French philosopher and activist Simone Weil wrote that our core aspiration should be to “love the country of here below.” “It is real,” she asserts; “it offers resistance to love.” In Landscapes with Figures:The Nonfiction of Place, editor Robert Root has selected the work of 13 essayists who attempt the difficult task of engaging fully with the local country that is place. As Weil’s insight suggests, to be compelled by a place is not necessarily to comprehend it, and the essays included in this volume amply demonstrate that places are often most “real” in their formidable resistance to the meanings we would impose upon them. Interaction with places shapes our perception, memory, and identity, yet our experience with places also reveals the degree to which we may remain alienated even from the landscapes that are most meaningful to us. Landscapes with Figures presents a suite of gifted essayists whose work explores and dramatizes both our connection to and our alienation from place.
In describing the central rubric of his book, Robert Root wisely avoids conflating the “nonfiction of place” with “nature writing” or “environmental literature.” His helpful introduction to the volume emphasizes that the places explored in accomplished works of creative nonfiction may be natural or cultural, wild, rural, or urban. His book thus includes essays that engage a range of landscapes, from Kim Barnes’s reflections on the mountains and rivers of Idaho, to Alison Deming’s appreciation of Manhattan and Central Park, to Scott Russell Sanders’s imaginative revisiting of a childhood [End Page 153] landscape now flooded behind a dam. While Root is devoted to liberating our conception of place-based nonfiction from the constraints of an environmental frame, he is also fascinated by the diversity of approaches and techniques he sees at work in the nonfiction of place. He agrees with the late Deborah Tall, whose contribution to Landscapes with Figures celebrates the fact that works of place-based literature “are so often adventurous hybrids in which physical description, character portraits, statistics, analysis, personal narrative, dramatic event, argument, meditation, and flights of fancy can happily coexist.” Rather than lamenting the elusive generic hybridity of the nonfiction of place—or attempting to exhaustively dissect and taxonomize it—Root instead embraces the eclecticism of the form, arguing for a generic definition that, if “sprawling and intuitive,” may ultimately prove to be “more encompassing, more suggestive, more accurate, more true.”
While many anthologies of place-based nonfiction are unified by region, topic, ideological stance, or the gender of the authors included, Landscapes with Figures is instead organized around the principle of self-reflexivity, for it strives not only to showcase superb place-based essays but also to investigate how those essays were inspired and crafted. While the nonfiction works Root includes have appeared previously in a variety of books and magazines, new here is the addition by each author of a meta-essay reflecting on the experiences, challenges, ambitions, and artistic choices that informed the creation of their essays. This parting of the curtain that separates even the most personal of essayists from their audience is fascinating: through the open curtain, we glimpse issues of craft that are extremely revealing, especially to readers of place-centered nonfiction who are also aspiring practitioners of the form. While there is some predictable unevenness in the usefulness of these reflective essays, many are valuable and compelling, and a few are so engaging as to rival in interest the essays upon which they reflect.
In “On Place,” for example, Idaho essayist Kim Barnes explores the difficulties of writing about a place one knows too well; intimacy with the local can sometimes be an artistic liability, she points out, until the writer can separate herself from the place enough to see it in ways that can be made meaningful to readers. Elizabeth Dodd uses “Call and Response” to describe the exciting ways nonfiction can “mix modes of inquiry,” but she is refreshingly honest in articulating the difficulties of balancing the reflective and descriptive...