Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: April, 2019

34. Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis

learning to die

Honestly, I should be working on the final assignment for my Cree course today. And I’m not sure that Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, a sobering little book by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, who are both poets and philosophers, belongs on my reading list. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll come to some sort of decision about the connection between this book and my research. If nothing else, reading Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis is timely. After all, in the past couple of weeks, reports have been issued (or leaked) suggesting that global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, despite our half-hearted attempts at slowing them down, and that Canada itself is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which is going to have devastating effects here. Meanwhile, our provincial premier addressed a rally of people protesting the one policy our federal government has come up with to address this catastrophe: the carbon tax. That tax, Premier Scott Moe told the crowd, will restrict the growth of our province and our economy. If only someone had explained to him that the only thing that lives in an expectation of limitless growth is cancer.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis consists of three essays: the first, by Robert Bringhurst, considers the fraught relation between our capitalist, technological civilization and what Bringhurst calls “the wild” (8); the second, by Jan Zwicky, turns to Plato to uncover the virtues we need to cultivate at a time when “[c]atastrophic global ecological collapse is on the horizon” (43); and the third, co-written by Bringhurst and Zwicky, attacks the work of professional optimist Stephen Pinker—especially his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—for playing fast and loose with the facts about the grave ecological situation that faces human civilization. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky take as given that the earth’s sixth great extinction event is likely to wipe us out as well—and, if our species, certainly our civilization. “If there are any human survivors of the next mass extinction,” Bringhurst writes, “their cultural slate will be wiped pretty clean. No one may have heard of Shakespeare or Bach, Picasso or Plato. No one may get the joke if a survivor digs up a fragment of a book and, as he rips it up for fuel, sees there beneath his dirty thumb the cheerful title Political Geoecology for the Anthropocene” (20-21). We are at an end, Bringhurst and Zwicky argue, and we need to face up to the situation we have created—not only for ourselves, but for every other species that calls this planet its home.

Bringhurst begins his essay, entitled “The Mind of the Wild,” with a comment Mark Twain made about Columbus’s landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492: “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it” (8). “Meditating on how good it might have been for European sailors not to discover America is one way of stepping a little outside ourselves and starting to learn to see things with precolonial eyes, and with nonhuman eyes—or, as David Abram would say, with more-than-human eyes,” Bringhurst writes (8). The people who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans “knew a great deal about the wild because they lived in intimate contact with it all their lives,” he continues. “We have mountains of hard evidence that they studied it and respected it, and that it served as the foundation for their educational practices” (8). Their stories tell us that “they didn’t aspire to run the world or tame it,” that “they understood that the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). Compare that way of thinking to the one revealed in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, or at least the translated version that Columbus’s sailors would have carried, which promises, without irony, that humans can “subdue” and “have dominion over” every living thing on the planet (10). Perhaps, Bringhurst suggests, it was the speed at which the Europeans crossed the ocean that was the problem:

If the European colonists and traders had come here by meandering over a land bridge, or by paddling, over several generations, along a chain of islands, then their stories, dreams, and songs would have shifted step by step and had ample time to change. Instead, they came in fast little ships: carracks, caravels, and galleons. Like people who fly in airplanes today, they travelled too fast ever to get where they were going. So they stepped ashore and walked right by the wild. (11-12)

When those Europeans noticed the wild at all, “they routinely misconstrued it as a barrier and a challenge” (12).

What does Bringhurst mean by “the wild”? It is “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control. It is what lives in the long term without being managed” (12). It is not “a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please” (12). Rather, “[t]he wild is earth living its life to the full” (12). “The earth’s life is much larger than our own life,” he continues, “but our lives are part of it. If we take that life, we take our own” (12). But the wild is also inside of us, at least as a possibility: if we can see “how profoundly complete and self-sufficient, how intricate and beautiful” the wild is, “how little it can benefit and greatly it can suffer from human interference,” we will actually come to discover this place (13). And yet, 

We will never know the wild completely, because the wild is sufficient to itself—self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us. Yet because we are a part of it—and cannot, even in death, be disconnected from it completely—we always know a little bit about it, however tame or urbanized we are. The little we know is not nearly enough to recreate it if it goes—but in a sense that does not matter. When it goes, we will not be here to try. (13)

We depend on the wild. We need it, even though we typically don’t recognize that is the case. That lack of recognition feeds the rapid growth of our population and the “feverish building and trashing” that accompanies it (15). “Roughly fifty years ago, we as a species started using the planet’s accumulated resources faster than they are replenished,” Bringhurst writes, even though the wild always generates a surplus (15). “A billion more people per decade, each with machinery in tow, is more than the wild will bear,” he concludes (16).

Our planet has seen several mass extinctions. One, at the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, some 250 million years ago, wiped out more than 80% of all existing genera and species (17-18). Another, at the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, 65 million years ago, killed three quarters of all existing plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs (18). “Depending on where you set the bar—at 50% or 30% extinction—there have been at least five, or at least nine such planetary holocausts or global mass extinctions in the last 600 million years,” Bringhurst writes (18). At least one of them was caused by cyanobacteria, which developed a form of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product, killing off the majority of species of bacteria on the planet, which could not tolerate oxygen (18-19). The mass extinction we have set in motion “by overbreeding, overbuilding, overexploiting, overhunting, overfishing, and by relentlessly overconsuming fossil fuel, can claim to be unique,” Bringhurst argues: it will be the first mass extinction “provoked by a single species”—homo sapiens.

From the perspective of geological time, Bringhurst suggests, this may not matter very much. Our sun will eventually run out of fuel, and as it does, it will consume the planets closest to it (25-26). And given the frequency of mass extinction events, it’s unlikely that humans would be able to continue to exist until that happens, some 500 million years from now (26-27). “Even if life were going to live forever—which it isn’t—all forms of life are mortal,” Bringhurst argues:

Few, if any, animal species have survived for half a billion years. No species of placental mammal has lived for more than a few million. So if we’re thinking about maximizing our future, on this all-too-mortal planet, circling that all-too-mortal star we call the sun, we should be thinking about our descendants, not ourselves as individuals nor ourselves as a species either. And those descendants are far more likely to be our species’ nieces and nephews, rather than our species’ daughters and sons. (29)

“In other words, if we want to polish our hopes for the future,” he concludes, “we should take a broader view: an avuncular rather than strictly grand-parental view” (29). 

Humans, Bringhurst argues, are “liminal creatures” who “live on the edge of the wild,” like “hive-building and nest-making and lodge-building and burrow-digging” creatures, and like lichen (because of their use of algae) and trees (because they “congregate in forests” (32). All of these creatures modify the wild, domesticate “some tiny part of it,” and therefore “contribute to its richness and complexity” (33). “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere,” he writes, noting that humans have so many creatures living inside and on them “that their cells outnumber our own. Inside and out, we are dwarfed by the wild and reliant upon it” (33). If we live on the boundary of the wild, what is on the other side of that boundary? Nothing, Bringhurst replies. Death: “the lifeless world that was here before the wild came to be—and will be here still when the wild has vanished” (34).

