Place Where You Live:

Pawtuxet Village (Warwick), Rhode Island

There was a time when the people who lived here would have located themselves

simply by stating their proximity to water. So, I live in the “ocean state,” steps

away from where the Pawtuxet River flows into the Providence River, which in

turn flows into Narragansett Bay. The Bay is named after a tribe in this smallest

state, as are many streets, a beer & cigarettes, a beach, a town. Names are

important, so I should add that Pawtuxet Village, another name for where live, is

also named after a tribe, whose name means “little falls” in their language, & that

the little falls still exist at the junction of two cities, Warwick & Cranston. The

first is another name from where I write, “founded” in 1642 by Samuel Gorton

when Narragansett Indian Chief Sachem, Miantonomi, agreed to accept 144

fathoms of wampumneague (an Algonquian word meaning white shell beads;

the more commonly known, wampum, is derived from this word). One can only

imagine how little Gorton had to give up for pride of “ownership” in those

colonial days, when land & water seemed, as they still do now to some people, for

the taking. I remind myself of this on a daily basis, that I am but a visitor here,

that nothing, not my house, not the land it sits on, not sidewalks & trails I walk,

not rivers & I am lucky to breathe in & paddle— belongs to me.


In March 2010, after days of relentless rainfall, Pawtuxet River rose to its highest

point in over 200 years, 21 feet, which is about 12 feet over its usual level. A

Shaw’s grocery store just blocks away flooded, remained closed for 18 months;

Warwick Mall lost millions in merchandise; the state lost more jobs (which, with

unemployment hovering around 13 percent, it could ill afford to do). At the same

time, my neighborhood, junction of unruly rivers, for many days held a kind of

silence & solitude that I won’t soon forget. People helped others get out from

under it; we used less electricity, didn’t shower or flush toilets because the

sewage treatment plant was also under water; encroaching water made us more

inclined to float than drive. How anyone living near water can be surprised when

water does what it always does– stretches borders, claims land (two years later, I

can still see remnants of toilet paper & other evidence of raw sewage in trees

along the Pawtuxet River), wipes out other, more illusory places, like malls—is

anyone’s guess. Yet we are continually surprised by the true nature of what

Robert Hass calls our “ecological address,” by the instability, insatiability &

impermanence of where we live. It is good to be reminded that we will never

know enough about our places & their qualities & that we can never do better

than knowing as much as we can about them. It’s not about cities & towns,

boundaries, so called “barter”. Our places make their own claims on us, &, maybe,

when we least expect it, they take their wampum, wilder & more instructive than

we imagined.