[P]laces are neither completely material nor completely mental; they are combinations of the material and the mental and cannot be reduced to either.1
I am sitting here in winter
In the sun, in the winter sun.
My hands are moving across my keyboard
My hands are cold
My hands can feel the cold winter sun.
It seems like forever ago – last summer
That I stood knee-deep with my mother in the cold North Sea
In the North, North of here, in the North-East.
Salt licked our legs
Her hand in mine
We felt the undertow and the sand shifting from under our feet
We were sinking
We were laughing
We were together.
Lyotard mused on place.
The walls between place and landscape; the falling of the walls
I am West. I was East.
I was South since, and there again with salt-licked legs I thought of my mother.
I was with another and the sand shifted from beneath our feet,
We were sinking, we were laughing, we were South.
It was not winter and my hands were warm.
Dépaysement, says Lyotard – dépaysé; like a fish out of water.2
The unknown room is a floundering fish, habitable because it is UNINHABITABLE.3
The walls fall from these landscapes – PLACE is left.
I can hear a fire crackling in this cold sun
How is that possible?
It doesn’t belong.
It sounds like the parrots we saw last week
In the bushes of South America
“It sounds like a crackling fire,” said my companion
“a bush on fire,” a fire of birds
Far from here, far from this winter ice.
A temporal landscape changing second by second
Somewhere else (in this memory-box without a lid)
Swims a resistant fish
The defiance of cool skin pushing viciously forward
Away from the feathered fishermen and canoe hulls and lower limbs
Tree limbs, fallen, a sunken timber yard
Drifting towards and away, and back to “now.”
But where is it destined, this object in space
The object of “place,” the right place, the in-place
This; the traveling storm
That wall made of rain
That runs down the lakes
An internal growl in the rocks?
I am in-place.
[But so far out]
I am returned [home], but this is my first visit.
I am the fish, traveling through water that thickens.
A time capsule.
Becomes my own exhibit.
I swim forever in this stilled aquarium.
It becomes a musty dry-store.
My skin is brittle.
I am the fish in water [and out].
Tuan talks of land and sky.
The modes through which most of us think of SPACE [he says].
Curious, I used to think, that people spoke of “big skies” in the place where I grew up.
Sure, they were big, and deep and timeless
Of all times at once
I would lose myself for hours… but different from other skies?
I understand better now that I am no longer there.
Now that I have watched vultures in the high spaces of the Hudson Valley
Seen the sunsets and thundering walls in the borderlands
Seen the wide arc of the blue Balkan skies welcoming home the spoonbill
Seen the night fall over Western and Southeast Asia
Scattering its lights and cats and stray dogs.
Those skies and lands are pasted apart (heavens above!)
Like an immaculate bird
Coasting gracefully on the oceans up-lift.
They wink at each other in solidarity
Casting down feathers and sending up fishes.
But they are separate entities.
Those East Anglian skies are different.
They are of the earth (or the earth is of them).
Sky and land and sea are fused, stitched into a single sheet
A wrap-around landscape pulled out and unfolded
Like a precious letter
Becoming more familiar
Each tear, each yellowing crease known.
It exists always and endlessly
In a perpetual ‘now’ (and forever).
Time is explicit in movement
Distance… implies time.5
Is this why, as I stare out at that ocean
Overwhelmed with a sense of perpetual presence
A glorious, painfully unbreakable now-ness
That I am struck with such unfathomable bereftness
And simultaneous knowing that everything – every single thing
Is utter and absolute in its completeness?
Not everyone experiences time in distance, says Tuan.
But he is not talking about me.
I run towards those horizons
Whether I know it or not
In my sense of perpetual “now-ness”
There is still so much space.
But there are those, he says
For whom objects are not distant (far away)
But simply smaller.
TIME between the watcher and the watched
They are not used to land and sky
But live in such dense forests
That everything ahead is immediate.
Space, to the rain forest dwellers,
is a dense net of places
with no overall structure.
The same is apparently true of time…
Time, like perceived distance,
neither the genealogical past
nor the future
holds much interest. 6
Others, says Whorf, experience a merging
Of the objective and subjective
In their (far more open) landscapes
And therefore time
a point is reached
at which details
cease to be knowable.
This is the borderland
between the objective
and the subjective realms;
it is the timeless past,
a country told about
in myths. 7
SPACE and TIME meet
At the sewn seam of the sheet
At that yellowed fold
And they slide right through the stitch holes
Mythology and folklore.
Object and subject
Material and mental
A dance between worlds
the sky is so watery blue
and the sea so cloudy grey
that just to look at it makes him feel upside down 8
During those lost hours of my teens
Staring up into East Anglian skies
I felt I could walk right into them.
Just one big stride
And I would be up there
In another world.
to create such an entire inverted landscape
mirroring our own, filled with the dunes,
creeks, fields and seas of its mystery,
and its complete-ness… 9
A secret landscape
That no one else had noticed.
I saw landscapes everywhere
In the grain of wood
In the ceilings of our house
Between the sheets of rain
That fell in the summer heat
And yes, oh yes, in those clouds!
Featured Image: “We felt the undertow” photograph taken in Norfolk, 2014 by the author.
Helen J. Bullard is a research-based storyteller currently working towards an Interdisciplinary Special Committee PhD at UW-Madison. Her practice tells stories about animals, cultures and industries, with a particular focus on animal “out-of-placeness.” Her stories bridge science, mythology, anecdote and biography. Current PhD research is focused on the significance of the horseshoe crab to human cultures, especially their use in biomedicine. Email.
Timothy Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 13. ↩
Jean-François Lyotard, “Scapeland,” The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991). Translation of ‘dépaysé’ as “like a fish out of water,” Robert & Collins French dictionary, 1987 (as observed by Steve Baker). ↩
Lyotard, “Scapeland.” ↩
Lyotard, “Scapeland.” ↩
Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1977). ↩
Tuan 1977. ↩
Benjamin Whorf, as quoted in Tuan, Space and Place, 119. ↩
Jeremy Page, Salt (New York: Penguin Books, 2008). ↩
Page describing the cloud formation ‘Cirrus’ over Blakeney Point, Norfolk in Salt, 1. ↩