“Because we are liminal creatures, we often get closer to the wild by pushing against it—brushing out a trail, for example, or catching and cleaning a trout, or killing and gutting a deer,” Bringhurst writes. But by pushing harder—by constructing a highway or running a salmon farm—we paradoxically find that we’ve pushed ourselves farther away (34). “We as an increasingly globalized culture have tried to turn the delicate and permeable membrane between us and the wild into a wall,” he continues (36). Now we are up against that wall, and “it’s more important than ever before that we learn to think like an ecosystem, not like a spoiled brat or a biological singularity” (36). Why? “One reason is, so we can go down singing, happy to know what we know, hopeful that the earth will go on living its life to the full as long as it can,” Bringhurst suggests. “The other reason is, so that we as individuals and small groups, with limited resources, can do what it is possible to do on the wild’s behalf—on being’s behalf—and thereby on ours” (37). Civil disobedience is one action we can take (37-38). But we can also side with older, more sustainable cultures against “the unsustainable mainstream, and with other species against our own” (38). He concludes by citing a Haida proverb that translates as “The ground might see me” (38). “It’s a moral and ethical benchmark,” he explains. A benchmark with eyes. . . . the basic moral reference is the ground beneath your feet” (38-39). Attending to that benchmark “won’t enable you to save the world, but you might just manage to save your self-respect. And that is something” (39).

In a way, Zwicky picks up where Bringhurst left off: with the kinds of moral virtues that are necessary for us at the end of our civilization. With catastrophic climate change beginning to transform our planet, and without coherent political action to stop it, and with our demand for fossil fuels increasing, we are going to go—and “take a lot of innocent beings with us” (43-45). Zwicky turns to Plato, or to Socrates, about whom Plato wrote, to discover what constitutes virtue in such circumstances. “The answer is surprisingly straightforward,” she writes: “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life” (45). 

The core Socratic virtues, Zwicky writes, are “knowing what’s what,” which means having an awareness of the world “coupled with humility regarding what one knows”; courage; self-control; justice; contemplative practice; and compassion (49). For Zwicky, “knowing what’s what,” or awareness, involves a “limpid recognition of mortality” (50). “It is to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music,” she writes (50). “Being will be here,” she states, quoting one of Bringhurst’s poems. “Beauty will be here.” But we may not be (50-51). This recognition does not mean wallowing in despair, however. The natural world “is still, in many ways, very much alive,” and we need to remember that after other mass extinctions, “life has proliferated again” (51). 

Courage will be required to face what is coming—both physical courage and the moral courage “to continue to exercise the virtue of awareness” (54). “Humility—a deep unconcern for the social fate of the self—is the foundation of courage as well as wisdom: it frees one to see the truth,” she writes. And part of that wisdom involves another virtue: self-control. That is something contemporary humans—“consumers”—lack (55). Self-control “allows a joyous simplicity, a delight in living as lightly as possible on the earth” (55). “It is an embrace of simplicity,” a shift in our understanding of happiness (56). 

Another virtue we will need, according to Zwicky, is justice. For Plato, justice was one of the cardinal virtues, along with awareness, courage, and self-control. Those four virtues are “facets of an integrated whole” (57). Justice “is manifest in the whole soul or state, Plato argues, when each part submits willingly to the direction of the intellectual faculty or class,” Zwicky writes (57). It is interior harmony:

Justice as interior harmony effectively summarizes the internal relations we’ve already noticed among awareness, humility, courage, and self-control. Humility—getting the ego and its fears out of the way—gives one the courage to seek truth; it helps one discern where one must press further. Awareness makes self-control easy: it turns it from an onerous task into a series of self-reinforcing behaviours that allow one to feel at home. The resulting simplicity supports humility; awareness widens and courage builds. (59)

“If ‘justice’ seems the wrong name for this virtue,” she continues, “call it something else: nobility; integrity; shiningness. What produces it is the self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage, and self-control” (59).

Compassion is also important—“compassion for those struggling to come to awareness,” that is (63). There is no point in feeling contempt for those whose fear prevents them from coming into awareness, she writes; such contempt is both graceless and damaging. It “intensifies anxiety, thereby intensifying denial” (63). I ought to feel compassion for the carbon-tax protestors and for our premier, then, instead of frustration and anger. That is a tall order. Perhaps the final virtue, contemplative practice, would help me be compassionate. For Zwicky, contemplative practice is an attention “to the real, physical world, its immense and intricate workings, its subtlety; it’s power, its harshness, and its enormous beauty” (64). It means attending to the “miracle” of the physical world, by slowing down so that we can sense its rhythms (64-65). It is also an attention “to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” (65). “The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it,” she continues. Instead, we find ourselves desiring to become a member of the community of the physical world (65). Along with the wonder we begin to feel comes respect and “a willingness to take intuitive forms of knowing seriously” (65). And contemplative practice can help us understand and acknowledge what we have destroyed, which “can free us into real and cleansing grief” (66).

We don’t possess those virtues, individually or collectively, of course. Why? For Plato, we misjudge the facts of the case. For instance, we incorrectly judge that the pleasure of immediate gratification outweighs the pain of the future suffering to which that immediate gratification will contribute. So we fly to Mexico for a holiday without thinking of the global warming that goes along with air travel (67). But ignorance isn’t our only failing. Even when we know what virtue is, that knowledge does not “seem to compel most of us, most of the time. This may simply be a brute fact about the species” (68). So people like me, citizens of the rich, technocratic nations on this planet, have been unwilling to “impose mindful constraints on our own consumption when the science came in decades ago” (68). “We knew, we knew well enough to be made uncomfortable by our knowledge, but we didn’t want to know” (69). We pretended the problem would just go away. “We see once again that there is no sharp distinction between awareness and justice conceived as integrity; it routinely takes courage and self-control—steadiness of vision in the face of fear or shock or disbelief—to admit what we know, just as it takes courage and humility to admit what we don’t know,” Zwicky writes (69). For virtues to be virtues, in other words, they must be practised together. “Becoming an excellent human being requires one to adopt a moral ecology,” and “[m]oral ecologies, like biological ones, are organic wholes, whose distinguishable aspects—the virtues—stand in internal relations to one another” (69-70). In other words, none of the Socratic virtues “can be acquired without acquiring the others” (70).

So, Zwicky asks, “[h]ow are we to die?” (70). With a sense of humour, she answers, with a “lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal of despair. Even in the face of death” (70-71). I don’t know, though. Why would we suddenly acquire and begin practicing these virtues as we die, if we haven’t acquired or practiced them during our lives? In our last moments as a species, or as a civilization, will we suddenly change our ways? I doubt it. 

