Chamber of Absences

I haven’t been taking great notes while reading Prairyerth, but I did
dog-ear a page for this:

There are several ways not to walk in the prairie, and one of them is
with your eye on a far goal, because then you begin to believe you’re not
closing the distance any more than you would with a mirage. My woodland
sense of scale and time didn’t fit this country, and I started wondering
whether I could reach the summit before dark. On the prairie, distance and
the miles of air turn movement to stasis and openness to a wall, a thing as
difficult to penetrate as dense forest. I was hiking in a chamber of
absences where the near was the same as the far, and it seemed every time I
raised a step the earth rotated under me so that my foot feel just where it
had lifted from. Limits and markers make travel possible for people:
circumscribe our lines of sight and we can really get somewhere. Before me
lay the Kansas of popular conception from Coronado on–that place you have
to get through, that purgatory of mileage. (82)

"That purgatory of mileage"–the horizontal vista of Chase County draws Least
Heat-Moon in. The expanse of long grasses is at times disorienting.
He feels lost, but knows that no line can be walked for five miles without
crossing a road. He is a journalist, a chronicler, a gatherer of stories.
Sometimes he consults a map, such as when he stands in Cottonwood Falls with "an
1878 bird’s-eye-view engraving of the town" (52), but he also–sector by county
sector–sketches his own. This last point is important, I think. It
is the practice where his methods live up to the "deep mapping"–an ethnographic
presence in graceful suspense (not unlike North’s ten years of "walking among"),
part Geertzian "thick description," but also meta-, also interested in the up
and out–the topography. This prairie topography can be experienced on

I’m mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon’s "chamber of
absences"–the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet
) de Certeau’s "wave of verticals," the "scopic drive" he chides after
looking out onto NYC from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center. What
is strange–exciting, even–is that Least Heat-Moon cannot figure out how to
organize his book until he appropriates a form from the grid of his hand-drawn
maps. About maps, de Certeau says, "They allow us to grasp only a relic set in
the nowhen of a surface of projection…. These fixations constitute procedures
for forgetting. The trace left behind is substituted for the practice" (97). If
I may put that last sentence through a tumbler, what if, "the trace left behind
is the practice" or "the trace left behind invigorates the
practice (of walking in the city/prairie)"? This windy adventure forks yet
again at the distinction between the general-use map (with common place names,
consensus, etc.) and that other, more self-selective attunement (an
experiential, even egotistical sketch).

About my own chamber of absences: I am warming up to the idea that none of
this belongs in Chapter Five. But I nevertheless find myself happily stuck (not
stranded) on the problem of "What about maps as a (databasic, interested)
writing practice?". I don’t know. Yet there is a promising something
(a fantastic thingamabob) at the theoretical fulcrum between de Certeau’s
high-up perch (fraught with verticality) and Least Heat-Moon’s more moderate,
walking-the-prairie sensibility (fraught with horizontality). I would be
thrumming again on matters of scale, I suppose, to wonder whether that’s all it
amounts to when Least Heat-Moon breaks into his intimate portraits of
people and places, interrupting with his private, deliberative excursions to the
various plateaus or flint shelves for reorientations from time to time.
Don’t we all need (or at least desire) such reorientations?