Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

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February 01, 2013 / What is a “Place?”

A long time ago, on a game drive in Tanzania, I asked our guide, “How do the people find their way around?  It all looks the same to me.”  He replied, justifiably impatient (for I was so ignorant in those days), “They’ve lived here all their lives; they recognize everything—rocks, trees—everything.  They walk it all the time and are intimately familiar with it.  They think, ‘Here’s the place where I saw the leopard.  There’s the place where I broke my spear.’  They know their land as you know your city.”

A place is somewhere with which you are familiar and where you know how to be.

There’s a place I go to frequently in dreams; I recognize its origin from my growing-up years in Colorado.  It’s a high mountain road.  I don’t think I’ve actually been on it, waking, but when I see it in my dreams, maybe a few times a year, I know it. 

A place is somewhere you recognize in some way.

You can see the pale spill of the Milky Way in truly dark skies—Namibia, the Atacama Desert in Chile, Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California.   It’s a ravishing, and terrifying, sight.  Your existential dread takes over: Where, exactly, am I?  How can I locate my tiny little self in the staggering, horrifying, endless vastness of Space?   OK, ok, I’m HERE, I’m standing right HERE, I can feel my feet pressing on the ground HERE, and I can feel the brush of air, and smell it too.  It’s ok, I’m HERE. 

A place is somewhere at which you know you ARE.

One side or the other side of a fallen log.  A village street.  The eyelash of an elephant.  A kitchen.  The remains of the captain’s cabin on the wreck of the Titanic.   The edge of a mountain meadow.  My gut, and yours (quite different in their inhabitants, it turns out).   Your country, or your bed, or the dust under it.   A single blade of grass.   These are all places, familiar and perfectly distinctive to people or to other creatures.

When my husband and I are hiking, or driving, we may observe to each other, “We are coming to A Place.”  Cross the boundary and let’s see it.  What will we find in this place that we already understand, and what will we need to learn?   The excitement of it!

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