Do these two essays—I’m skipping over their critique of Pinker’s optimism, his lack of awareness, and his inability to sympathize with people “who sense that a genuine connection to the natural world is fundamental to human flourishing” (90), because I haven’t read Pinker’s work and so cannot measure their response to it—connect to my research? I wasn’t sure before I began writing this summary, but now, I am convinced they do offer something. Perhaps, by walking, I can begin to become aware of the wild, in Bringhurst’s term, or “the real, physical world,” in Zwicky’s (64). At the same time, I will likely come to understand the degree to which the ecosystems through which I will walk have been damaged. Perhaps that walking could become a form of contemplative practice that could lead to “deep acknowledgement” and “cleansing grief” at what we have wrought (66). And no doubt my attempt at learning Cree will help me, even in a limited way, come to understand the notion that “the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). I don’t know. I feel a connection between my project and this book, and while I am aware of the need not to let my research sprawl out of control, at the same time I want to remain open to important connections and possibilities, and those are what this little book offers.

Work Cited

Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.

33. Katherena Vermette, North End Love Songs

north end love songs

I’m not totally convinced that I’m the best person to write about Governor General’s Award-winning poet and novelist Katherena Vermette’s book North End Love Songs, since I’ve never spent much time in Winnipeg and I’ve never made the trip up Main Street to Winnipeg’s North End, the place explored in these poems. And I always feel some trepidation, as a môniyâw, whenever I set out to say anything about a book by an Indigenous writer. But North End Love Songs is a book about place, and I’ve been reading and thinking about and writing about books about place, so it might not be completely out of line for me to think out loud about these poems in this space.

Like Chelsea Coupal’s Sedley, another book of poems about place I’ve been reading, North End Love Songs is an autobiographical portrait of what it’s like to grow up as a young woman in a particular space. But whereas Sedley is about growing up in a rural and white community in Saskatchewan, North End Love Songs is about a very different experience, urban and Indigenous. There are four sections in North End Love Songs. The first, “Poised for Flight,” imagines the good and bad experiences of an Indigenous girl growing up in Winnipeg’s North End through birds. Not all of the poems in that section of the book draw on that conceit, but most of them do. There is a fragility suggested in these poems, as well as a potential for something else, realized or not. But most of all, there’s a sense of foreboding as in “chickadee”:

chickadee loves sun
sits in it all summer
singing the song
that is
her name:

when she’s thirteen
she stays at her granny’s
for a summer
the house has a long
screened in porch
that smells like
spilt beer and old people
the floor crunches
with sunflower seed shells

an old man hangs out there
watches the sun
through the screen
when she meets him
he looks her up and down
and up again

well he sighs through
toothless gums
you must be your mother’s (20)

The sun-loving chickadee is transformed into a girl in a musty (and, I assume, shady) screened-in porch, confronting a nameless old man. Who is this old man? If he were her grandfather, wouldn’t he be identified as such? Is he her grandmother’s partner? Someone else? Isn’t there something creepy, even lascivious, in the way he looks at the girl? How does he know her mother? There is a sense of innocence that’s perhaps about to be lost in this poem, as in the other poems in this section. The lines, here and elsewhere in the book, are short, blunt, straight-forward, but the movement from one stanza to the next is what gives the poem its power.

Many of the poems in the book are named after streets in Winnipeg’s North End, and that city’s elm trees are ubiquitous. (I had never seen an elm tree until driving through Winnipeg on the way to Regina.) Take, for example, the first part of “bannerman avenue,” the first poem in the book’s second section, “nortendluvsong”:

girl looks down
bannerman avenue
elms tower
branches overhead
interlaced like fingers
cup around her
hold her in

grey street goes
bone straight
right under
fingers making a steeple
a church adorned

black leaves
across pavement

branches wave
in the sun (41)

The suggestion that the elms grasp or hold the human figures in these poems is repeated throughout this section, much like the way that birds returned in the book’s first section: “girls walk back down / bannerman avenue / sip big gulps/ talk too loud // elms curve / above them / like a roof” (55), or “she is with a boy / in the heavy / summer rain / they are dry / under a shroud of trees // impossible elms / so intertwined / the concrete / underneath / barely changes colour // where the boy / leans her against / the soft bark / cups his palms / to her cheeks” (65). But the elms aren’t always so comforting: “in summer the elms / gentle / thick / intertwined / block out sun” (49), or “in winter the elms / black / skeletons” (50).

In fact, the place of the natural world in Winnipeg’s North End is uneasy, troubled: wildflowers, despite their beauty, are poisoned before they “take over / choke out all those / poppies and marigolds / roses and daffodils / no planted flower / stands a chance / against a pack of weeds” (57), and an elm tree, its bark spray painted with a “bright orange / X / a kill mark,” is cut into pieces by a city work crew “as if carving a sculpture / or trimming hair,” not stopping “until the tree is barely / taller than the grass” (63-64). The lives of the people in the North End are similarly threatened. In “Guy,” a classmate of a young girl is repeatedly beaten by his father: “when he shows up / at school all bruised / tells everyone / how he got jumped / she just nods / like everyone else” (47-48). But it’s not all doom and gloom. A quartet of girls sits on the steps of a church, drinking Big Gulps and eating chips and sharing cigarettes, their conversation both a catalogue of bad experiences and a communal sharing. Like the wildflowers setting seed in flower beds, there is life here as well as death; the poems reproduce that vitality even as they suggest the things that threaten it.

In “November,” the book’s third section, Vermette turns to the disappearance of her brother. He loved 1980s pop metal—one poem, “mixed tape,” is structured through a series of song titles by bands like Poison and Mötley Crüe (78-80)—and, the night he disappeared, wore a concert t-shirt and checked “his reflection / in the mirror” (70), agreeing to let his sister borrow one of his sweaters before he left the house. He didn’t come home. His family put up posters, the photo of him “holding the teddy bear / her mother bought / last christmas” (72) undercutting the newspaper headline: “Native Man Missing After Binge” (71). The police do little:

indians go missing
they tell the family
indians go missing
everyday
blue suits shrug
no sense looking
they said
he’ll turn up when
he gets bored
or broke (90)

His body was found in the spring, in the river, and identified through dental records. He had tried to cross “a frozen river / not quite frozen” and hadn’t made it “to the other side” (90). The section ends with the poem “epitaph,” the story of a journey to visit the dead boy’s grave. The speaker leaves a rose there, although she doesn’t know if her brother liked roses, “but somehow / it reminds her of / long haired boys with / good intentions / and mischevious smiles // brothers annoying / and kind // lost little boys / just trying to find / their way / home” (97).

The book’s final section is “I Am A North End Girl,” which I understand to be a documentary poem that reproduces the voices of girls and women living in Winnipeg’s North End. Those voices speak of children, of addiction and the sex trade, of illness and domestic violence, but they also speak of graduating from high school, of celebrating “each full moon with a / drum circle” (103), and of strange and comical acts of resistance to the city’s racism and to being undesired at the same time:

. . . when the night’s been too long, when I get bored or
just mad and cold I run out into early morning traffic,
down by Aikins where those fucking white people are
going to their fucking jobs and I yell, “Hey you know
you want some of this!?” or something. The looks on
those faces, shit, you should see, it’s fucking hilarious.
Have to get some attention some time fuck, they all
stopped noticing me there long ago. (103)

Most importantly, though, those voices—or at least the last one—speak of unflinching witness: “but I’ve never / not once / not for one second / looked away” (105). Nor, apparently, has Vermette herself.

