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A Sense of Place

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Old 02-13-2006, 11:02 AM
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A Sense of Place

Although very few women authors are among my favorites, the two best books I ever read establishing an extraordinary sense of place were written by women. I think of their writing style as a different kind of realism with a poetic feminine touch. Oddly enough, both authors began their careers writing gothic tales.

There were other remarkable similarities in the lives of Karen Blixen and Marjorie Rawlings. Both were independent women who started farms in wilderness regions in the 1920s without any previous experience in agriculture -- Blixen a coffee farm in Africa and Rawlings an orange grove in the wilds of central Florida. Both women had affection and sympathy for the unfortunate local people of their respective areas. But more than anything else, they each developed an intense love of place that was reflected in their writings.

Blixen was born in Denmark in 1885. She was married to Danish aristocrat Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, with whom she started the African coffee farm. They lived in what is now Kenya from 1914 to 1931. After the coffee farm failed and her lover died in an accident, she returned to Denmark never to see Africa again.

Her lover was Denys Finch-Hatton, two years younger than Blixen when they met in their early 30s. He was 6 foot, 3 inches tall, prematurely bald and free spirited. She was a small woman with dark eyes, short black hair and a lively wit. Never married and rumored to be bisexual, Finch-Hatton had drifted to Africa after college in England. He worked as a hunting guide on safaris to remote regions of the Great Rift Valley.

Finch-Hatton introduced Blixen to the natural beauty of Africa on foot and later by car and airplane after he learned how to fly. They were among the first people to see the African bush country from the air -- trackless wilderness and herds of wild animals stretching all the way to the horizon. On safari they lived in what seemed like the mythical Garden of Eden in the actual ancestral home of the human race. Like his Masai companion, Finch-Hatton enjoyed dwelling in the here and now with no thought of tomorrow.

Blixen wrote: "He knew, as I didn't, that the earth was made round so that we would not see too far down the road." For her part, Blixen wanted to marry Finch-Hatton and resented his long periods of absence. He chaffed at the idea of marriage and wanted an open relationship with no strings attached.

"My God, in the world you would make, there would be no love at all," she complained.

"A piece of paper won't make me love you more or be any closer to you," he replied.

The serpent of strife thus arrived in their Eden. Eventually, Finch-Hatton moved out of Blixen's house where he had been living while she was in the process of divorcing the baron. Some time later he told her: "You've ruined it for me, you know." He meant being alone in the bush.

(I had the same experience in my "Eden" -- the tiny rainforest community of Nahiku on the island of Maui. After living alone for a year and being mesmerized by the natural beauty of the area , I fell in love with a young woman and she moved in with me. We broke up and after she left I could never recapture my special feeling for the place.)

Finch-Hatton died in a plane crash shortly after he and Blixen separated. She buried him on a hillside later frequented by lions. Their story is depicted in the award-winning film "Out of Africa," starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford and based on Blixen's memoir of the same name.

In her book Blixen reminisced: "If I know a song of Africa, of the giraffe and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Will the air over the plain quiver with a color that I have had on, or the children invent a game in which my name is, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or will the eagles of the Ngong Hills look out for me?"

Blixen wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen and was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, losing in 1954 to Ernest Hemingway (who said she deserved it more than he did) and in 1957 to Albert Camus. In 1959 she went on a high-profile trip to the U.S. where her father had lived briefly before she was born. She died in 1962 at the age of 77.

In Rawlings' case she was the one who didn't want to get married. (There's always a snake in Eden.) The owner of a small-town hotel courted her for years before she finally agreed to become his wife.

Rawling won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Yearling," but I think she developed a sense of place more lyrically in her memoir "Cross Creek." She wrote: "Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the seasons, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all, to time."

The book was made into a very good film in 1983 with Mary Steenbergen and Peter Coyote.

Rawlings was born in 1893 in Washington, D. C., and worked in Rochester, New York, as a journalist before she and her husband bought the orange grove in central Florida, which was largely a backwoods wilderness at the time. She got divorced 5 years later, but remained in Florida to operate the citrus farm and write.

Her mentor at Charles Scribner's Publishing was Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who had previously discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. Perkins turned her literary career around by advising her to write about the people and places she knew in Florida rather than gothic stories. When he outlined a book idea, she wrote to him: "Do you realize you're asking me to write an American classic?" He did and she created "The Yearling."

Rawlings died in Florida in 1953 at the age of 57.

"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa
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