The Places That Shape Us

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Certain places follow us, like shadows. At times they lengthen and stretch implausibly tall until they tower above our lives, or slant decisively away as if trying to flee. Occasionally they appear not to be there at all – so exact is the overlay of self and place, so precise the meridian sun. Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves.

We were on holiday in the north of England when I first glimpsed what would become my own shadowing landscape. A flat grey sky sheeted above the mysterious, treeless moors as we drove a narrow road in North Yorkshire. On either side of us the heather unrolled like bolts of rough, dark cloth, its dull purple flowers scattered like a fall of ripened berries. I remember the pockets of spectral mist that dissolved the second they were seen; the solitary, wind-stooped shrubs; the beautifully forlorn light.

I was almost twelve that summer, and while I stared through the windows transfixed the land began tilting me away from the enclosed space of the car towards a different kind of interior: luminous, revelatory, confiding. As I watched the ghostly moorland dimple away into nothingness, eventually merging with the solemn proclamation of sky, I became aware of a close and immediate attachment, a need to return. The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me.

*     *     *

“…we are not strangers in the world if we remain open to awe…”
– Terry Tempest Williams

I’m thrilled to announce that my book manuscript, from which this short passage is taken, has just won the 2012 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award Series for Creative Nonfiction. The Small Heart of Things: Being at Home in a Beckoning World explores some of the myriad ways in which we come to be at home, and how connections to the natural world can be deepened when an equality of perception is applied to our relationships. From a caterpillar carrying its house of leaves to transhumant shepherds ranging the high Prespa mountains, from a quail seeking cover on a seemingly empty steppe to the plight of a Turkmen family emigrating from Afghanistan to Istanbul, the narrative spans the common, and often contested, ground that supports both human and natural communities alike. It seeks the smaller stories that sustain us. The book will be published in the autumn of 2013 by the excellent University of Georgia Press.

Not only am I extremely honoured by the award, I’m also deeply moved by the words of the judge, Terry Tempest Williams, who describes the book in such a generous and humbling way in the official announcement, a writer whose wisdom and work have long been a guiding spirit and inspiration to me. Many thanks to all of you who have supported, read and encouraged Notes from Near and Far these last few years. I’m deeply grateful for all your interest, and the time and thought you’ve given to these posts. I will be writing more about the book as it takes shape.

25 thoughts on “The Places That Shape Us

  1. I liked this, Julian! I had similar feelings when I came to the American Southwest, a region I had visited several times over the years, but which takes some residency time to fully appreciate. Your description of North Yorkshire reminds me of the Burren area in West Clare, which affected me deeply.

    Congratulations on your book being published. You certainly deserve it.

    1. Thanks, Larry! Great to hear from you and hope all is well. Having been to the Burren many, many years ago I have a good idea of the connection that affected you deeply. It’s an extraordinary landscape, and one that finds its way inside you, all that pale stone, all that space. Love your idea of needing “some residency time” to fully appreciate a place. That kind of settling speaks to me on many levels. Thanks for the good wishes!

  2. ‘The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me’ – That’s so beautifully put, Julian… full of so many resonances for me. ‘…my own shadowing landscape’ is a perfect phrase that carries so much – you always capture such truth in your writing. I certainly feel shadowed by landscapes that follow me, have very much become part of me, and have formed who I am, deepening in their significance for me through time…

    Many congratulations on receiving the award for your manuscript, Julian! That’s wonderful news! You so deserve it… I very much look forward to reading your book when it comes out next year. I’ll be one of the first in line waiting to buy a copy when it’s published…

    Enjoy this very much deserved recognition of your superb writing…

    With very best wishes,


    1. Thanks for your generous and thoughtful words, Melanie, especially having just lingered about your beautiful recent post. It means a great deal to me, and hope you enjoy the book once it’s out in the world.

      My very best wishes, and hope your words are flourishing,


  3. Julian!

    My heart is so full of happiness for you, I hardly know what to say. I’ll look forward to holding your book in my hands and reading each essay. Maybe then I’ll be able to describe the specific kind of hope your success gives me in the world.

    Cheers! And big, big congrats!

    1. Thanks, Emily! I think you have a good idea of how exciting it all feels, and I really do believe that I’ll be able to hold a book of yours in my hands some day. That would bring me great joy. Thanks for all your support, and hope this finds you well!

  4. I must have been close to the same age when I discovered, with my family the rocky, seaweed-strewn, indomitable eastern shore of Newfoundland. Of the coast-to-Canadian-coast and mid-west to western U.S.travels my military father swept us through, a year-long on-shore circumnavigation of Australia as well as more narrow travels in Mexico and Jamaica, it is this crashing, deliciously reeking, sharp and slick shore that is my own “shadowing landscape” implanted at what must be a very impressionable age. I long to return.

