I had two experiences of sharing yesterday that, while seemingly different in many ways, taught me something about how it is possible to share or introduce a place, a subject that has been turning in my head since I returned from Manitoulin Island.
My friend Chris Land came by with his young daughter in the morning, and we had a chance to walk to a downtown used bookstore together in the afternoon. Chris is not from Guelph and had never been to this particular bookseller, so I showed him around the shop a little, and we spent some time browsing, occasionally noting a book to one another or asking each other’s opinion on a title. Chris bought Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, which was a fairly revolutionary text for me when I read it in university. I bought two collections of essays: George Orwell’s Inside the Whale and Other Essays, and William Styron’s The Quiet Dust and Other Writings, neither of which were known to me before I saw them on the shelves. We both left the store well pleased with our purchases.
In the evening, I went to help my mother move a desk from the house of Bob Brown, a mutual friend. While we were there, Bob took the opportunity to show me a little of his unique garden. It was not the first time that I had seen it, since the Browns allow me to pick their grapes every fall, but I am almost always picking when Bob is at work, so I have never heard him explain how unique some of the plants in his garden really are. He cultivates only those plants that are native to southern Ontario, and he tries to include as many uncommon species as he can. Not wanting to take these plants from the wild, he notes where developers will be beginning a new project, and takes any valuable specimens from these areas before the bulldozers arrive. From among his many interesting edible specimens, too many to mention, he was gracious enough to give me some mayapple plants (podophyllum peltatum) for immediate transplantation, and to promise me some pawpaw tree seedlings (asimina triloba) for transplantation later in the fall. Of the two, mayapples can still be found wild in various places in Ontario, but pawpaws are almost never seen this far north any longer. Along with the sandcherry bushes (prunus pumila var. depressa) that I am trying to force grow from seeds, these new plants will make an interesting beginning to a garden of local and edible plants.
In each case, I would suggest that what was being introduced was, more than anything else, a space, a specifically local space, a locality. In the first instance, I was the guide; in the second, I was the guided; in both, what was actually exchanged between us was a familiarity with a locality, a familiarity both with the space of a bookstore or of a garden, and, through this locality, an increased knowledge of the broader spaces of literature and of southern Ontario flora. The sharing is not really of literature or flora, of course, not as a whole, not even as the whole of what might be shared. It is the sharing only of those aspects of literature and flora that appear within a particular locality, a locality where one is familiar and is willing to familiarize another. In the same way, my opportunity last week was not to introduce the Humphreys to Manitoulin, or even to everything of Manitoulin that I know. Rather, it was an opportunity to make them familiar with a place where I am familiar, in order to introduce them to the experience of Manitoulin that is particularly mine. They may gain a broader knowledge of Manitoulin through this experience, but this is not primarily what is being shared. What is being shared is my familiarity with the locality.
I would argue that this understanding of sharing has implications far beyond physical space, because I think that it characterizes, or at least should characterize, every instance of sharing that takes the form of an introduction. In terms of pedagogy, for example, I think that it is far more useful to understand the teacher’s function to be sharing in this way. Clearly, despite frequent pretence to the contrary, the teacher is never able to introduce students to the entirety of a subject. The teacher is never able even to introduce students to all of the possible knowledge of a subject that the teacher has to sharet. The teacher is really only able to introduce students to a locality within a subject, a locality with which the teacher is familiar, a locality which the teacher can make familiar to the students also. This kind of teaching does not pretend to somehow cover a subject entirely, but to familiarize a locality of the subject in such a way as to cast light on the whole, which will always remain beyond mastery of both teacher and student.
In this sense, I familarize Chris with the bookstore so that he can carry out of it something that was always larger than the bookstore in any case: the text. Bob familarizes me with his garden so that I can carry out of it something that was always larger than the garden in any case: the plant. Without these localities, and without a familiarity with them, taught and learned, there would be nowhere to begin discovering the things that we need to carry with us.