You’re So Plain: On the Landscapes that Shape Us

the plains

The Plains by Gerald Murnane

What comprises “home”? How are we shaped by our communities? More importantly: Is there really no mountain high enough? This blog post isn’t really an essay with a nice conclusion. Rather, reading The Plains by Gerald Murnane has caused me to ruminate “out loud” on a topic that I’ve circled ever since I started this blog – and for certain, a topic that has lodged itself in my mind ever since I was a little girl, lying on our family room floor, feet propped up against our hearth, watching the light on the floor as it dodged in between clouds.

That sunlight is important, for I remember how my mood would change with the light – not in a “sun = happy, no sun = sad” kind of way. (Hello, I’ve lived almost half of my life in either Seattle or Dublin, so I’m quite content with a gloomy day and actually welcome them.) Instead, the light darting in and out of our family room suggested a change of scenery or landscape; I felt that the “meaning” of where I was and my place in it changed when the light did.

Goroke_Town_hall

Goroke Town Hall: Gerald Murnane resides in this rural Australian community that “has the feel of an evacuation nearly complete,” according to a recent NYT article. (Is “evacuated” a landscape?)

So you have to understand that I nearly applauded in recognition when I read the following line, an observation by the narrator of The Plains – a filmmaker transplanted to the Australian plains to create a film about how plains people “are”: “And I whispered words that might have served a character in a film at the moment when he realized he had found where he belonged.” Landscape – and the people who occupy it – mean a lot, and what Murnane spends over 200 pages doing is provide a somewhat tedious account of how and why this Australian community functions the way it does. Or at least how the narrator perceives it all. (Is that a dream job or what?)

One landowner describes “influences” on his geographic area: “He sensed sometimes the lingering persistence of forces that had failed—of a history that had almost come into being. He found himself looking into corners for the favourite pieces of the unborn children of marriages that were never made. There is mystery in the unknown happenings of a place.” Certainly, a topography or landscape informs what industry thrives, what crops are grown, and even the pedestrian flow. (You’re going to have a hard time finding throngs of people gallivanting outside during a Phoenix summer or a Fargo winter.)

landscapes

Which one is doin’ its own thing? A sampling of landscapes that have shaped me…

But what about the actual humans who dot these landscapes? You know the adage: “People are the same no matter where you go.” But, really, are they? Perhaps humans’ simplest emotions – love, jealousy, anger, happiness – manifest themselves in universal ways in broad strokes. But what about the subtler ones, like contentment, (dis)satisfaction, achievement, and annoyance?

community

Shiny happy people in community?

In the “First Words” column in the April 22 New York Times Magazine, Carina Chocano writes about the word “community” and its cultural meaning. “Our sense of community is less and less about being from someplace and more about being like someone.”  Similarly, “Nobody belongs to just one community, which is part of how communities exert their influence on us: We are different people inside different ones. Our roles and identities shift from one to the next, in large part because the spaces ask different things of us – sometimes under duress.”

A HA!

Just one week later, in the April 29 NYT Magazine, the “New Sentences” column profiles some lines from poet Tracy K. Smith’s new collection: “How many fleeting associations combine to make up a life? How many rusty pipes do we mistake for owls? A vast majority of our waking hours are filled not with witty jokes or brilliant thoughts or epic feelings but with tiny, private mind-motions – thoughts that are hardly even thoughts at all, that don’t rise to the level of sharing with another human being…These things are almost nothing, and yet they are who we are.”

Murnane’s book can be wearisome and maybe even dull to many: Pages upon pages documenting how different groups respond to different colors and different landscape preferences is no doubt the work of someone overly thoughtful and pensive…and who’s a little bit of a navel-gazer. As someone who can lay claim to the same (although without the literary accolades and accomplishments), I know that at some point you just have to stop trying to “figure it out” and move on with life. (Side note: “Navel-gazing” just might be one of those universal human truths, no matter where one sets up residence.)

As Depeche Mode sang, “People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully?” That line looks so terrible and simple written out – because it is.  Perhaps people “get along so awfully” because they’re much more complex than just being “people.” Marshall McLuhan famously declared that “the medium is the message”: Are our landscapes and communities not media – and therefore part of the message – as well?

depeche mode

Depeche Mode: Enjoy the…community?

— Related:

The Economics of Moving“, a post about The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto + the idea of “place.”

On Doyle’s Dialogue,” a piece from The Curator about Roddy Doyle and how our vernacular is shaped by our location.

The Instagram account of my good friend Ashley Sellner, an artist who occasionally explores the landscapes of her childhood through different media.

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