I was encountering some writer’s block as I’ve been trying to work my way into writing, and today a conversation with a colleague unlocked some words for me. Here’s the result.
One summer afternoon in July, 2013, I was sitting on the front porch of a 19th century farmhouse in southern Indiana, watching a terrific thunderstorm roll in from the northwest. The slate blue clouds billowed across the sky, heavy with rain, as a preamble of cool wind swooped down through the heavy hot humid air in ferocious drifts, lifting the tendrils of the grape vines that lay in orderly rows across the rolling, hilly farmland. I had been working all morning in the vineyard, but we were dismissed after lunch as the threat of the storm wiped out any possibility of continuing outdoors through the afternoon. So I decided to watch the storm roll in on the farmhouse porch, set myself up with some books, and determined to accomplish some academic reading in a solitude away from the internet and other distraction, cut off from the rest of the world by a sheet of rain. It was on this porch that I found myself entering into another rich landscape through the page – a landscape I had inhabited in England, living in the deep countryside of Herefordshire, where my habitat was an orchard instead of a vineyard, and the summer was cool and rainy instead of the heat-charged and electric climate of Midwestern thunderstorm. To be in two places at once with such intensity was jarring. Surrounded by the vineyard which I had grown to love through sweat drenched and exhausting work among the vines, accompanied by the camaraderie of the other vineyard workers, I attempted to burrow back into my memories of the English countryside through a dense academic rendering of theoretical conceptions of the rural. But the Indiana vineyard had a physical hold on me in the present, even as I tried to rethink and replay the Herefordshire orchard I had loved so recently. As so many ethnographers before have done, I felt deeply torn, emotionally and intellectually, between two places: trying to think and feel one place while thinking and feeling another place. Perhaps some are better equipped for such multi-tasking, but for me, it was difficult – I felt a subterranean friction jarring the singular unity each place held in my emotional imagination. One intense emotional place-memory recalled in the midst of another place, composed also of senses and feelings. How can these compositions of experience coexist, one rupturing the wholeness of the other, simultaneously heightening the intensity of both, and then their loss. Of such feelings is nostalgia born, but this is more than just nostalgia. It is an attempt to hold two experiences intact, but their collision creates an excess of each, a calling forth of references and relations, so that one memory cascades from another. In the midst of a Midwestern thunderstorm, I remember the floods on the River Wye, and all my days walking next to it, and all the farms and people on its banks.
It is feeling to which I turn in this preamble because feeling will play out in the remaining parts of this work frequently, and it is this deeply-felt connection to a unity of people and place which characterized both my fieldwork experience and my own evolving sense of the ways I uniquely and personally experience my world. The reflexive turn in ethnography has allowed us to re-examine the personal lenses and biases which colour our own attempts to construct objective scientific study, and further has also allowed us to imagine and engage in critically emergent study – research in which we come to recognize our biases and the interesting questions they present in the course of our work. Such research rejects the simple objective positivism of deductive reasoning, where a hypothesis is generated and then tested through a pre-conceived and vetted methodology. Positivism has its uses and its place, but emergent and reflexive research suggests a series of discoveries about the types of questions we have asked, as well as the data generated by them. This preamble of feeling then, is a first discovery, that my reactions to places are rooted essentially in deeply emotional connections to people in their places, connections that are experienced in a present-time rich and dense in the sensual perceptions which give texture to the social relationships enacted in the landscape.
Though these are my own personal tendencies, they are also windows into particular kinds of questions about social and cultural landscapes, perhaps questions which my proclivities can give particular insight into. As academics, too often we forget to mention not only how our personal histories, biases, and experiences influence our research, but also our personal talents. It is as if our scholarly talents are a given, separate from our personal lives, a set of intellectual exercises refined by our scholarly disciplines. Reflexive scholarship could increase its potential to enrich academic life by helping to inform students and professors alike not only of their intellectual, cultural, and political biases, but also how their personalities and talents contribute unique approaches to the questions we consider. This would seem self-evident, and yet methodology does not usually require us to ask how we approach and process our experiences in highly personal ways dependent not only on unique social and cultural experiences, but on temperament, talent, and character.
So what is the quality of feeling and affect on our experience of places and landscapes? The following chapters will attempt to tease out a few strands of thought relating to the causes and consequences of feelings related to the landscape. Feeling, emotion, and affect continue to be difficult subjects to attend to in scholarly study. David Matless, in his essay “Doing the English Village, 1945-1990: An Essay on Imaginative Geography” organizes his argument around the importance of attending to beliefs, myths, feelings, and impressions related to place:
This essay, by contrast, critically embraces the many imagined realities of the English village – its sentiments, its fantasies, its dreams, even its sugar-sweet pond ducks – as things real, powerful, political and moral; things serious and of importance in the culture of the country. Its purpose in doing so is in part to establish a complexity in the discourse of the rural. (Matless 1994, 8-9)
Writing against what he calls the “rhetoric of reality”, Matless foregrounds the imaginary construction of the landscape, including the affective and emotional aspects of the imagination, as real entities, no less important or powerful than the realities of poverty or isolation with which some sociological studies (useful and important in their own right) have dried to debunk the myth of the rural idyll.
So I walk through the vineyard, tying up vines, pruning, shaping the growth of the place, feeling the sun, the heat, the electric thunder and the enjoying the chatter that we toss to each other across the vines like so many clusters of grapes. And loving this place, I try to conjur up an orchard in England, in the valley of the Wye, and I try to unlock the feeling, the imagination of a place where the orchard pressed out cider and laughter too, where the river floods, and a glass is never empty for long.