Reflections on the concepts of space, place and landscape in anthropology…
Pictured above is an alpine ridge running through the Merrimack River watershed in the humid continental foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The peak shown here is circumscribed by a winding, hand-cut path known to a small number of local hikers as the Ledge Loop. At the base of the slope, barely marked by a dark green plaque nailed to an adolescent maple tree, is the eastern entrance to the Pinnacle Trail, a narrow two-kilometer traverse that follows a deer run up the southeastern slope of the ridge, bisecting the Ledge Loop and continuing to the Pinnacle, where broad slabs of granite and shale create a natural clearing within the flat grove at the summit. The Pinnacle Trail then winds back down the southwestern slope of the ridge to a second access point at the road. This is the landscape.
Within this landscape, those who dwell engage with sites and sounds of multiple species as part of everyday reality. “Nature” and “Culture” are not a dichotomy here. The knowledge of this place is reserved to locals—as evidence of this, resident hikers note that even while “geocaching” can be found reliably at nearby Audubon reserves, it never came to occupy the Pinnacle Trail, a non- Audubon trail that is part of a land easement legacy left to the township several decades ago.
The township of Deering was incorporated with a human population of just under 900 in 1774, before the American colonies united, and at present has under 1900 people, with less than 60 per square mile. Deer, moose, coyote, bats, finches, orange spotted newts and a variety of charmingly fuzzy Rodentia run amok in these hills. Several years back, while ascending the Pinnacle Trail, one resident even came face to face with an American Black Bear. Fortunately, each had better things to do than interrupt the other, and the local neighborly tradition of keeping to oneself was observed. This story is still laughed about at “The Deering Speakeasy”, which is the way my cohort of local residents refers to this space-within-the-grove atop the Pinnacle Trail.
The Deering Speakeasy, as a “place” is imbued in this landscape—invisible yet palpable; non-discursive, yet seemingly capable of curating for visitors the cathartic experience that inspires its name. This is the place.
At the Deering Speakeasy, the olfactory experience is one of fresh pine and peat moss in a town where home well water tests evidence the vitality of local watersheds. There are almost always strong winds rustling the vegetation of the Pinnacle’s northern face. Wild blueberries grow along the southwestern descent in warmer months, and following the rain, the air is light and mossy, lacking the musky, almost palpable herbaceous fumes of so many warmer climate forests. The typical autumn haptic experience at the Deering Speakeasy usually involves brisk air chilling your hands and face, a cursory awareness of the rough texture of pine needles or the bark of a fallen tree trunk through the seat of your jeans, and the otherworldly, portal-like and temporal experience of ascending through the multicolored forest to the grove clearing itself. This is the space.
Space is most helpful here as a theoretical concept encompassing the multisensorial realms that shape the process of ‘dwelling’. In Wisdom Sits in Places, Keith Basso discusses Heidegger’s concept of “dwelling” as a descriptor for the forms of consciousness which shape individual perception of, and engagement with, geographical space. Heidegger’s concept of space describes a human-environment interactive relationship in which particular localities, or spaces, become imbued with ‘essential being’ as a result of being ‘objects of awareness’ to human minds.
This “essential being” is place. Sensing places, people dwell on them mentally, and thus create feedback loops of meaning when dwelling in them, physically. Basso calls this process interanimation, an apt way to describe the Deering Speakeasy’s origin story.
As a frequenter of the Deering Speakeasy, I have come to recognize an implicit ritual within the practice of “hiking the Pinnacle”. Usually, it goes something like this: So-and-so gets home from work, with an hour left before the sun sets. She is weary from an hour commute, the average for residents in this remote town. She calls Such-and-such, her closest neighbor down the hill, to see if Such-and-such is “up for a Speakeasy”; both being game, dogs are whistled for and grown-daughters are summoned from their cabins down the road, and the cohort convenes at the bottom of So-and-so’s driveway. Usually six-to-eight beings gather, and about half are human. The particular characters interchange with the days. A kilometer’s walk down Glen Road commences, while members of the cohort fill each other in on their recent experiences. Dogs bound along unleashed after squirrels and zigzag across the stone walls lining the fields and forest between home and the Pinnacle Trail’s access point. At some point before the beginning of the trail, on the basis of their mutual conversations and “updates”, the cohort will seemingly have identified the member with the most pressing current concern or strife, and will have oriented the conversation to focus on the key individual’s feelings or need to “vent”.
As the cohort ascends the Pinnacle Trail, discourse ceases; almost without fail, each to her own thoughts retreats. Perhaps it is the physical exertion of the uphill stride, perhaps the sensory shift that happens when one leaves the road for the forest, nonetheless, a seeming transition-to-dwelling takes place. At the top of the peak, a lone picnic table with fallen trunks for benches serves as the first of two ritual stopping points. Here, libations are shared among the cohort—usually, Such-and-such carries bottles of local beer in a backpack—and we sit facing east as the sun fades, talking through the issue. Before dark, we move to the north. The practice of climbing the Pinnacle seems to symbolically involve the intent to see “both sides of the issue” for the person affected with strife, in a place where these women feel able to “speak easily” about what currently befalls their marriage, their work life, their spiritual path, etc. Because of the particular route of the Pinnacle Trail itself, the descent involves passing by a panoramic view of the northern face, and thus the practice of stopping here for a second session of chatting has become rooted in the practice of “hiking the Pinnacle”. The ritual need we all seem to have, to see the view from both cliff faces before descending despite the bugs, chill, or heat of the season, suggests an almost spiritual commitment to this practice. This is a collective creating of a sense of place.
Try as I might, I cannot think of any explicit moment at which my cohort decided it would dwell in this space in this way. As Bourdieu might say, if there is agency, or will, it is housed in the “structure”, the landscape in which our social practice of the “Deering Speakeasy” was learned.