Saturday, November 13, 2010

Texts about places: evocations of place and time

Over the past few days I've read two short books, which could hardly be more different, yet both evoke their meaning and insight from writing about place. Each is better in reflection of the other.

Ted Kooser's Lights on a Ground of Darkness: An Evocation of a Place and Time (University of Nebraska Press, 2005) provides vignettes from the lives of Kooser's parent's, grandparents', and great-grandparents' generations in and around Guttenberg, Iowa. Kooser mourns and celebrates the lives rooted there, along with the irises that have been dug up each generation and moved from house to house over the generations: "An iris offers its beauty and fragrance as if nothing has changed, as if no one were gone."

Alain de Botton's A Week at the Airport (Vintage International, 2009) provides a different set of vignettes about people and place -- but in this case the place is the newly opened Terminal 5 at Heathrow, the time span is just one week, and the focus is not the passing of the generations but the passing of people, products, and technologies through one of busiest, most concentrated geographical points on earth. "We forget everything. . . . And so we gradually return to identifying happiness with elsewhere: twin rooms overlooking a harbour, a hilltop church boasting the remains of the Sicilian martyr St Agatha, a palm-fringed bungalow with complimentary evening buffet service. We recover an appetite for packing, hoping and screaming."

Kooser offers us the horizons, the cornfields and gardens, and those irises. de Botton offers us flying behemoths, the luggage and freight logistics infrastructure, passenger security procedures, and first-class airport lounges. Both with awe and authentic reverence for the lives passing through the place.