Leslie Van Gelder's fine collection of essays opens with a description of a prehistoric cave in France and the enigmatic finger marks on the cave walls ("finger flutings") that she and her husband are studying—the stories of which are sadly lost. A few pages later, she circles back to the experience of clearing out her dead parents' home. "Why are there greasy marks on the walls?" a baffled helper asks. The explanation requires a story. In fact, every object in the house is storied, Van Gelder writes. The house itself is a landscape filled with a cacophony of stories, many brought home by her father, a mammalogist who studied African wildlife; but like the marks on the caves, the stories will be lost when the people have passed on.
An archaeological educator, Van Gelder is fascinated by the interaction between person, place, and story. "We are always somewhere," she writes, "and it is through place that we are able to root our sense of story and our sense of self." Each of the seven essays in her book explores this concept from a different point of view: questions of kinship, naming, journeying, homing. She explores these landscapes through story, discovering ways in which her own tale-telling changes the unknown wilderness into a more fully known wildland, rich with relationships, and then to home. It is through this internal evolution, she says, that we learn how to become at home in the world, that we learn to see our very selves "as evolving places."
Van Gelder is at her best when she is telling intensely personal stories, like her tale of her father's instruction to her (she was four years old) to reach into the grass-filled stomach of a dead, still-warm impala to get him "a part so small it required a tiny pair of fingers to fetch it." She recalls with awe how it felt to connect so deeply with a wild creature. Or her story about "New Hamsterdamn," the imaginary place that she and her brother created, complete with its own language, Doodlish, named for their obstreperous hamster, Doodles McGurk. She and her brother have a "deeper sense of our historical home through the invocation of its language," she says, illustrating the connection between stories and home places. Also appealing is her sophisticated treatment of anthropomorphism, so often shunned by scientists as a projection of the human onto a non-human world. For Van Gelder, it is a way of knowing deeply a world in which all humans and non-human beings are intimately related in a landscape rich with significance.
The conceptual terrain of Van Gelder's work is complex and sometimes daunting, but the tales she has gathered from her personal journey clearly illuminate the truth of her central argument: It is through story that we find our way in the wildness of the world, and through story that we create our homes. This book makes a substantive addition to the growing literature of place, home, and story.
Leslie Van Gelder is Faculty Chair at the College of Education at Walden University, an online educational institution. You can find a description and photos of the "finger flutings" she studies here.
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