These are powerful poems, but they also reiterate the necessity to know a place intimately before trying to write about it. North End Love Songs would have been impossible without a deep knowledge of that place and its people, a knowledge that could only come from growing up there. In that way, North End Love Songs is similar to Warren Cariou’s Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging, or Sarah de Leeuw’s Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16, which are also books that come from the experience of being raised in a particular place (or, in de Leeuw’s case, in particular places). Nevertheless, Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance suggests that an outsider to a place can also gain such an intimate knowledge over time. Perhaps that’s the equation for writing about place? Time + experience = knowledge. Could it be that simple? Somehow I doubt it: nothing is ever that simple. I am going to have to continue my research.

Works Cited

Cariou, Warren. Lake of the Prairies: A Story of Belonging. Anchor, 2003.

Coupal, Chelsea. Sedley: Poems. Coteau Books, 2018.

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick Books, 2012.

de Leeuw, Sarah. Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16. Newest, 2004.

Vermette, Katherena. North End Love Songs. The Muses’ Company, 2012.

32. Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path”

eudora welty

I used to teach Eudora Welty’s story, “A Worn Path,” and I still love it anyway. The story’s main character, Phoenix, is “an old Negro woman” (142) walking from her home somewhere “away back off the Old Natchez Trace” (147) into the town of Natchez, Mississippi. The narrator tells us that Phoenix

was very old and small and she walked slowly in the dark pine shadows, moving a little from side to side in her steps, with the balanced heaviness and lightness of a pendulum in a grandfather clock. She carried a thin, small cane made from an umbrella, and with this she kept tapping the frozen earth in front of her. This made a grave and persistent noise in the still air, that seemed meditative like the chirping of a solitary little bird. (142)

Phoenix is poor; her apron is made of “bleached sugar sacks” (142). She is unable to tie her shoes, because her laces “dragged” as she walked, and her eyes are “blue with age,” a description that suggests cataracts (142). As the story unfolds, it also becomes clear to us that she is experiencing some form of age-related cognitive impairment. For most of the story, we don’t know why she has embarked on her journey. All we know is that she is determined to get to Natchez. We don’t know how long her walk is, exactly, but it might be as long as four or five hours, which would mean she walks as far as 20 kilometres. That’s a good morning’s walk for anyone, never mind someone whose wrinkled face suggests that she might be in her eighties. When I taught this story, I knew that none of my students had ever made such a walk—that they couldn’t even imagine walking that far—and that their understanding of the difficulty of Phoenix’s walk was incomplete as a result.

While I was reading Yi-Fu Tuan’s book, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, I thought about “A Worn Path,” and the way the distinction Tuan makes between space and place could be mapped onto this story. “‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place,’” Tuan writes:

What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. . . . The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa. Furthermore, if we think of space as that which allows movement, then place is pause; each pause in movement makes it possible for location to be transformed into place. (6)

The path of Phoenix’s walk might suggest that it is a space between two places: her home, and her destination in Natchez. But I would argue that because Phoenix is walking, and because that walk is the occasion of a story, and because she knows stories about that path from her repeated journeys along it, her path is actually made up of a series of places linked closely together. Walking and narration, then, turn space into place in this story. But so too does the fact that Phoenix has made this walk many times before. She is following a path worn (at least in part) by her own feet; she knows the obstacles and difficulties she will encounter; and, as we learn at the end of the story, she has been making this walk regularly for two or three years. From what I’ve read over the past months, I’ve determined that turning space into place requires storytelling, repetition, and slow movement (like walking). Tuan thinks that pauses are essential, and I think he’s correct, but I would extend his argument a little: walking is slow enough to enable us to experience space as place, and it also allows for the frequent pauses which Tuan argues are necessary for this transformation to occur.

What places does Phoenix experience? The first is a thicket where Phoenix perceives animals “quivering” (142). She warns the animals not to obstruct her progress:

“Out of my way, all you foxes, owls, beetles, jack rabbits, coons and wild animals! . . . Keep out from under these feet, little bob-whites. . . . Keep the big wild hogs out of my path. Don’t let none of those come running in my direction. I got a long way.” Under her small black-freckled hand her cane, limber as a buggy whip, would switch at the brush as if to rouse up any hiding things. (142)

The next place she encounters presents another challenge: a hill. “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far,” Phoenix says. “Something always take a hold of me on this hill—pleads I should stay” (143). The climb is difficult, but so too is the descent: “Her eyes opened their widest, and she started down gently” (143). Two things are worth noting about this hill. First, Phoenix identifies it by the trees she encounters: “‘Up through pines,’ she said at length. ‘Now down through oaks’” (143). That identification is part of what helps to make this location a place, rather than undifferentiated space. But the multiple challenges she experiences—the climb, the descent, and a bush that catches her dress—also help to define this hill as place. Phoenix faces these challenges with equanimity, even though her eyesight is clearly a source of difficulty for her: addressing the thorn bush that has caught her dress, she says, “Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush” (143).

At the bottom of the hill, the narrator tells us, “was a place where a log was laid across the creek” (143). Phoenix knows this log bridge is there: “Now comes the trial,” she says (143):

Putting her right foot out, she mounted the log and shut her eyes. Lifting her skirt, leveling her cane fiercely before her, like a festival figure in some parade, she began to march across. Then she opened her eyes and was safe on the other side.

“I wasn’t as old as I thought,” she said. (143)

Now comes a pause: a brief stop to rest, during which she either hallucinates, or falls asleep and dreams about, a little boy offering her “a slice of marble-cake” (143). When she returns to her walk, she immediately comes to another place of difficulty: she has to crawl through a barbed-wire fence. Once past the fence, she encounters a stand of “[b]ig dead trees,” on which “sat a buzzard” (144). Both the trees and the buzzard suggest death, which (given Phoenix’s age) is not far off, but the words Phoenix directs at the buzzard—“Who you watching?” (144)—suggest her tenacious hold on life despite her age and apparent infirmity.

Phoenix passes through a field of old cotton—notable because, in winter, it doesn’t contain the hazards of bulls or snakes, as it did earlier in the year, when she saw a two-headed snake (144)—into a field of dead corn. The sense of repetition—of having stories to tell about the locations through which she walks—is an important aspect of the rendering of those locations as place. This corn field presents another obstacle, because there is no path through the field. “Through the maze now,” Phoenix says to herself (144). She mistakes a scarecrow in the field for a ghost, and when she realizes her error, she laughs at herself—“I ought to be shut up for good,” she says (144)—and dances with the scarecrow. At the end of the corn field, Phoenix comes across quail “walking around like pullets, seeming all dainty and unseen” (144). Their movement reminds her of the quality of the path at this point in her walk: “‘Walk pretty,’ she said. ‘This is the easy place. This is the easy going’” (144). She follows “the track” past cabins with boarded-up windows and doors, “all like old women under a spell sitting there” (144). “I walking in their sleep,” Phoenix observes, “nodding her head vigorously” (144). Then she encounters a spring “silently flowing through a hollow log” (144) and stops for a drink. This spring appears to be a well-known place on her route, because she notes, “Nobody know who made this well, for it was here when I was born” (144). Clearly this well is a place she shares with others, all of those who do not know the well’s origin.

