The Importance of Place

I made a major mistake when setting up the schedules for my fall classes and ended up with far too many papers coming in far too close together. As a result, I graded papers non-stop from Thanksgiving to Christmas, and, because most of those papers came in electronically, that meant I was pretty much stuck sitting in front of the computer for all those weeks, plowing through one paper after another.

Their was an up-side to this marathon. Since I was basically chained into place in front of my computer, I had the opportunity to do a deep dive into the music of some of my latest favorite groups, in particular the Scottish group Skipinnish, listening to album after album.

I enjoy Skipinnish’s blend of rock and traditional music, as well as their energy. But what appeals to me most of all is their sense of place. The group is not just Scottish, but very specifically from the Hebrides, the islands fringing Scotland’s west coast, and Skipinnish’s music is very much rooted in these islands. Many of the songs deal with island and coastal life, with constant images of shore lines and waves and islands glimpsed across the sea. One song, Last of the Hunters, is a paean to the fishing fleets of the islands, with a video that features photos and videos of the fishing boats and fishermen of past and present. This is music that is not just from a place, but of a place.

Sense of place is important to me, whether in music or stories. I like to experience new places, new points of view. But songs and shows that are truly rooted in a specific place can be hard to find. So many TV shows and movies, for example are set in New York, but aren’t really. Take the classic sitcom “Friends,” for example. Although officially set in New York, it really could be in any big city. “Seinfeld,” on the other hand, was suffused with a sense of life in New York, with whole episodes revolving around very New York specific concerns. One of the delights of the comic book series “’Mazing Man” (discussed in a previous post) was that it was not just clearly set in New York, but specifically Queens of the 1980s, and so many of the stories revolved around events rooted in that setting. Reading the comic was akin to sitting on the front steps of building in the neighborhood and watching life unfurl before you. One of my daughter’s current favorite shows is “Abbott Elementary,” and one of the things she likes about the show is that it is not just set in Philadelphia, but is very Philadelphia in its outlook and characters. They are from Philly (where my daughter now lives.)

I think this is also one of the reasons I gravitate towards fantasy and history in my reading. These genres also put a premium on creating place. Good fantasy creates a unique and specific world, not just as the setting for the story, but as the only place where that story could take place. Good historical fiction does the same, showing the reader what was unique and different about the past. At least, they do when done right. Too many fantasy novels are just set in generic fantasy world; many historicals are really set in the modern world with characters dressed in fancy clothes. Those  are the books I ended up throwing across the room.

Music, stories, art at their best do not come from a generic someplace, but from some specific place, and take me to that place. In the words of Tide Lines, another music group from the islands hat I have been listening to of late, “I want to feel the breeze of the Hebrides from the far side of the world.”

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