The imagination of going home so frequently means going ‘back’ in both space and time. Back to the old familiar things, to the way things used to be… the truth is that you can never simply ‘go back,’ to home or to anywhere else. When you get ‘there’ the place will have moved on just as you yourself will have changed.
—Doreen Massey, For Space
The North Sea glitters green in the sunlight, smoke-blue in cloudshade. Gulls perch on the wind over rocks that break the tide. Kelp and shellfish darken the shore, pools of tidal life drown and surface twice daily with the ocean’s wet breathing. At my back, the harbour village of Buckpool, Scotland hunkers shoulder to the wind at the base of the cliff that once delineated fishing folk from farming folk. Above the cliff edge lies Buckie proper, a bit of a metropolis in the remote and rural sense of the word. Two kilometres west and south, a footpath leads along the burn to the village of Rathven. With little more than three roads and two stubby dead-ends, Rathven is easy to overlook. But it was once the considerable centre of the region: the root of the parish, the home of the school and the cemetery. It is also where the Elricks lived — James, Ellen and their five sons — before they made their gradual migration to Canada in the mid-19th century. I was here once before, almost a year ago today. That time, I spent most daylight hours scanning the annals, microfiche records and heads of countless gravestones looking for Alexander Elrick, the only brother of the five who did not make the trans-Atlantic crossing with the rest of his family. If only I can find him, I told myself, his descendants, or even his bones, I’ll have found the title to my Scottish ancestry and will be able to claim this cultural inheritance, however remote or diluted by the generations between. On the last day of my stay, I took shelter from the heat of the afternoon sun in the shade cast by a simple granite headstone, which marks the bones of Alexander and his family, the end of that Elrick line.
Upon choosing to write a book about home, or more precisely, about once intimate places (that don’t exist anymore), I quickly realized that before any discussion of home was to be had, I needed to glean a better understanding of what place is, how it transforms into home, and of the relationship between time, place and memory. As a starting point, I checked my language: how often do I use the word space when I really mean place (and vice versa)? “Space transforms into place as it acquires definition and meaning,” says Yi-Fu Tuan in his groundbreaking book Space and Place. He goes on to describe place as “whatever stable object that catches our attention,” and again as a “pause in movement… [making] it possible for a locality to become a centre of felt value.” A centre of felt value: perhaps the most reductive definition of home. Though I may have a collection of such centres, the vast majority of them I only now experience through memory, having moved on to new places, new homes in new locales. As Doreen Massey points out in the opening quote, the interrelation between time and space alters our revisiting perception to such a degree that it is impossible to “go back” home at all. Except through memory, of course, and the memory’s capacity for time space-time travel has enabled a whole genre of literary works—the memoir. Yet, to bring one more voice into this chorus, Gaston Bachelard comments in his book The Poetics of Space that “Except for a few medallions stamped with the likeness of our ancestors, our child-memory contains only worn coins. It is on the plane of the daydream and not on that of facts that childhood remains alive and poetically useful within us.”
Each place resides forever in the moment of my encounter with it, vastly particular and ever fleeting. The goal in this current work is a translation of these places into a poetic form suitable to house the particularities of each. The trouble is, this writing about past homes is far from memoir. The stories I’ve inherited, such as the Elrick emigration, and others I’ve told myself only speak about place, not through it, and they speak from a rear-view perspective, which reads the ripples in the pond in such a way that actually warps the shape of the stone. A poetic of place must then accept the sculpting influence that time has moment-by-moment on the physical space being experienced. It must also acknowledge the pen, and the psychological climate of the author in that particular place at that particular time. Knowing this, my return to Rathven begs a different task: to dwell, to perceive, to record the specificity of here and find the interstices where a heritage of sounds, sights and textures may be mined from the locale. Alexander’s bones offer an inheritance of Scottish soil. Yet for an inherited home to truly become a place of mine, rights are inconsequential. Home remains a bodily apprehended concept.
And so I sit here on the shore at Buckpool, pen in hand, and begin the translation of experience into document. A present tense account, an attempt to stop time—better yet, to preserve it. I write.
empty quadrangle clotheslines mark the grass above the waves. a few pins lag behind, quivering like hung and drying fish, waiting to be used.
stone row cottages keep their shoulders to the shore, look instead at each other. at Portgordon and Portknockie, at Betty and Peter. say hello and water the pansies:
purple and yellow with their rust brown hearts. weather looks good for tomorrow, sunlight fades behind a periwinkle storm. tide is in and out again.
the sea sighs, flips wet hair against the wall that keeps us separate. rolls over, flashing white ankles. whispers sea, sea. I listen.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
Massey, Doreen. For Space. London: Sage Publications, 2005.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977.