After crossing a swamp—“Sleep on, alligators, and blow your bubbles,” Phoenix says (145)—the track goes up into a road, where Phoenix is knocked down by a black dog: “Over she went in the ditch, like a little puff of milkweed” (145). She briefly loses consciousness and, when she recovers, finds she cannot stand without help. That assistance comes from a white man who has his own dog on a chain. He patronizes her, calling her “Granny” and dismissing her desire to go to town as a mere desire “to see Santa Claus” (145), but he does help her up. More importantly, Phoenix notices that a nickel dropped out of the man’s pocket onto the ground. She encourages the man to chase the black dog away by praising its courage and size, and while he is doing that, she carefully bends over and pockets the nickel. “God watching me the whole time,” she says. “I come to stealing” (146). When the man returns, he points his rifle directly at Phoenix and asks if she is frightened. “No sir, I seen plenty go off closer by, in my day, and for less than what I done” (146)—a reference to her theft of the nickel, I presume. The man departs with a warning: “you take my advice and stay home, and nothing will happen to you” (146). The point of retelling this event is that Phoenix’s encounter with the hunter will (assuming she remembers it) become another story she will tell herself the next time she is walking along that road, like the two-headed snake or the well where she drank. Spaces become places as they are experienced and as stories are told about them, and that otherwise nondescript roadside will become another story for Phoenix.

When she arrives in Natchez, Phoenix is exhausted and confused by the coloured Christmas lights; she “would have been lost if she had not distrusted her eyesight and depended on her feet to know where to take her” (146). That embodied knowledge is another way in which undifferentiated space becomes place: Phoenix knows the way with her body, rather than her eyes or her conscious mind. In Natchez, she once again triumphs over a white person, stopping a well-dressed woman carrying presents to ask she would tie her shoes. That woman also patronizes Phoenix, calling her “Grandma,” but she does as Phoenix asks (147). Then Phoenix continues walking “until her feet knew to stop” (147). She has arrived at her destination: a doctor’s office. However, tired from her walk, she has forgotten the purpose of her journey, a lapse which frightens her. Nevertheless, prompted by the nurse, she recalls the purpose of her long walk. She receives medicine for her grandson and demands another nickel from the “attendant” (148-49). Now that she has 10 cents, she intends to buy her grandson “a little windmill they sells, made out of paper. He going to find it hard to believe there such a thing in the world” (149). 

“A Worn Path” is about a lot of things: love, determination, the need for objects capable of generating wonder along with more practical things. But it is also about place, I think, and the way that repeated walking journeys have made the path that Phoenix travels into a place or, at least, into a series of contiguous places. Movement, in this story, is not divorced from place-making, as it is in Tuan’s discussion of place, and that makes “A Worn Path” a useful (if fictional) example of the potential for mobile forms of place-making, especially place-making through walking.

Works Cited

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.

Welty, Eudora. “A Worn Path.” The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980, pp. 142-49.

31. Nora Gould, I see my love more clearly from a distance

gould i see my love more clearly from a distance

I was asking around about contemporary poetry about place a while back, and my friend Michael Dennis (who blogs about contemporary poetry here) suggested I take a look at Nora Gould’s I see my love more clearly from a distance. I’m so glad he did. It’s a wonderful evocation of place, similar to but so different from the works of creative nonfiction I’ve written about here in the past couple of weeks.

One of the reasons I see my love more clearly from a distance is so powerful is the relationship Gould creates between herself and the ranch in central Alberta where she and her family live, and which is the subject of these poems. In many of the poems, Gould reads (or writes) herself (and particularly her bout of endometriosis and the surgery it occasioned) into the land or the cows she and her husband raise. Take, for example, the poem “Downer cow”:

The bellow, the swing of the head,
scrabble of front legs, the breath,
points north.

Coyotes uncork the belly south,
magpies follow
and if the season’s right, blowflies.

In the hospital room I opened
my eyes to blues, dull gold, white
cranes flying behind the morphine

pump, across the moon: a swath
of fabric I’d tacked on the wall.
And Cousin Matt with yellow tulips. (36)

So much is happening in this poem. The dying and then dead cow in the first two stanzas is written against two of the cardinal directions (“north” when it is dying, “south” after it is dead and the food of coyotes, magpies, and blowfly larvae). But that animal is juxtaposed against Gould herself (these poems are personal and confessional, and it’s clear to me that Gould is speaking of her own experience here) in hospital, waking up after (I think) her operation to the sight of “a swath” of fabric—and “swath” is an important word here, suggesting the way that grains or oilseeds are harvested—and the oddly springlike “yellow tulips” her cousin (or more likely her husband’s cousin, since “Matt” seems to be a common name in his family) had brought to brighten up the room. One animal dies, and another comes back to life. One animal is perhaps dead in winter—isn’t that why she suggests that “blowflies” will only lay their eggs in the dead cow “if the season’s right”?—and the other, given the colours of the fabric and the tulips, is possibly in spring. In that case, the “cranes flying behind the morphine / pump” would be returning: sandhill cranes, perhaps, flying north in spring to mate and breed—an ironic counterpart to Gould’s (I think) hysterectomy.

So that’s one remarkable aspect of these poems: the way Gould writes her own body into the land and its inhabitants (wild and tame). Another is the personification of the land as “Prairie,” the lover of Orion, a homebred mythology of fecundity and, in the current moment, environmental destruction:

Now, pipes in sections, each joint rigid,
drilled deep in her parenchyma, have shifted, mixed
her fluids, frayed, broken her. Her hills
cut down, long scars converge
where flares stillbirth her northern lights

in sorrow. Sorrow, in the silences between her
measured phrases, she tastes air-
borne emissions, switches from her native

tongue. Frac fluid benzene H2S sulphur
dioxide cannot be spoken with coneflower,
ascending milk-vetch; drilling mud with scarlet

mallow. Prairie turns to Orion, toluene blue
in his blood, his fluids
in her, her blood
loose in her body. (12)

The enjambment here suggests, for me, urgency; the brief catalogue of pollutants that “cannot be spoken” with the catalogue of indigenous prairie forbs suggests what is being lost. Such catalogues—of plants, birds, animals—are one of Gould’s default procedures. But she does not only catalogue the natural environment; her use of ranching and farming language brings her readers directly into a world they might know little about, as in “Roundup Ready® canola”:

Jim says if he didn’t use chemicals, his fields would be all
dandelions and other weeds, some of them noxious.
There’s the pre-burn, the in-crop—hopefully only once—and
the desiccant pre-harvest.
He has ag advisors, GPS and weather monitoring.
He juggles degrees of tillage, crop rotation, seed banks and windows
of opportunity with rainfall, frost and his account balance.
He has a washer in his shop for the clothes he wears under his disposable
coveralls, goggles, hat and nitrile gloves. Otherwise the recommendation
is to wash these clothes alone, then run the washer empty
with detergent, the water level set for an extra large load.
Roundup® extended control product prevents weed control in your yard
for up to four months. The label says to wash your hands after use. (19)

Did you know that farmers would keep a washing machine in their shops for the clothes they wear when spraying? I didn’t. The last two lines of the poem shift away from the fields, either to farm yards or, perhaps, urban yards. How many of us have used some version of glyphosate ourselves? How many of us remembered to wash our hands afterwards?

