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That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Susan Imhoff Bird travels from her home in Salt Lake City through Yellowstone and Montana, exploring passions and controversies surrounding wolves in the West in her book Howl: Of Woman and Wolf. As she immerses herself in the landscape and complexities of wolves, she begins to uncover personal truths. In today’s That Thing With Feathers, Bird continues to weave outer journey with inner wayfinding as she contemplates the power of mindset and place.


Geography is Everything

The year I graduated college, it was decreed that geography was no longer just one thing, but was now essentially everything.

No longer was geography simply the study of countries and where they were found on the globe. Geography became a five-themed study: that of location (both absolute and relative), place (physical and cultural), movement (of people, ideas, information, goods and services), region (formal, functional, and vernacular), and human-environment interaction (adaptation, modification, and dependence).

Language, home ownership, procurement of food and fuel, love, interdependence, employment, culture, exploration, interaction with others and with one’s environment…geography, all.

Colum McCann’s Apeirogon tells a story of love, connection, anger, ignorance, community, culture, peace, healing, falcons and frigatebirds and tunnels and motorbikes and Hitler and Einstein and everything that swirls around the heartbreaking, vicious, violent death of two young Middle Eastern girls, and his fragment number 173 states geography is everything. It determines who lives, who falls in love with whom, who dies.

“…because one shook hands with this person or hugged that one, one’s fate may be guided in a different direction than it previously was.”

At the present time, most every aspect of geography is confrontative. Because one lives on this side or that side of the continental divide, because one lives in a city or suburbia or a rural space, because one shops at this store or takes one’s car to that service station, because one shook hands with this person or hugged that one, one’s fate may be guided in a different direction than it previously was. The enormity of it, the improbability, the in-your-face reality that one has so little control over anything, ever. And then the dawning realization that what one does have control of is self, the inner experience, the mindset, the response to that with which one is surrounded.

To connect with oneself and understand that this is the only certainty; what a rich, vital certainty it is.

The inner geography. Which is, ultimately, everything.

We often gain access to this inner geography through place.

Ah, place. Landscape. Those mountains, wheatfields, expanses of snow, cloud clotted skies, mossy creeks, hanging valleys, granite peaks, dunes and shaded lanes and talus slopes and silently whispering deserts. These connect us with our core sense of self, they alone have the absolute ability to hone and heal our inner geography. We ground via actual ground.

A story exists of Buddhist monk Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who is said to have once sat with his master in a garden, admiring a great elm tree. Sunlight danced through the leaves, a squirrel paused to study the men, this magnificent tree spread its limbs far and tall. One monk turned to the other, “they call this tree,” and both burst into laughter.

What we call it matters not. Place is the ground which grounds us.

We, whose hearts are tugged by landscape, feel the power of place.

We, who are separated from those we love, know the power of place.

We, who await the unknown, center ourselves with the power of place.

Geography is everything.


Susan Imhoff Bird is the author of Howl: Of Woman and Wolf. She finds inspiration in Utah’s stunning canyons, valleys and water-sculpted rock. When not writing, reading, trying to meditate, or attempting yoga asanas, she can be found on her bicycle or snowshoes, absorbing the wisdom of the natural world. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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