    See? One little excerpt already has the creaky wheels turning. I can’t wait to read the book. Congratulations, Julian. I already know it is the best book.

    1. Love this rich coastal memory that pulls you back to a childhood place, Cindy. So evocative, so magnetic. I hope you get a chance to return some day, to feel that sea-spray, to hear that wind. I’m touched that the extract has brought these thoughts to the surface. Thank you, as always, for all your kind words and support. I hope you enjoy the book…

      My very best wishes,


  5. Julian, congratulations again on your well-deserved publication and accolades, and thank you for this excerpt that so exactly expresses the way I feel about the connection between self and space – and Yorkshire. I remember standing with my dad on a moor just like that near ancestral ruins, and having this epiphany that the place WAS us – that Time was the only thing separating us from all the people and events before and after us there – and that Time is only a human-created illusion. So your excerpt is startlingly visual and visceral to me. What a lovely, grounding (ah, an unintended pun) way to start this foggy morning in California – thank you.

    1. For some strange reason, this lovely comment was hidden away in the WordPress spam folder, so I’m especially pleased to have found it! Many thanks, Jenny; I think I understand how you might have felt with your father while standing on a moor. At times, those divisions between self and place can fall away, and I’m drawn to that exclamation of yours, “that the place WAS us.” Great to hear that you were able to share somethings was intimate and compelling as that with your father. And my many thanks for your kind and generous words, and your deeply appreciated interest in my work. It means a great deal to me. Hope you and your words are well in California, foggy or not!

      Best wishes,


  6. Wooooooohooooooooooo!!!! How very excellent, Hoff; wonderful news. Think I know what this means to you. I really can’t wait to have a copy of TSHoT in my paws.

    Much love, Tweet xxx

    1. Many thanks for the good words and wishes! It’s a good question about the photographs, and one I’ve been giving quite a lot of thought to recently. I don’t think any images will appear in this book, mostly because I think there would be any unevenness about them, working well with parts of the book and not so well with others, written before I began thinking about images as complements and siblings to the words. Having said that, the next book that I’m working could contain images as I’ve been considering their use from the start. We’ll see, but thanks for asking; I appreciate your interest! Hope all is well in your wanderings.


  7. I can only add my heartfelt congratulations – a valuable recognition of a strong writing talent. I loved this extract, both for its numinous prose and the sentiments behind it

    with very best wishes


    1. Thank you, Ian. So pleased to hear you enjoyed the extract, taken from a place not so far from you. Hope all is well, and looking forward to more of your explorations.

      My very best wishes,


    1. Many thanks, Laurence, for your generous words; so pleased you liked the extract and hope you enjoy the book when it comes out. Hope all is rich in your wanderings.

      Best wishes,


    1. Many thanks, beeseeker, for the kind words and for taking the time to read. Also for raising a compelling question: is there only ever one place that we feel shadows us, or we belong to? I’d say no, that we have the capacity to feel a deep attachment, let’s even say love, for a number of places or landscapes. The Small Heart of Things takes up this idea, exploring how through close attention we can come to feel that same intense connection to any number of places, that through perception we are able to embrace wherever we happen to be. It’s a pleasure to hear from you here!

      Best wishes,


  8. Thank you for sharing this extract. It seems from the comments that everyone reading this can identify their own ‘shadowing landscape’. For me your post made me think of Penryn in Cornwall, where I lived for 6 months of last year. ‘Whether seen or not they are undoubtedly close, tethered by subtle threads spooling us forever back, either in memory or actuality, even dreams, to landscapes that articulate something of our selves… The place had been sealed like a secret in an undisclosed part of me.’ – this beautifully articulates how I feel about Penryn. Sense of place is something I’ve written about on my own blog and generally pondered about a lot. What is it that keeps drawing me back in memory to Penryn and why do I keep longing to go back there? I had never thought about it as a place that might articulate something about myself, will have to ponder this thought more!

    Thank you for following me on Twitter and for leading me to your blog.

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful and kind comment, Naomi. It’s been a pleasure to read this morning. Although I’ve never been to Cornwall, it’s a part of the world I’d love to explore one of these days. I think deep down we all have some kind of landscape or place which resonates with us throughout the course of our lives, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. Often it stems from childhood memories but, as in your case, those inner connections can be revealed at any time in life. When the moment of our finding is right. I’m excited to read about your unfolding link to Penryn, partially because I can imagine that magnetic pull, that sense of gravity hauling you back. Would love to know how this develops. Keep me posted!

      I’ve been intrigued by Blacktop Rain for some time, and was delighted to discover you on Twitter after EarthLines retweeted you. Great to be in touch, and I look forward to seeing where this journey into place takes you. By the way, can I subscribe to the blog by email? I’ve looked and can’t find anywhere to do it, but I might simply be missing it. That wouldn’t be unheard of!!

      Many thanks again for reading and taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment. I appreciate it.

      Best wishes,


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