On Writing Place by Daryl Farmer

It was March, and in the morning darkness, the birch trees that lined the trail stood like ghosts in the snow. I say ghosts in part because I wasn’t wearing my glasses (they fog up in the cold, making the world blurry anyway), but also because the birch’s presence felt palpable, haunting. Enticing. Am I suggesting that birch trees have spirits? Well, I’m no scientist nor theologian but, yes, yes I am. Am I anthropomorphizing? Yep. Walk yourself amongst those trees an hour before dawn here in the winter, tell me I’m wrong.

It was twenty below, slightly warmer than the day before. In December, over a two-day period, a snowstorm dropped nearly a foot and a half. This was followed by freezing rain that left a thin sheet of ice atop the snow. Traversing it was like walking across crème Brule, each step a gamble – either it would hold, or you’d be up to your knee. Then, another storm added an extra foot of snow on top of the ice. Even the moose with their long made-for-deep-snow legs were perplexed.

Six months ago, spring was a myth I wasn’t sure I still believed in. “To embrace living here, you have to learn to love winters,” I was told when I moved here, and so I have learned. I love the darkness, and I love the cold. If I’m honest, I love the responses I get from friends in the lower forty-eight when I tell them it’s forty below. “How do you stand it,” they ask, and I don’t let on that it’s easier than they think. Let them believe I’m some kind of tough, but the truth is living here has ruined me for anything above seventy-five degrees. I have, in past lives, suffered through the sweaty torment of Mississippi and Georgia in August; against that, I’ll take forty below, thank you very much.

This month marks the beginning of my thirteenth year in Alaska, the longest I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I’ve lived in a lot of places: Colorado, Texas, Connecticut, Michigan, to name just a few. Place is important to me. My father, an accountant fascinated by the world of commerce and careers, would always ask people upon meeting them what they did for a living. Chances were that he’d had a client in that field, and so would make a connection. For my part, when I meet people, I like to know where they’re from. Pretty much anywhere in the world, either I’ve been there, or wanted to go.

Place is my way of connecting.

This idea of connection transfers to my reading and writing practice. When I read, I want to know where I am, want to be grounded in the place of the story, or essay, or poem. If I’m reading a story set in a place I know, I want not only to recognize it, but to deepen my understanding. I once lived in Montana, often hiking the mountains and forests there. Now, I feel my own experiences deepen when I read the work of Montana writer Rick Bass. Here’s one sentence from his short story “Swans,” one of my favorites:

“On the very coldest nights – when the swans were able to keep the pond from freezing only by swimming in tight circles in the center, while the shelf-ice kept creeping out, trying to freeze around their feet and lock them up, making them easy prey for coyotes or wolves or foxes – Amy would build warming fires all around the pond’s edge.”

So much in one sentence! The poor swans, working to survive the freeze, having to worry about the predators. Bass gives us not just the image of swans in a pond, but a sense of their struggle, against the freeze, the threat of predators. And then we have the power of the character Amy’s act of building fires. Often there is power in contrast, in this case ice and fire.

Similarly, when I read about places I’ve never been, I want to feel as though I have. Here’s a short section from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonders about rain in Kerala, a state in India:

“The rain is never scary, though, even during monsoon. You can tell monsoon is near when you hear a sound in the distance like someone shaking a packet of seeds, then a pause, and then the roar. You know it’s coming when the butterflies—fiery skippers and bluebottles—fly in abundance over the cinnamon plants and suddenly vanish. A whole family of peacocks will gather up in a banyan tree, so still, as if posing for a portrait. Then the shaking sound begins.”

The description is active, sensory. We can hear the shaking seeds, can feel the impending monsoon.

This weekend in Fairbanks we’ll celebrate an event called Arctic Fest, a festival that features the arts, sciences, and Indigenous cultural and knowledge systems, all focused on our changing environment. There will be music, science demonstrations, readings – even a puppet show, all designed to respond and deepen our connection to this place we live. Each day I walk the same trail, slowly deepening my connection to this boreal forest. In October, I’ll board a barquentine vessel in Svalbard, Norway, a place I’ve never been. In this way, I experience the world, rooting deeper in the place I call home, expanding my sense of place by seeing new places with fresh eyes. And, along the way, writing it all down.

I’m very much looking forward to discussing more about place, and learning about participants’ experience of place in my 49 Writers workshop, Oh the Places We Go: Writing the Place-Based Essay or Story, Wednesdays, Sept. 7-28. Hope to see you there!

Daryl Farmer is the author of Bicycling beyond the Divide, a nonfiction book that chronicles a bicycle ride across the U.S. West, and Where We Land a collection of short fiction. His recent work has appeared in Terrain.org, Ploughshares, and Natural Bridges among other literary journals. He is an associate professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks where he has served as director of the MFA program in creative writing. He is also affiliated faculty for the Northern Studies program, and for six years served as faculty member in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program.

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