A place isn’t a place until you tell stories about it, says Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place.” In fact, Stegner says, “[N]o place is a place until it has had a poet.” He has Yeats in mind, who claimed about Ireland that “there is no river or mountain that is not associated in the memory with some event or legend.” Stegner goes on to worry about the American “mythless man” who “lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”
As an undergrad, I had the pleasure of visiting Yeats’ County Sligo. I can hardly imagine a more Romantic place for an aspiring writer to visit. Even the names of the places—Glencar, Thoor Ballylee, Coole Park—were bewitching. Reading “Under Ben Bulben” while looking up at Ben Bulben, I knew what kind of writing I wanted to do, and I knew what my Ben Bulben was: Blue Mounds.
The first piece of writing I ever published was about a regional landmark called Blue Mounds, a place where the rolling prairie swelled into a bluff and caught my imagination. Once caught, I followed the imaginative trail to local species, specifically big bluestem, the prairie grass that gave Blue Mounds its hue. From there, the path led to the novelist Fredrick Manfred, who lived and wrote on the mound, and then to history: I mistook the cliffs at Blue Mounds for a buffalo jump, which they were not, but that imaginative mistake landed me squarely in Native America and in myth.
Arguably, the founding myth of the place originates not from Blue Mounds but from just up the road at Pipestone, Minnesota, and the National Parks site that protects the red stone used to make the pipe sacred to tribal people. Among the founding legends of that place are these: White Buffalo Calf Woman gave the sacred pipe to the Lakota, an act of special revelation; the stone found at Pipestone is the blood of Lakota ancestors who perished in a great flood caused by the water monster, Unktehi.
If Yeats and Stegner are right—and I think they are—and literary art should be tethered to specific places and myths, then we writers in an American context have some work to do. Not only do we have to learn and understand the myths of the places where we live, but we also must handle them with care: the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman is not my story and I cannot appropriate it without doing continued violence to a people group who continues to be underrepresented.
But the call for writers to know our places remains, despite the dangers. Writers going back to at least Washington Irving, who imported European myths, have most often looked past the mythology of the American continent. Even Stegner notes how Americans have been “[p]lunging into a future through a landscape that had no history.” It does have a history—and a mythology—and it’s one we must get to know to do justice to the places we live.