When I began my “Granite Chain” project, I didn’t know how it would turn out. I simply had a faith in stories that came from “little people,” that they could be as compelling as those that came from the politicians, celebrities, criminals and others who normally warranted attention from the press. I’m not sure I can claim to have written their stories as well as they deserved, but I learned a lot along the way.
One of those lessons was that there’s a sort of human geology that we’re losing in our suburbanized, move-in/move-out world. In talking to people it’s often not long before you see how their relatives had stories of their own, many of them tied to this place: layers of story like layers of rock built up over time, but invisible and ignored if you don’t bother to ask.
John Hildebrand, in writing about his in-laws’ farm in the Midwest, captured how land and people form stories together.
We emerged as from a tunnel into a pocket field of soybeans called Potter’s Field after the farmer who had sold it to Ed’s father, the name persisting long after all memory of its owner had disappeared. Naming, of course, is a way of taking possession of a place, of connecting yourself to it. Place names on farms are often shorthand versions of stories for who owned what or how it was used. To know the stories is to understand where you are in the world, and to know that is to understand who you are.” (12)
A friend of his, trying to sell aerial photos to farmers, would end up sitting in their kitchens, drinking coffee and listening to their stories “because the land could not be explained apart from the people who farmed it, the stories covered several generations and required many hours to tell.”(15)
And therein lies a problem. What happens when we no longer know enough to ask about those stories? Hildebrand points to the price when he explains the purpose behind his book:
I am trying to form is a mental map of my wife’s family farm, an overview of 240 acres of the planet’s surface, an inventory of this small kingdom. . . What I haven’t got is a clue as to how all this information fits together to form the ongoing story that some people call a sense of place. . . Land itself can never be lost, only transformed; what is slipping away, day by day, is the meaning that connects us to it.” (15)
I’ve come to believe after making my straggling way around this little corner of town that regaining that sense of meaning, even a little bit of it, is worthwhile.
Hildebrand, John. Mapping the Farm: The Chronicle of a Family. NY: Vintage, 1995.