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Our Sense of Place

One of the most consistent comments we receive from judges when we submit the magazine for award consideration is that we do an admirable job of conveying a sense of place. Readers, too, frequently mention that the quarterly arrival of the magazine is almost always accompanied with a jolt of nostalgia for Middlebury, both town and College.

Of course, capturing the scenic beauty of our campus blanketed in snow or Bread Loaf on an autumn afternoon is a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel—if we’re not adequately conveying a sense of place in these pages, then we’re doing something wrong. But as I was reminded when we were putting this issue together, the very concept of a “sense of place” is more than the physical characteristics that define a landscape, but also one’s relationship—past or present—with those surroundings.

The writer Susan Orlean has published a collection of stories under the title My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, and in these pieces, she says that where the stories unfolded was “almost as important as the story itself.” In some instances, she adds, “the place was the story.”

This is can be said about Emily Peterson’s feature in this issue, “Can the Louisiana Coast Be Saved?” And its exactly what we talk about when we discuss a story with a “strong sense of place,” precisely because her exhaustively reported narrative of a region in peril is told in a voice steeped in experience—in this case, her family’s intimate relationship with the Louisiana coast and its waterways.

In Leah Koenig’s back-page essay, “The Plunge,” Thoreau’s Walden Pond is as much a character as it is a location. And while our profile of Conor Shapiro ’03 is firmly routed in rural, post-earthquake Haiti, writer Deborah Sontag includes an observation that other writers might not have made—the effect, the lure, that the country and its people had on Conor as a teenager when he first visited Haiti while a sophomore at Middlebury.

So this got me thinking (a dangerous thing, some will tell you)—does Middlebury attract students who are naturally drawn to and appreciative of a “sense of place,” or is this behavior learned, acquired by spending four years in a, well, place like Middlebury?

I recently put this question to Christopher Shaw, a visiting lecturer in English and American literatures and himself a fair chronicler of place (for years he edited Adirondack Life magazine, and he’s the author of the acclaimed Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods). Each spring, Shaw teaches a course called Writing the Journey, and he says that while place, “being one of the basic elements of literature,” is a constant in his classes, he can almost always point to particular students who carry a “regional stamp [with them] and find the way to embody it in writing by being here at Middlebury, immersed in a place that is a little bit off to the side; with a perspective, but still of it.”

“With a perspective, but still of it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.