Writing about Place: Estuary and Four Fields

In literature place has become a category of definition and an aesthetic subject in its own right. This is most visible in nature writing, which concentrates its energies on the non-human world, foregrounding what is normally – in literature as in certain forms of contemporary urban life – relegated to the background. I have been reading two books about place lately which take very different approaches to their examination of physical locations.

Tim Dee’s Four Fields is a literary, allusive survey of four fields around the world: in England, Zambia, the United States and the Ukraine. The book is a documentary account of defined landscapes which takes its narrative energy from travel-writing – Dee goes to all the four fields and spends a great deal of time getting to know them intimately. But it is also a more expansive project: an attempt to reconcile the essence of human interconnection with places, and a struggle to apprehend the flickering entity that is nature.

Estuary: Out from London to the Sea by London-based writer Rachel Lichtenstein is a cultural geography of the Thames estuary. Lichtenstein also uses a journey as narrative scaffolding, beginning in the metropolis and fanning out into the tentacles of the estuary system. Through a series of (mis) adventures, she gets to know wacky characters, is stranded o on sandbars of history, and reveals the often hidden contemporary working life of London’s sea-river.

Despite the basic similarity in their narrative approaches, Dee and Lichtenstein have very distinct aesthetics – most obviously in their language – but also take up differing positions on place. But what is this thing we call place? It has many meanings: a geographical entity, but also a stance – ‘to know one’s place in the world.' Space is usually taken to be a physical reality, whereas place suggests a subject position: inhabited, human spaces.

I am interested in how literature – and by association all art – conveys a sense of space and place. And, as a related question, how the human mind transforms space into place, terrain into territory, land into landscape. I first considered these questions in Antarctica, the subject of my book Ice Diaries, and the one place on the planet that has arguably remained a space.

Descartes and Newton formed a theory of space and, as a related concern, the environment. Humans have relied upon a binary of us/space and us/place to protect ourselves against the surety of vast, empty space and the threat it presents to our existence. The Antarctic is the only place in the world you can actually go (as opposed to the deep ocean, say) where humans have never made a significant spatial intervention. It is a stateless, ‘disorganised’ space, in human terms. As environmental historian Steven Pyne puts it in his magisterial volume on Antarctic, The Ice, ‘The Ice erodes away aesthetic handholds, polishing the surface into a radiant, terrible reflection. Space becomes vanishingly small, time pauses in frozen hesitation, and the mind disconnects from its referents’. The Antarctic is a space which has resisted becoming a place.

How to write about such a place? Language is our first port of call when trying to interact with place. Neither the allusive language so lushly employed by Dee, nor the deep curiosity about the interaction between humans and the Thames estuary which is so marked in Lichtenstein’s book will do the trick. The immersive approach of Romantic literature on place doesn’t work, because one is rebuffed by a landscape that has no real nature, in terms of biota. There is nothing to interpret.

Perhaps nature is the wrong word. One of Tim Dee’s fields is within the exclusion zone of Chernobyl. Here he is on the forests and fields outside Pripyat, the town made instantly defunct on April 26, 1986, by the explosion of the No.4 light water graphite moderated reactor:

‘In the Red Forest I walked among birches half my age and three times my height; the wispy children of Chernobyl…. Death, needing no colleagues, moved as an absolute master through these woods and fields, armed solely with itself, raining death beyond death down over the trees and grass, keeping everything dead. Dante, genius complicator of hell, would have understood…

This is not so much nature writing as civilisation writing. Dee devotes huge mental energy to evoking nature as a realm separate from the human, diving into the soil and collecting grasshoppers, observing the twisted vegetation around him with a horrified perplexity. Yet Four Fields is an exemplar of how nature writing is an attempt to resolve the Cartesian duality between self and what is out there: self and place, self and space.

A conundrum of writing about place is that the writing appears to be done while the writer is physically in the place, in the vein of: 'as I write snow is muffling the window and the temperature has dropped to minus 35'. But usually the writing is done later, at a desk in - say - a flat in London. Simultaneously the real place exists only outside the text. An awareness of this dissociative paradox is one of the motivators which drive nature writers into ever-dizzying feats of lyrical and associative interpretation. Some writers  - Dee is one of them – have a knack for self-erasure. He attends to his environment with a lateral, associative but also disinterested eye. Curiosity is his fuel. This dissuades the Romantic, interpreting I; the result of which critic Timothy Morton calls ‘sincerity.’

Rachel Lichtenstein brings her wary, anti-Elysian gaze to a landscape that is human as much as it is natural. Human projects and profit have ebbed and flowed as the tide in this fluvial portal, often threating the nature of the river, although estuary has made an impressive comeback since the 1950s, when it was declared in parts to be ecologically dead. Lichtenstein visits the London Gateway Port, located close to Stanford-le-Hope, the Essex town where Joseph Conrad began writing Heart of Darkness. The new port will become a huge gateway to London; it will be, Lichtenstein writes, the most automated deep-water super port in the world:

‘I visited the place myself. It looks completely different from anywhere else along the Estuary foreshore, with acres of desert-like sand fields, new roads, surveillance systems, mirrored office buildings and an extremely clean, clinical, almost silent, high-functioning quayside dominated by colossal quay cranes.’

The site is almost empty of human presence. She describes Tyrannosaurus-sized machinery fingered by invisible human beings parked behind screens in offices, and the frenetic 24/7 activity which has erased the zone’s former persona as a space of ‘melancholic memory’.  A ‘sea grab’ (her term) is in process in the estuary, and the super port is only the latest iteration of rapid, economically-driven change.

