Monday, May 19, 2008
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 foot.
I'm mulling over the relationship between Least Heat-Moon's "chamber of absences"--the "distance" and "openness" of the prairie topography and (yet again) 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?Posted by Derek Mueller at May 19, 2008 10:00 PM to Rhetorico-Geography