Elizabeth Bird & Narratives of Place

Bird's article ("It Makes Sense To Us: Cultural Identity in Local Legends of Place") suggests that there are places which invite stories - cemeteries, particular houses or buildings, monuments or statues, empty lots, fields, etc. The stories come to be because there is something incongruous or ambiguous, something that requires explanation.

Example: There is a grove of poplars in Saskatchewan (near Laird) that is extremely twisted, prompting the local people to tell stories about aliens having come and mutated them. There is a scientific explanation - one seed was mutated, and since poplars reproduce rhizomatically, all others in the grove would be of the same mutated seed and hence also twisted. However, the stories persist. The question is - why?

Bird argues that, in the absence of historical evidence, our narrative impulse tends to fill in a story. That story tells us more about our construction of place than it does of the thing which occasioned the story.

It is worth asking - does this only happen in the absence of history? One might argue that at any time, we construct a place by our choices of what we include in a history. Consider the American construction of the war in Iraq. To what extent does the story that is told, tell us about the US as opposed to anything that is actually happening there?

Stories have purposes - the question is not so much, are they true, as, what purpose do they serve in society? How do they contribute to the cohesiveness or identity of a community.

Note that this is a classic functionalist approach, to regard the significance of a cultural practice as the way it contributes to the cohesiveness of society, as opposed to how it is experienced by the individuals (phenomenology), or how it exhibits a deep structure (structuralism), or how the stories give evidence of larger class structures (Marxism) or gender relations (feminism).

One excellent example of a story that helps to construct both place and identity is the story of the Runestones. These stones, found in Minnesota, raise the possibility that Norse explorers made it that far inland hundreds of years before Columbus. The runes confer a sense of entitlement to the land on the largely Scandinavian population.

Orlando might not have runes, but what are the ways in which the various ethnic narratives structure the nature of this place? What are the markers of this narrative?

Bird argues that the Indian population was displaced by the narratives in Minnesota. Places were given Indian names, which served not to memorialize them, but rather to establish that the white population had a connection to the land "since time immemorial."

In what ways do the previous inhabitants of this place get displaced by the narrative that is accepted as the story of Orlando?

Part of the narrative in Regina, where I grew up, was that native people were always violent, always addicted to something, always socially irresponsible. The downtown, it was said, had a per-capita crime rate higher than Chicago or New York in the 1970's. It is not clear whether that was actually true, but it served the narratives of the "better" parts of town to tell stories about the horrible things that would happen (so we believed) on Osler Street.

Bird suggests that a place comes with multiple narratives, often related to different age groups. A bridge might be a sign of past prosperity to some; to a different age group, it might be a magical or scary place. A rural place might mean one thing (e.g., economic activity) to one generation, but be a place of ritual or transition to another generation.

Are there magical places in Orlando, at least for some segments of the population? Are there places that people go as part of a "ritual" or rites of passage - bush parties at graduation, bridges to spray-paint by graduating classes, etc.? Are there "liminal" places, where transitions happen, or where people go to meet the unknown? Are there places like this in the town you grew up?

There were such places where I grew up (Regina). Lumsden was a place that people went to "park". We went to Moose Jaw, which became an "other" place, as did Saskatoon. And where I went to university (Waterloo, Ontario), kids would go out to Elora, where there was a gorge.

E. Leach is quoted:

It is not just that “places” serve to remind us of the stories associated with them; in certain respects, the places only exist (in the sense that they can be identified by name) because they have stories associated with them. But once they have acquired this story-based existence, the landscape itself acquires the power of “telling the story.” (p. 358)

This is important. Place has a reciprocal relationship with identity - first, the places are constructed by our need to create identity, and then the places constrain identity.