The Sense Of A Place

proulx-desk

What Annie Proulx says about places she has lived–through her fiction especially but also in this interview below–rings a bell for us, considering the number of places we have chosen to live to do what we do. What the interview echoes specifically for me is the inherent improbability of accomplishing one of our key objectives: we want travelers to become as attached to places as we are, so that they will care about the conservation mission of our initiatives in each location as much as we do. It occurs to me that our guests spend about as much time with us in any given location as a reader spends on any given book by Proulx; also, books and our locations share in common the fact that they can be revisited an indefinite number of times.

That said, we want our guests to care more about these locations than even the most devoted reader cares about a Proulx character; not because we think less of her characters but because our conservation mission is about places in need of constant support. Improbability in this context refers to the question: how can our guests become intensely attached–as happens when a reader is gripped by a compelling character in a deeply human situation in an exquisitely described location–in a limited amount of time and continue to care intensely after they depart? That is our challenge, and we are constantly finding new ways of answering that question.

Another echo from reading what Annie Proulx says about the places she has lived, about belonging, feels strongly relevant. If we are a fraction as good at what we do as she is at what she does, belonging becomes irrelevant. What matters is how much sense we make of the place, and how much sensibility we harness in showcasing it to our guests. If you have read any of her books, you know how evocative place can be–like an additional character–and if that captures your attention you should read the interview that follows the introductory section excerpted below.

HOW THE WRITER RESEARCHES:
ANNIE PROULX

JOHN FREEMAN INTERVIEWS THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNER IN HER SNOQUALMIE VALLEY HOME

Annie Proulx is 80 years old and still not sure where she belongs. Standing in the atrium of her home in the Snoqualmie Valley, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist eyes a photograph of the cottage she once occupied in Newfoundland, the setting of her 1993 novel, The Shipping News. “I fell in love with that landscape,” Proulx says, speaking in the tone of a woman describing an ex-lover.“But ultimately, I did not belong there.”

After 20 years in Wyoming—several spent building a dream home she later sold—Proulx had a similar epiphany about that state. As she did about Vermont, and Texas, and New Mexico, and any number of places where she has lived. In an age of itinerary writer-teachers, Proulx’s boomerangs back and forth across North America are exceptional.

Now she’s made a similar discovery of the wooded idyll east of Seattle.

For months Proulx struggled to figure out why she was having reactions to foods she typically ate. At last she learned she was allergic to red cedar, the trees that rise up fragrantly around her house. Proulx laughs as she describes this, partly out of annoyance, but also because she moved to this home to finish her massive and extraordinary new masterpiece, Barkskins, a novel about climate change and landscape in which one of the book’s central characters is the forest itself.

Barkskins, a slang term for lumberjacks, trails two families across four centuries—the Sels and the Duquets and their competing ways of making a living off the forests. René Sel, the paterfamilias of one clan, comes to New France in the 17th century as indentured labor and his offspring intermingle with Native Americans and toil in the dangerous tasks of felling timber and shipping it downriver to Penobscot Bay.

Meanwhile, the descendants of Charles Duquet (later changed to the less ethnic-sounding Duke) follow a different path, entitled by their God and Bible, they become land speculators, forever searching for virgin forests to chop down and turn into capital. They employ Native Americans to do the hard work.

Proulx’s own family likewise came to New France in dire poverty long ago and worked like the Sels. But she is not here to lay blame. What she wants is to show how it happened, to tell that story. “There was this massive, massive woods and only a few hundred people,” Proulx says. “Nobody was going to miss a few trees. You can’t work backward and start laying on blame. It just has to come as this is what was done.’’

The book is an enormous undertaking for a writer known for doing things the hard  way. When Proulx became adored for tales of Vermont and Newfoundland, she picked up shop and moved to Wyoming for 20 years, learning the lore and mythology of the American West to a degree she still gets fan letters from cowboys and veterans returning home to it after tours of duty in Iraq. Now, though, with Barkskins, she has taken aim at two of the central mythologies of Americans and their landscape.

Moving upstairs to Proulx’s writing studio makes clear how seriously she takes this concern. Proulx sold the tens of thousands of books which once filled her Wyoming home; it was time, and it was painful. All that remains are a few hundred novels, some shelves of poetry—including the collected work of Les Murray—and shelf after shelf of books about landscape in North America, books like William Cronon’s 1983 classic,Changes in the Land, which describes the different notions of ownership Native Americans and colonists had about landscape.

Proulx spent years in these books, reading, as well as traveling to archives in Australia, New York, and also to the Waipoua Forest, where some of the trees are as many as two or three thousand years old. Over coffee in her large writing studio, surrounded by paintings and the remains of her research library, Proulx discussed why she felt this work necessary to making not just this book—but all of her books—come to life…

Read the interview here.

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