by Ann M. Colford

Do you ever stop to think about what your back yard looked like before it was your back yard? Whose footsteps have left their imprint, ever so slightly, in the soil outside your door? How much of the natural landscape is truly natural? And where did all those wires come from, anyway?

These are a few of the questions posed by landscape historians, cultural geographers and others who study the nebulous field of "sense of place." What they share is the close observation of everyday surroundings, turning a curious eye to a familiar environment and attempting to discern just what's so special about this place - or any place. Sometimes the physical characteristics of a place tell the story; more often, the stories remain hidden from casual view. Uncovering these stories - sometimes by observation, sometimes by listening to local histories, often through a combination of these methods - is what drives the study of place.

I live in an older multi-family home in an unremarkable Spokane neighborhood that even generous observers would concede has seen perhaps more than its fair share of human intervention over the years. The layers of human activity lie thick on the land, but as I pause for moments of reflection while sitting at my computer, I'm struck by how much nature still shows its hand. For instance, a veritable squirrel highway runs past my office windows. I often watch, fascinated, as one little gray critter after another travels horizontally through the tree canopy on the west side of the yard, scrambles a few feet up a power pole and sets off across the lowest and thickest wire (probably the source of my cable television, I've learned) that runs across the back yard to the garage and disappears into the shrubs east of the house. The squirrels have learned how to traverse the semi-urban landscape behind my home without once touching the ground, thus avoiding predators and other dangers below.

I never would have noticed the squirrel highway if I had not found occasion to sit for long periods of time staring out the windows, at eye-level with the wires. As I walk around outside, the wires hang high overhead, above my notice, allowing my tiny neighbors to go about their squirrelly business. They have adapted perfectly to the partly natural and partly cultural environment of my yard in the city.

American Studies professor Kent Ryden examined his suburban back yard in southern Maine for his recent book, Landscape With Figures. He found a handful of aging apple trees, evidence of an earlier function of the land as an orchard; a stand of raspberries near the back fence tells the story of an earlier garden now gone fallow, and a neighborly woodchuck created prime residential real estate beneath the green patch of lawn.

"Nature, it turns out, isn't over there across the backyard frontier," he writes. "Our physical and imaginative encounters with nature can and should begin in the back yard itself ... Many figures other than mine have preceded me there, and their minds and hands have shaped its surface in ways that are still clearly visible."

Landscape historian John Stilgoe advises a similar exploration of our familiar neighborhoods in his latest book, Outside Lies Magic. He advocates walking or bicycling as the preferred mode of transit for "explorers," those who would look for the hidden or obscured details within the commonplace. For Stilgoe, a walk through the streets of his neighborhood becomes a fascinating glimpse into the electrical infrastructure, that maze of wires, poles and transformers that are so ubiquitous as to blend into the background of our vision. Later, he looks at an abandoned rail right-of-way, fences and reconstructed Main Streets with the same unblinking eye.

Sense of place isn't just for essayists and scholars, of course; many novelists are so adept at evoking place that the setting becomes another character. Such is the case with City of the Mind, by Penelope Lively. This lovely and lyrical novel explores the landscapes that we all carry within us and the layers of association that we attach to our familiar places. The main character, a successful architect in London, gains lucrative commissions building the gleaming new skyscrapers that are changing the face of the city, but his heart is in the restoration of 18th- and 19th-century terrace homes and office blocks. The very bricks and mortar of the city evoke bittersweet memories for him, memories of childhood and of happier days before his recent divorce. Interwoven through the narrative are stories of other people who inhabited the same space in different times, people whose lives somehow continue to echo through the urban canyons.

So, what's in your back yard?

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places by John Stilgoe (Walker and Company, 1998; $13, paperback)

Landscape With Figures: Nature and Culture in New England by Kent Ryden (University of Iowa Press, 2001, paperback)

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively (HarperCollins, 1991, paperback)

Publication date: 1/22/04

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