In Isolation, a Sense of Place

Article excerpt

IN her latest book, poet Deborah Tall recalls the 10-year process through which she renounced a rootless suburban childhood by hunkering down in the aesthetically and historically rich Finger Lakes area of upstate New York. Before she arrived, Tall envisioned upstate in calendar-art terms: small towns, traditional farming, unspoiled vistas. What she found was a landscape whose beguiling scenery belies recalcitrant rural poverty, a sullen economy, and history largely forgotten by the locals.

An academic position at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., at the head of Seneca Lake, brought her and her family from New York City to this modest semirural region. For Tall and her husband, the move was freighted with mental baggage. It signaled a farewell to a peripatetic existence that short-term jobs and the absence of children affords American academics. Tall feared that settling down might be settling for too little.

To ease her wariness, Tall closely attended to the distinctive geography, history, and contemporary politics of Geneva and the Seneca Lake area. "From Where We Stand" is her journal of those discoveries, intermingled with meditation on the moral intricacies of growing up late.

Short sections on native Americans, military expeditions, white settlement, industry, local issues, and art are interwoven with incidents in Tall's personal and professional life. The result is an unusual experiment in autobiography, wherein self is elucidated through the experience of place.

Since Tall so caringly coaxes a history of habitation into legibility, readers will be ambushed by the book's conclusion. Geneva's tattered civic life and poor economy eventually overwhelm her. Her memoir ends with a terse sermon on what she believes to be the area's flaws, followed by the news that Tall and her family have moved to Ithaca, the cosmopolitan academic city at the foot of Cayuga Lake. Such a swift reversal of sentiment serves to undermine the authenticity of Tall's decade-long project.

Unlike Deborah Tall, Pico Iyer does not seek to belong to a particular place, nor to find himself in relation to it. …

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