When I think about who I am, and why, I remember something the poet Wendell Berry wrote: “We have not got to where we are by anything so simple as deciding what we wanted to do and then doing it–as if we had shopped in a display of lives and selected one. We have, instead, in the midst of living, and with time passing, been discovering how we want to live, and inventing the ways” (from A Continuous Harmony). Inventing the ways–or, really, the ways inventing me–I ended up on an old farm in So. Danbury, New Hampshire. This is, I feel, where I’ve always been coming to. It is here I’ve learned what marriage to a place is. And everything I do is fed by that.
Born in Louisiana among cousins and bayous, I then grew up in Little Rock–where the cousins came in summer to climb the rocks Louisiana didn’t have and ride the escalator at Gus Blass. Who I am and what I know began in the South. But I always felt misplaced there. If I wasn’t already born to it, an attachment to New England began with my first and favorite picture book, about a snow-covered farm in New Hampshire. So it may be inevitable that I came east to school–and stayed. In 1968 I received an A. B. in American Studies from Smith College and, in 1970, an M.A. in Early American Arts and Culture from the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum, where I was a Winterthur Fellow.
I had grown up going to museums, my first summer jobs were in museums, and for fifteen years I thought I’d found my work there–researching collections, designing exhibits, giving talks, teaching courses, developing programs, guiding school groups and tour groups, meeting with trustees and donors, planning openings. It was a heady time to be immersed in American art and the museum scene. But something else was edging in.
Wanting to write was one of the big secrets I had known myself by. Even before I learned to read, I loved words and language. I wanted to make what writers made. But when a teacher said “Take a piece of paper and write a story,” I had no clue how to. Believing I lacked what a writer must know, I went through school facing blank paper and feeling as blank in front of it. Only in graduate school did something a long time in incubation find release. Studying American art and architecture, the ways we’ve lived over time, and the ways we’ve told who we are, I learned to read clues of circumstance and history, as well as line and form and composition, in what is all around us and began to write what I saw. Suddenly I had a way to use language. I had something to say. But I didn’t yet call myself “a writer.” Real writing, I still thought, required ability I was convinced I didn’t have. So for another twenty years, I remained occupied with other work and what I thought was lesser writing. Then the year that I was 41, stories of themselves began to come.
All that time I felt I couldn’t find my way to it, I was, nonetheless, writing story without knowing that was its name. I called it history–but it was story I was looking for: in things, in architecture and, increasingly, place. My earliest memories are of place. It’s always been “place” I’ve been pulled toward. And for years I was studying the idea and iconography and experience of place while working in museums (and, later, historic preservation) or just musing about architecture, landscape and cultural history, the mystery and memory and poetry of place. It took a while for me to know that place could be a subject. But once I did, I knew what my subject was.
I came to this old New Hampshire farm because I saw and felt a poetry here. Yet living here, I quickly discovered what that scenery depended on. I realized the larger, deeper life of the place I’d come to and saw it would require complex engagement in it to truly live here. Everything I write is in some way informed by what I’ve found here, but I’m not just taking stories from this place. Wendell Berry again speaks for me when he writes about the place and the farm he belongs to in Kentucky. “In [my] work is where my relation to this place comes alive. The real knowledge survives in the work, not in the memory. To love this place and hold out for its meanings and its memories, without undertaking any of its work, would be to falsify it.”
Some of that work occurs in the dailiness of living in a community. But I also found that more may be asked. There are, I believe, places we need to tell us where we are and something of who we are. And because we need them, we must take responsibility for protecting them. That has become part of my work, too. (The project that means the most to me is one that’s grown to some 9000 acres here, starting with a conservation easement on this farm I’ve come to–something that landed me, unexpectedly, in a centerfold of the April 1995 National Geographic, pp. 122-28.)
First and last, however, I am writing: what I call, simply and inclusively, story–picture books, longer fiction, prose about place. It is here I have found my voice and found my work. And it is here my work, it seems, has found me. Just as I am wanting to protect some places, I am also wanting to be a voice for the stories vested in those places–and especially this place, this farm.
There are costs. To live here, to sit on the doorstep and look at field and mountain and write, has a cost. Choices I’ve made have had severe costs. But here is where my heart is and where my work is. If, here, I’ve found my way to writing and to story, here I’ve also learned joy and am grateful.
Detail at top of page is from Pianna, illustrated by Bobbie Henba (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994).