Another aspect of these poems is their openness to thinking about life and death. Both are part of Gould’s world, and both are intrinsic to the place about which she is writing. Here’s a paragraph from “Allan discerns Psalm 29:6,” a prose poem about a hired man, a “preacher’s kid from Burlington” (68) who helps with calving:

Somehow, live birth after live birth: head back, backwards, leg back,
twins. Allan saw nothing dead until he’d fallen in love with the brown
of Prairie’s throat, her collar open to the sun that dried the calf, its head
twisted under a front leg. The open eyes echoed the crescendo of his
prayer nailing flawless imperfection. Selah. (68)

It’s not just dead calves: everything dies, or must be killed. Gould’s four-year-old daughter asks of a dead horse, “how does Deadstock get Lady to heaven?” (96). A “neighbour kid” shoots a coyote and gets $25 for the frozen body: “didn’t have to skin it” (69). Sometimes in these poems death is an assault, and other times it is a mercy, but it is always a part of life, something that cannot be avoided or turned away from.

I find all of this all the more remarkable because Gould, although she hails from Alberta, does not seem to have grown up on a farm. In “Thank you for Seed Catalogue”—the poem’s title references Robert Kroetsch’s epic prairie poem—Gould seems to acknowledge that fact:

With Robert Kroetsch, and Roger Tory
Peterson, and Vance Jowsey and McLean’s
revised and expanded Wild Flowers Across
the Prairies, and Poisonous Plants Agdex 666-2,
you could grasp the prairies, almost, okay you couldn’t,
but they could remind you if you knew,
if you were, through it all, still, gazing
at three-flowered avens, still startled by Horned Larks. (78)

Like the person referred to here—whom I take to be Gould herself, although I could be wrong—I’ve come to know the grassland through Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds (which lists all of the birds that live west of the 100th meridian) and Wild Flowers Across the Prairies. That book knowledge is one thing, but it’s not the same as the men she has met—Art Spencer and Jim—who “knew,” with a knowledge other than “book knowing,” the prairie (78). But the speaker in this poem, and the two men she refers to, are very different from others whose approach to the prairie is domination and destruction: “Men, who think they’re familiar / with what they think is theirs, / figure they can school Prairie with a D9 cat, push / the Great Horned Owls to other land” (78). “Prairie,” here, is a return to the earlier poems in which the grassland is personified, but more importantly, the suggestion this poem makes seems to be that using a bulldozer to teach that the prairie a lesson, or push the birds that live in grassland somewhere else, is worse than futile. Their familiarity with the prairie is superficial; their attempts at teaching involve its destruction.

I wanted to think about this book through Edward Soja’s “trialectics” (262) of Firstspace (perceived space), Secondspace (conceived space), and Thirdspace (lived space). I’ve been wondering if the distinction Soja makes between perceived space and conceived space could be mapped onto the usual distinction made in the social sciences between quantitative and qualitative inquiry. If that’s the case—and it might not be—then we can see elements of both of these in Gould’s poems. Quantitative approaches are suggested in poems which describe the way the ranch is mapped and named, such as “Our place is medium-sized: the school board deals with sparsity and distance issues”:

This land where we till the soil, raise a few
chickens, pasture cattle, goats, horses, is all named
officially by number. The north half of twenty-eight
we call Johnny’s, after the man who stacked his hay
and when he finished that load, let his fork slide
to the ground, slid down after it. The handle
entered him through his groin.

The northwest of four, the Nelson Place with the little girl’s
grave. The northwest of seventeen is where the Scot
built his stone house to overlook the Watson Coulee.
The steep depression that was Johnson’s cellar, where we
found the calf, the cow worrying us during the rescue.
The old shed on thirty-five where we found the steer
dead behind the shut door, the same way
the neighbours had found Kistner in the house. (17)

The quantitative elements of numbering land according to sections and grids (I’m bluffing, of course: I’m no expert on how land is identified for taxation purposes—isn’t that the reason for the reference to “school board” in the poem’s title?—in Alberta) is, of course, overwhelmed by the fragments of stories about those places, the accounts of deaths and rescues that are referred to, obliquely, here. But if I understand Soja correctly, it seems that both Firstspace and Secondspace are present in this poem.

But what of Thirdspace? Can these poems be understood as representations of lived space? As representations, they are pulled back into Secondspace, no doubt, but to what degree can they be read as lived space? Thirdspace, for Soja, is politically engaged; it is a combination of “a strategic attachment to a new cultural politics of difference and identity, and a radical postmodernist critical positioning” that has become the source of writing “from the wider fields of feminist and post-colonial criticism” (272). Gould’s work is not post-colonial, but I would argue that it is engaged in a feminist politics, in the way it looks, without flinching, at the experiences of farm women, and especially in its focus on the body of its author. Does that mean this book could fall into Soja’s definition of Thirdspace? Since bell hooks’s essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” is Soja’s paradigmatic example of Thirdspace, perhaps I need to return to that essay before I can begin to formulate an answer to that question.

What a disappointment: to find myself drawn back into a text I’ve already read. And yet, how inevitable as well. What is not a disappointment, though, is having read Gould’s poems. I wonder how teachable they might be. I’ve been thinking about teaching a course on literary representations of place, and this book would fit that topic very well—so long as the difficulty of these poems does not overwhelm their beauty. That’s something I will have to think about.

Works Cited

Gould, Nora. I see my love more clearly from a distance. Brick, 2012.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

30. Edward W. Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination”

human geography today

Tim Cresswell’s book on place could send its readers in any number of different directions. It sent me in at least two, and possibly three: I read Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life because of Cresswell’s discussion of it, and I just finished an essay by Edward Soja, “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination,” for the same reason. The third text I want to read as a result of reading Cresswell’s book—Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space—is a big part of Soja’s argument as well, which reinforces the need for me to read it sooner rather than later. Our library, unfortunately, doesn’t have a copy of the anthology which contains Soja’s essay, and it took ages for a used copy to find its way to me, so while I would rather have read “Thirdspace” back when I was reading de Certeau, better late than never. Right?

