my only true Place.

Growing into Adult Place was what I found in Montana. In this Place my wilder spirit escaped, pushed by only my expectations. It was in this place that Bill Kittredge taught me writing took time and patience I didn’t yet have and I knew I wasn’t ready to write my stories. I met Ralph Nader and protested on Mother’s Day at Malmstrom Air Force Base and worried about nuclear winter and built a snow man of Interior Secretary James Watt, knocking it over as I swore at the threats to our wild lands. I looked at the trees I loved and visualized xylem moving water from roots and phloem moving food, all because of the miracle of photosynthesis. It was in this Place I recognized my spirit no longer embraced the need to compete to keep my Grizzly varsity spot, instead craving the solitude of the Mission Mountains and the Rocky Mountain Front, to sleep overnight in snowbanks adjacent to frozen alpine lakes and to explore rivers like the BlackFoot and Clark Fork. I met people who understood the wild activism needed to protect the things we believe in and the man I love today. Maybe someday I’ll live in Montana again, but even if I don’t, this Place never left me. This Place where I rediscovered my true older self, the one I build on as if a tapestry of multilayers, now that I near sixty. This Place that also whispers to me from my grandmother’s girlhood on a Helena farm and a grandfather’s love of nature and my adventurist mom who breathlessly admired each peak and stream, hiking with me and my boyfriend-now-spouse, skinny dipping high in the Bitterroots, certain she was, late in life, that she too had once lived here: she who loved this Place.

Lake of the Woods looking into the Swan range, Western Montana.

Yet. Place for me will always be the Willamette Valley, though it bears inequities for many, juxtaposed by the privilege held by others like me. My stories of Place in the Willamette Valley share similarities with some, yet differ from others. Those who without all that I received hold cold and unwelcoming memories of this same Place. Yet. This is the Place where Dad even now boats the Willamette River, and Mom sings in nearby mountains, her spirit filled by each turn of the Pacific Crest Trail and the anticipation of what glorious crag or summit she will spy as the trail curves. This Place holds a cemetery where my great great great remains’ lie, a Place I am oddly surprised to feel Presence as I sit quietly beneath a towering maple, adjacent to blooming azaleas as the Willamette gleams below. Oregon’s Willamette Valley is the Place my children grew into this world, it holds their soccer games and first backpacks and emergency room visits and tears of sadness and fears for their future. All of the good and the bad and the happy and sad memories spill over and overwhelm me in the great fortune and love I have in this life. And yes, there are other places that speak to me, so many places mark our minutes, parts of so many tucked within our soul. But different than my Places.

Yet. What is Place to me? It is the before and the now and the future. It is the thrill of climbing onto a knotted rope swing hanging from a tall maple, reclining my head backwards so the breeze ruffles my hair, my legs stretched out as far as I can reach. Place is the smell of cottonwoods and fishy riverbank, but also sage and Ponderosa. Place is sadness in missing who came before and left too early. Place is the worries of tomorrow as we reach a record 111 degrees and plead with others not to light off fireworks that might char our forests and yards and homes and fear future inhabitability of so many other places. Place is all of it. And if we writers craft our work from deep inside our hearts and souls, readers will discover our essence, what made us who we are. And who we can become. And only as other voices too share their heartfelt Places can we understand who we all are, where we have been, who we have become, and how we might be together. The good and bad and happy and sad and hopes and dreams that uniquely tell each of our stories.

Read Dede’s works:

My Music Man, a memoir about place, people, grief, forgiveness and love.
Beyond the Ripples, a novel about connections in place.
Then, Now and In-Between: Place, Memories, and Loss in Oregon, an ebook blog to book mostly about Oregon and some of its stories.

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