For those of us who engage with writing about place, our basic premise is that the place both can and can’t speak for itself; it has its own reality, hermetic, fiercely guarded even, but if you learn to look at place with the requisite humility, these hidden narratives will reveal themselves. It is a literature of slow revelation.

‘In the end,’ writes Lichtenstein in the book’s epilogue, ‘I feel I have created a kind of collective memory map, attempting to highlight what lies under the watermark, what has been obliterated, what is being obliterated and what is still under threat I this indefinable and beautiful place where past flows into present into past in its eternal rhythm.’

 

 

 

           

 

           

 

 

 

 

The difference between space and place.  According to Morton ‘post-Romantic writing is obsessed with space and place.’

 

Place also presages several entities: landscape, terrain, climate, scenery.  In the so-called west, place has been sieved of its mystery; nature writing is trying to return its original complexity to us. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram notes the ‘deeply mysterious powers and entities’ embodied in place for certain cultures, places that are, he writes, to ‘”civilised” Europeans… so much scenery, the pleasant backdrop of our more pressing human concerns.’

 

Also, History is both external and internal. Place and the body are the only possible vectors of an entity that we are alive within, and which is simultaneously inside and outside of us.

 

How does the human mind transform space into place, terrain into territory, land into landscape? Are these differentials about ideology – the ‘usefulness’ of the land and its materials in a capitalist sense – or about something more abstract, which cannot be fully represented?

 

 

Discuss Estuary and Four Fields.

 

Epistemelogical questions – how can we know about a place?

 

A conundrum about writing of place – the exact quotient or disinvestment of the self. How present is the I? How to convey the perceiver?

After a few decently composed fictional scenarios in which Morton tries the ‘As I write this, the birds are singing outside my window’ feint, Morton concludes: ‘The more I try to evoke where I am – the “I” who is writing this text – the more phrases and figures of speech I must employ. I must get involved in a process of writing, the very writing that I am not describing when I invoke the environment in which writing is taking place.’

 

In the writing about place I most enjoy, I don’t resent the perceiver, or turns of phrase, or figures of speech. It dpenes upon the quality and the intensity of the writer’s gaze. Some writers  - Dee is one of them – have a knack for self-erasure. He attends to his environment with a lateral;, associative but also disinterested eye.  Curiosity is his fuel, I think. This dissuades the Romantic, interpreting I which Morton calls ‘sincerity.’

 

Another conundrum of writing about place; the writing seems to be done while the writer is in the place. But the place exists only outside the text. An awareness of this is perhaps what drives writers into ever-dizzying feats of lyrical and associative interpretation.

Tim Dee has a very fine pen indeed. Here he is on the forests and fields outside Pripyat, the town made instantly defunct on April 26, 1986, by the explosion of the No.4 light water graphite moderated reactor.

 

‘In the Red Forest I walked among birches half my age and three times my height; the wispy children of Chernobyl…. Death, needing no colleagues, moved as an absolute master through these woods and fields, armed solely with itself, raining death beyond death down over the trees and grass, keeping everything dead. Dante, genius complicator of hell, would have understood…

 

This is not so much nature writing as civilisation writing.

 

 

Return to Morton: ‘Environmental writing is a way of registering the feeling of being surrounded by others, or more abstractly, by an otherness, something that is not the self.

 

Lichenstein’s book – a cultural geography of the Thames Estuary: Out from London to the Sea.

 

The estuary as portal.

 

Approaches to writing about place range from the poetic to the documentary, from the abstractions of psychogeography to an empirically verifiable cultural history.  A journey is invariably involved, whether to points near or far. The writer traverses the terrain physically, stomping through the ‘plashy fens’ (the phrase is xxx) in search of inspiration, but also to gelan wht the land is trying to say. For those of us who engage with writing about place, our basic premise is that the place both can and can’t speak for itself; it has its own reality, hermetic, fiercely guarded even, but if you learn to look at place with the requisite humility, these hidden narratives will reveal themselves. A literature of slow revelation.

 

            This is her on the London Gateway Port, located close to Stanford-le-Hope, the town where, she tells us, Joseph Conrad began writing Heart of Darkness. The new port will become a huge gateway to London; it will be, Lichtenstein writes, the most automated deep-water super port in the world. Here is her rendition:

 

I visited the place myself. It looks completely different from anywhere else along the Estuary foreshore, with acres of desert-like sand fields, new roads, surveillance systems, mirrored office buildings and an extremely clean, clinical, almost silent, high-functioning quayside dominated by colossal quay cranes.

            The site is almost empty of human presence, she writes: the Tyrannosaurus-sized machinery is fingered by human beings parked behind screens in offices. The super port and its attendant frenetic 24/7 activity have erased the zone’s former persona of a space of ‘melancholic memory’.  Never mind a land grab; a ‘sea grab’ is in process in the Estuary, but the super port is only the latest iteration of rapid, economically-driven change.

 

Lichtenstein’s reckoning with her project. ‘I realised that [in five years] I had achieved little more than to capture some moments, to document an interactive encounter with these locations, to gather personal testimonies and recollections that hopefully resonate within a wider experience of this place.’

 

There is a contingent nature to such capture. We take the measure of places, try to hear what the are saying, but as we move on, so the landscape morphs and billows like a terrestrial tide to erase our tracings.

 

‘In the end,’ writes Lichtenstein, ‘I feel I have created a kind of collective memory map, attempting to highlight what lies under the watermark, what has been obliterated, what is being obliterated and what is still under threat I this indefinable and beautiful place where past flows into present into past in its eternal rhythm.’