Soja’s essay is a condensation of the argument he makes in his 1996 book Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. That book sounds interesting, but because I’m on a deadline, I’m happy to have this compressed version available to me. Soja establishes his purpose at the very start of the essay: he intends “to encourage the development of a different way of thinking about space and the many associated concepts that compose, comprise and infuse both the inherent spatiality of human life” and in the contemporary study of human geography (260). He encourages geographers to question “familiar notions” like “space, place, territory, city, region, location, and environment,” with the aim of “opening up and expanding the scope and critical sensibility of your already established spatial imaginations” (260). That’s a tall order, perhaps, but in this essay Soja presents five theses or “summative arguments”: “Each is rather boldly stated, addressed specifically to an audience of human geographers, and expansive and open in its implications for human geography today” (260). Moreover, Soja intends to provide “cumulative and fugue-like variations on the many ways of defining Thirdspace,” a term which is (as his title suggests) at the centre of his argument. “There is no singular definition presented for this different way of thinking about space and spatiality, but rather an open-ended set of defining moments, every one of which adds potential new insights to the geographical imagination and helps to stretch the outer boundaries of what is encompassed in the intellectual domain of critical human geography” (260). I’m not a human geographer, of course, and so I am not part of the essay’s audience, but I will forge ahead anyway, to see what I can take from Soja’s five theses.

Thesis number one argues that there has been “an unprecedented spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences (261). “In what may in retrospect be seen as one of the most important intellectual developments in the late twentieth century,” Soja writes, “scholars have begun to interpret space and the spatiality of human life with the same critical insight and interpretative power as have traditionally been given to time and history (the historiality of human life) on the one hand, and to social relations and society (the sociality of human life) on the other” (261). This turn, Soja continues, constitutes “a third critical perspective”; it represents “a growing awareness of the simultaneity and interwoven complexity of the social, the historical and the spatial, their inseparability and often problematic interdependence” (261). This spatial turn, for Soja, is associated with “the emergence of a Thirdspace perspective and an expansion in the scope and critical sensibility of the geographical imagination” (261). It is part of “an ontological shift, a fundamental change in the way we understand what the world must be like in order for us to obtain reliable knowledge of it” (261). Spatiality is being recognized as “an assertive third term” in “the ontology of human existence” (262), creating “an ontological trialectic of spatiality-sociality-historicality, or more imply, a three-sided rather than two-sided way of conceptualizing and understanding the world” (262). In other words, “the social production of human spatiality or the ‘making of geographies’ is becoming as fundamental to understanding our lives and our life worlds as the social production of our histories and societies” (262). For Soja, none of the three terms he identifies here—spatiality, sociality, or historicality—is privileged. “Studying the historicality of a particular event, person, place or social group is not intrinsically any more insightful than studying its sociality or spatiality,” he writes. “The three terms and the complex interactions between them should be studied together as fundamental and intertwined knowledge sources, for this is what being-in-the-world is all about” (262). A combination of perspectives is the best way to make “theoretical and practical sense of the world” (262). All three perspectives are equivalent, and there is always a possibility that they are “working interdependently together” (263).

Soja’s second thesis argues against the “encompassing dualism, or binary logic, that has tended to polarize spatial thinking around such fundamental oppositions as objectivity v. subjectivity, material v. mental, real v. imagined, things in space v. thoughts about space” (264). “Expanding the scope of the geographical imagination to the breadth and depth that have been achieved for historicality and sociality,” he writes, “and hence rebalancing their critical empowerment, requires a creative deconstruction and rethinking of this bifurcation into two modes of spatial thinking and analysis” (264). The “trialectics of spatiality,” according to Soja, identifies “‘lived space,’ an alternative mode of spatial enquiry that extends the scope of the geographical imagination beyond the confining dualism of . . . spatial practices or ‘perceived space’ on the one hand, and the representations of space or ‘conceived space’ on the other” (265). 

Perceived space, for Soja, is “Firstspace”: it “refers to the directly experienced world of empirically measurable and mappable phenomena. This materialized spatiality, which presents human geographies primarily as outcomes, has been the dominant and familiar focus for geographical analysis, often to the exclusion of other ways of thinking about space and geography” (265). Firstspace, Soja continues, “forms the geographer’s primary ‘text’ or subject matter,” and it is read in one of two ways. The first mode of reading is constituted by endogenous approaches, which provide “accurate descriptions of patternings and distributions,” “the search for recurrent empirical regularities,” and “the correlation or spatial covariation of one geographical configuration with another” (265-66). In endogenous approaches, “empirical analysis, theory building and explanation remain internal to geography, that is, geographies are used to explain other geographies” (266). In comparison, exogenous approaches “explain material geographies by focusing on the underlying social or physical processes that produce them” (266). In exogenous approaches, human geographies are seen “as the product or outcome of forces which are not themselves geographical or spatial, but are derived from the inherent sociality and historicality that lie behind empirical patternings, distributions, regularities and covariations” (266).

“Secondspace,” on the other hand, is conceived space. It is “more subjective and ‘imagined,’ more concerned with images and representations of spatiality, with the thought processes that are presumed to shape both material human geographies and the development of a geographical imagination” (266). Secondspace “concentrates on and explores more cognitive, conceptual and symbolic worlds. It thus tends to be more idealist than materialist, at least in its explanatory emphasis” (266). Therefore, Secondspace focuses on discourses and ideologies about space (266). According to Soja, Henri Lefebvre argues in The Production of Space that conceived space is not secondary; rather, it is dominant, because “it powerfully controls the way we think about, analyse, explain, experience, and act upon or ‘practice’ human spatiality” (266). The word “practice” here reminds me of de Certeau’s argument that “space is practiced place” (de Certeau 117), and I wonder to what extent Cresswell’s claim that Lefebvre’s notion of social space—and I think that’s what Soja is talking about here—is very close to the typical definition of place in human geography (Cresswell 19). It’s possible, then, that “conceived space” is related to place, but I’m reluctant to make that claim, because Soja is trying to break out of binary oppositions like space versus place, and I don’t want to jam his ideas back into that  kind of dualism—at least not right away: I would want to be very sure that Soja’s conceived space is actually place before trying to make that argument.

“Most human geographers do not work at the extremes of these two approaches, but somewhere in between, conceiving of ‘pure’ materialism/objectivity and idealism/subjectivity as opposite poles of a continuum of approaches,” Soja writes (267). There has been a tendency, though, to see Firstspace and Secondspace as a dualism, a situation which “has been primarily responsible for the difficulty many geographers have in accepting the deeper meaning of the ontological restructuring” that is required in order to understand “Thirdspace,” or lived space (267). “Instead of responding to the growing spatial turn as a profound challenge to develop a new mode of understanding the spatiality of human life . . . that is commensurate in scope and critical insight with life’s intrinsic historicality and sociality,” Soja concludes, “many geographers, pleased with the growing attention being given to their discipline, simply pour the new wine into the same old double-barrelled containers, thus reinforcing the constraints and illusions of the Firstspace-Secondspace dualism” (267).

