Sense of Place

It was said of the old schoonermen who sailed out of Gloucester to fish the Grand Banks that they could place their position by tasting what clung to the bottom of the lead when it was heaved back onboard. They knew the texture, weight, and consistency of what lay fathoms beneath their keels as intimately as a farmer might know the dirt in his fields or an Inuit discern the subtleties of snow.

The lead was shaped into an elongated shot, secured at one end and hollowed at the other. It was armed with tallow or wax poured into the hollow and allowed to cool. When the lead struck bottom, whatever was loose clung to the tacky substance—mud, sand, clay, pebbles, tube worms, bits of shell and the detritus that rained down from the sunlit sea.

The leadline was knotted and the man heaving the lead could feel the knots run through his gnarled fingers. When the line went slack, his hands would know the depth. Four fathoms, he would shout, or six or twelve. And if the line became plumb without slacking, no bottom. It needed a young man to heave the lead far ahead when the boat had a bone in her teeth but an old man to understand the meaning.

It took years of mindfulness to make such fine distinctions. It took intimacy with wind and waves and scudding clouds, storm petrels and humpbacked whales and shoals of cod, bottom topography, currents and water temperatures, time and distance, sunlight and squalls and the temperamental seasons.

I want to know this place where I stand as intimately as those old men knew where they sailed. I want to know what made the dirt, what shapes the wind, what gives weight to the weather. I want to learn the secret lives of the plants and animals and the history of the aboriginal people who first inhabited this place. After a lifetime of wandering, I want to earn a sense of place. In large part, this blog is the record of that desire.

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