First posted on orionmagazine.org on August 23, 2012. Reposted with author’s permission.
by Julia Corbett
“A sense of place is the sixth sense, an internal compass and map made by memory and spatial perception together.” – Rebecca Solnit
Wallace Stegner liked the temple-oriented street system in Salt Lake City because you always knew exactly where you were. It’s true. But when my school year there ends, I savor summering in a cabin five hours north in western Wyoming, a cabin that GPS systems can’t locate, a cabin between towns whose elevations greatly exceed their populations.
Once a week, I drive 45 minutes to Pinedale. I visit the grocery, library, and trash-transfer station, where I drive my little car onto the scale as I enter and exit, and I hand the woman my dollar and she gives my dog a biscuit. Once or twice a week, I drive 30 minutes in the opposite direction to Bondurant to get my mail; since there’s no delivery, I get a free box at the nearest post office.
Despite the absence of cities or an all-purpose town (perhaps because of it), I’ve never felt so precisely and beguilingly located in a landscape. Gray clouds roiling behind the firs at the meadow’s corner are most likely to bring rain. Surfeit moisture trickles down beaver-worked creeks to the Hoback River, and then to the Snake, Columbia, and Pacific. Two miles from my cabin in the opposite direction is a mini-Continental Divide where moisture descends to the Green River and Colorado. Below the cabin, sandhill cranes warble from the wetlands at daybreak before ascending in the warming air for sedge meadows where they feed. On morning walks I find the nighttime beds of ungulates; the air hangs with the scent of a wild stable. In early summer, the creaks of chorus frogs and rapid, staccato hoots of boreal owls fill the still evenings. By mid-summer, young grosbeaks follow parents branch to branch, begging and shimmying. In late summer, grasshoppers clack through the tanning grasses, flashing their orange under-wings, and the sun sinks ever southward down the spine of the Wyoming Range. By September, aspen leaves glow the color of farm-fresh egg yolks. When the moon is new, I can’t see my hand in front of my face, but I know exactly where I am.
Julia Corbett is a Communication professor at the University of Utah. She is currently working on a book concerning the daily interactions between people, culture, and the natural environment. Here is a list of her work.