That comment leads to Soja’s third thesis: “A radical break from this confining dualism was initiated in France in the late 1960s, largely through the works of Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre,” and Soja attributes “to their challenging geographical imaginations the origins of Thirdspace as a radically different way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the embracing spatiality of human life” (267). Confined within the Firstspace/Secondspace dichotomy, “the geographical imagination could never capture the experiential complexity, fullness and perhaps unknowable mystery of actually lived space,” Soja continues (268). Thirdspace, as lived space, 

is simultaneously (1) a distinctive way of looking at, interpreting, and acting to change the spatiality of human life (or, if you will, human geography today); (2) an integral, if often neglected, part of the trialectics of spatiality, inherently no better or worse than Firstspace or Secondspace approaches to geographical knowledge; (3) the most encompassing spatial perspective, comparable in scope to the richest forms of the historical and sociological imaginations; (4) a strategic meeting place for fostering collective political action against all forms of human oppression; (5) a starting point for new and different explorations that can move beyond the “third term” in a constant search for other spaces; and still more to come. (269-70)

Clearly Soja has immense, even utopian, hopes for the possibilities of Thirdspace; the possibilities it offers are, in his conception, nearly limitless.

Soja’s fourth thesis suggests that “the most creative explorations of Thirdspace, and hence the most accomplished expansions in the scope of the geographical imagination, ahve come from the broadly defined field of critical cultural studies,” rather than geographers, particularly “the work of feminist and post-colonial critics who approach the new cultural politics of class-race-gender from a radical postmodernist perspective” (270). As a result, human geography has become more transdisciplinary than ever before (270). The most important figure in this transdisciplinary work is bell hooks, whose work, particularly the essay “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness,” “enriches our understanding of lived space by infusing it with a radical cultural politics and new political strategies to deal with the multiple axes of oppression built around race, class and gender” (270). (You may recall that I wrote about that essay here.) For Soja, hooks’s work “does this in part by empowering lived space with new communicative meaning and strategic significance” (270). It provides

many glimpses of a different kind of human geography, one that combines the grounded and politically conscious materialism of Firstspace analyses and the rich, often metaphorical representations of space and spatiality characteristic of Secondspace geographies; and at the same time stretches beyond their mere additive combination to create “Other” spaces that are radically open and openly radicalized, that are simultaneously material-and-metaphorical, real-and-imagined, concretely grounded in spatial practices yet also represented in literary and aesthetic imagery, imaginative recombinations, epistemological insight, and so much more. hooks literally cracks open lived space to new insights and new expectations that extend well beyond the long-established boundaries of the traditional geographical imagination. (271-72)

Other exemplars of Thirdspace analysis include Rosalyn Deutsche, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Hooper, Gillian Rose, Gloria Anzaldúa, Edward Said, and Homi Bhabha (271-75). Most of those writers and thinkers are not geographers, but that speaks to the transdisciplinary nature that Soja sees in Thirdspace analyses. 

In his fifth and last thesis, Soja suggests that “the new human geographers emerging from critical cultural studies” whom he identifies with Thirdspace analysis have continued and expanded Henri Lefebvre’s work. They are

explicitly spatializing radical subjectivity and political practice, imbuing both with a critical spatial consciousness that extends far beyond what has existed in the past. Reflecting what was earlier described as an ontological shift and a critical thirding-as-Othering, these scholars are opening up a new and still relatively unexplored realm of radical political action centred and sited in the social production of lived space, a strategic choice that is aimed at constituting a community of resistance which can be as empowering and potentially emancipatory as those formed around the making of history and the constitution of human societies. (275)

The best contemporary human geographies, Soja continues, are

more comprehensive in scope, more empowered and potentially empowering, more explicitly politicized at many different levels of knowledge formation, from ontology to praxis, from the materially concrete to the imaginatively abstract, from the body to the planet. They are made more “real” by being simultaneously “imagined.” The metaphorical use of space, territory, geography, place and region rarely floats very far from a material grounding, a “realandimagined” that signals its intentional Otherness from more conventional geographies. Thirdspace as Lived Space is portrayed as multi-sided and contradictory, oppressive and liberating, passionate and routine, knowable and unknowable. It is a space of radical openness, a site of resistance and struggle, a space of multiplicitous representations, investigatable through its binarized oppositions but also where il y a toujours l’Autre, where there are always ‘other’ spaces, heterotopologies, paradoxical geographies to be explored. It is a meeting ground, a site of hybridity and mestizaje and moving beyond entrenched boundaries, a margin or edge where ties can be severed and also where new ties can be forged. It can be mapped but never captured in conventional cartographies; it can be creatively imagined but obtains meaning only when practised and fully lived. (276)

This is high praise, but Soja has a tremendous belief in the capabilities of this radically postmodern “new socio-spatial movement or ‘community of resistance’” that “is beginning to develop around what I am describing as a Thirdspace consciousness and a progressive cultural politics that seeks to break down and erase the specifically spatial power differentials arising from class, race, gender, and many other forms of the marginalizing or peripheralizing . . . of particular groups of people” (276-77). This movement represents “a shared spatial consciousness and a collective determination to take greater control over the production of our lived spaces that provide the primary foundation—the long-missing ‘glue’—for solidarity and political praxis” (277). The “new coalitions” represented by this movement add to previous “empowering sources of mobilization and political identity” a “reinvigorated spatial consciousness and subjectivity, an awareness that the spatiality of human life, the making of human geographies, the nexus of space-knowledge-power also contain the sources of continued oppression, exploitation and domination” (277). That sentence might be a surprise, but Soja is tempering his optimism with the recognition that “the new spatial politics is not exclusively confined to progressive forces” (277). Therefore, there is a need for “progressive thinkers and activists” to “recognize and participate in the expanding sites and communities of resistance and assertion that bell hooks and others invite us to enter, to move in consciously spatial solidarity and begin a process of re-visioning the future” (277). Soja concludes, “[t]his opportunity to reassert the expanded theoretical and strategically political importance of the critical spatial imagination may be what is most new and different—and most challenging and exciting—about human geography today” (277).

Twenty years later, I wonder if Soja is as excited about the possibilities offered by Thirdspace geography. Cresswell’s discussion of this essay in Place: An Introduction suggests that other geographers may still find Soja’s intervention valuable. But what do I make of it? I have been working with the dualism of space/place for several months now, thinking about the distinction that Yi-Fu Tuan draws between space and place and considering what is necessary for space to be transformed into place. Soja would probably say that thinking about spatiality through such a binary is a problem. Does the notion of Thirdspace, lived space as opposed to perceived or conceived space, help me to break out of that binary? Isn’t lived space just another way of referring to place, as Tuan defines it? Or can place be thought of using the combination of these approaches, which Soja calls a “trialectic”? I’m honestly not sure. One thing I am certain of, though, is that I definitely need to read Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space. Perhaps by studying that text, which has been so influential for Soja, I will begin to be able to find answers to my questions about his argument. I am also curious about the other essays in this anthology, and what they might have to offer for my research. Perhaps it contains more challenging and provocative essays and ought to be added to my reading list. There’s only one way to find out.

Works Cited

Cresswell, Tim. Place: An Introduction. Second edition, Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Rendall, U of California P, 1984.

hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics, Between the Lines, 1990, pp. 145-53. 

Soja, Edward. “Thirdspace: Expanding the Scope of the Geographical Imagination.” Human Geography Today. Edited by Doreen Massey, John Allen, and Philip Sarre, Polity, 1999, pp. 260-78.

Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.