a key component of the first big writing conference I attended was a message about place.  a few of the conference presenters were contributors to a newly-released book called When We Say We’re Home: A Quartet of Place and Memory, and “place” was a theme in more than a few workshops and seminars presented.  having never before attended a significant conference like this (Writers@Work, held at Westminster College in salt lake city), I paid attention to everything and took it all in, assuming that everyone there knew more than me so I should listen up.

place is powerful.  the good writer can take us there with him/her, and if the writer does the job well, we can experience settings we’ve never known, never heard of or seen, or even envisioned.  I learned to visualize Oz long before seeing the movie, and to this day there are many places authors have taken me that I don’t want to ruin by seeing a filmed version of someone else’s concept of said place.

it’s said that our sense of smell–better than any other sense–triggers memories, especially those with some emotional content.  and it was while reading of someone else’s smell-driven memories of place that I remembered that I had my own, triggered by the exact same scent: sagebrush.

charles wilkinson is an attorney and professor, but more importantly, an advocate for conservation and for the rights of native americans and our environment, especially those  of the colorado plateau.  in Fire on the Plateau, published in 1999, he shares his love of the fragrance of sagebrush and how it connects him to this land, the colorado plateau.  in this passage he describes setting off, the morning after a rainy night, on a backpacking adventure with his son:

I tear a bushy sprig, then another, off a tall sagebrush, stuff them in my left shirt pocket with the leaves just inches from my nose, and suggest to Philip that he do the same.  He does.  We pull on our packs and we’re fully ready to hike, fortified by these pale, blue-green leaves.  Like Kokopelli, they play out some of the Plateau’s best music, a symphony for the nostrils.  (p.261)

it’s been raining here, off and on, the past week or so, and the sagebrush on the canyon hillsides is wildly sprouting, sending its fragrance out on the morning breezes.  there is a particular spot where the smell encompasses me, and I am immediately back in junior high, back to the rural landscape I’d recently become acquainted with when my parents moved us to utah.  we had an acre or so of land, and what wasn’t covered by house and a small back lawn was covered with rock, wildflowers, scrubby brush and oak, and sagebrush.  as the summer air heated up, the scent of sage intensified, and I will always and forever connect sagebrush with the land of my adolescence.

wilkinson took me to my morning rides in the canyon, and to my former home, simply by describing the sage smell that he loves.  I knew it, I felt it, it connected me with places within that knew of places without.  had he not delved into his own connection with sagebrush, I might not have dredged up my own.  but by his doing so, I was enabled to access a wonderful place, a place of memory, and a place in reality.

Fire on the Plateau is a wonderfully personal, factually detailed account of the history of the colorado plateau and its peoples.  it brings the landscape to life through description and hand-drawn maps, through stories and moments of wonder.  it speaks of our social and political overreaching errors, and what we–thankfully–avoided.  as an attorney who worked with native populations, wilkinson has significant insight into why events occurred as they did, and what we can learn from our mistakes, oversights, and aggression.  one can read this book for history, for geography, for lessons on conservation, for appreciation of our natural world, and for guidance on how to be a thoughtful human on this earth.