“Intimacy is a necessity of life, and we would go insane without it,” says Garrison Keillor in today’s Washington Post essay on how books saved his life. Keillor means intimacy with people, even strangers over a cup of coffee or on a protracted bus trip. For me, intimacy also means closeness with place. Many of my reading choices serve to connect me more deeply either with where I came from or where I’ve ended up. Keillor’s words this morning reminded me of a favorite book that enhances my understanding and affection for my home in Maryland and vicinity: From Blue Ridge to Barrier Islands, edited by Kent Minichiello and Anthony White. Selections range from Captain John Smith’s observations on a salubrious Virginia climate (with “abundance of fowle” and “plentie of sturgeon”) to Tom Horton’s anaysis on the role of technology in restoring the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. Wherever you live, I hope you will seek out a similar collection that reveals how your home land through the centuries has been explored, farmed, hunted, fished, studied, developed, restored and loved.
A few of my reading choices also aim at forging connections with places where I’m going—or hope to go. That’s why I read an essay on the Flint Hills of Kansas and Oklahoma in the current issue of the Nature Conservancy Magazine. Though my first decade was spent in Kansas, my mom never thought to pack a car with kids for a field trip to the “the last great swath of tallgrass prairie,” as essayist Sally Shivnan deems the region. Shivnan writes about a sky of crushing vastness and a guide whose intimate knowledge of the grassland relieves its scale, opening her to beauties as slight as a blade of switchgrass. Like most fine travel writing, the piece left me more determined than ever to reach my destination. Reading the essay for me resembled listening to a stranger’s private stories while sipping coffee at a lunch counter. “All storytelling is an opening of the heart,” says Keillor, “a search for intimacy with strangers.” I guess writers are the strangers I turn to for intimate looks at the places I long to go. Thanks to Shivnan, I can imagine myself binoculars in hand, sweeping the hills for prairie chickens, feet planted gently in switchgrass.