Recently, I heard a locally/regionally well-known photographer and writer speak about being locally/regionally well-known, and about love, and saving the world. The final question asked of him during the Q&A referred his simultaneous love of two very different corners of Alaska, and asked how he reconciles that geography, and if he “feels a bit polygamist.” Everyone laughed, because polygamy is funny, and having a home place (or two) is automatically equated to having a heterosexual relationship with a woman (or two)(haha!). He gracefully deflected, saying he doesn’t like Denali’s sub-zero winters and it is luck rather than polygamy that allows him to avoid them by retreating to his other home, where it just rains for six months straight. People clapped and cheered. The room was full of people who, by these definitions, are all “married” to, or at least having a casual affair with the same place. Then the power went out.
David Gessner says that “if marriage to a place is something of a strange metaphor, it’s also a fairly natural one,” and that “if the model of polygamy may no longer be a practical one for physical love, for love of place I embrace it.” He talks a bit about monogamy and intimacy and the American cliché of Westward travel, and, well…eh. He acknowledges that the metaphor is limited, but i think he focuses on the wrong limits, and the first time i read this short essay (“Polygamist of Place”), i cringed at lines like “I have other lovers—Colorado most prominently,” but i wasn’t sure if i was cringing at his characterization of himself as an aloof sort of geographical playboy, or his assumptions about monogamy, or the fact that COLORADO IS NOT A WOMAN YOU MEET IN A MOTEL ROOM AT 3PM, and even if she was, i’d imagine Greeley would behave quite differently as a lover than Durango and you really must be more specific (he means the Front Range, really, and who hasn’t been in love with the Front Range for, like, 5 minutes, that slut). But mostly i cringed because i’m so tired of this metaphor and its failings. In her discussion of the (American) land-as-woman metaphor, Annette Kolodny writes that by oversimplifying the way that metaphors function in our individual and cultural thinking, we can “cavalierly assume that when we use metaphor, we do not really mean what we say…Metaphors do, indeed, mean a great deal and may, in fact, serve as intersecting points for the various components of experience and action.”
And if we have to keep thinking in terms of marriage metaphors, here’s what i think is missing (in part): the wives are all talking to each other, sharing migratory bird populations and sharing STIs and wildfire smoke and recipes and waterborne bacteria and whatever else sexually active married women and geographical regions do (um.). Their interactions long predated the mobile, privileged American male writers who torture themselves about their inability to remain “settled and geographically married” (Gessner) to one place. They’ve been talking all along, and by isolating these places into disconnected pockets of “wilderness” and micro-climates, we’ve been ignoring—or silencing—those conversations.
But really, they haven’t been talking talking, because they are places, with ecologies and histories, not gossipy women, and it would be really helpful to both if we recognized that. Whatever your thoughts on metaphor as experience, it seems like this whole marriage thing is just another way to limit our imaginations to First World tokenized virgin land (or wife?! oh, wtf…) environmentalism.
Also, this topic is a great way to end conversations with happy drunk people at parties, fyi.