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In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 1, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

Imagine Persia — Then think of Iran. 

Very different places occupying the same geographic location. The names of places carry a kind of emotional scent that surrounds them. Persia has an exotic perfume; Iran rather stinks to American minds as moldy bread.

Persia is a land of legend of djinn, of harems, and magic carpets; Iran rather has its mullahs, its chador, and its Revolutionary Guard. Persia had its Omar Khayyam and his “The Bird of Time has but a little way to flutter — and the Bird is on the Wing.” Iran has religious fundamentalism and “Death to America.”

Certainly the political situation has changed radically over time and that contributes to our different perceptions of the same country, but the names we use conjure up very different associations, too, and not just for Iran, but the names we use around the world and especially, over time. Most locations on the globe have born a variety of toponyms over the ages. Some of these names are better for journalism, some for poetry.

The same land that we now know as Iran was once called Parthia. Once called Media — land of the Medes — once called Ariana, at another time, the Achaemenid Empire. In the Bible, it is Elam. (The borders are never quite the same; borders are notoriously fugitive.) There are other names, too, all accounting for parts of what are now The Islamic Republic of Iran: Hyrcania; Bactria; Jibal; Fars; Khuzestan; Hujiya; Baluchistan.

Some of these names, such as Baluchistan and Bactria, have a kind of exotic emotional perfume and remind us of the Transoxiana of folklore and half-remembered, half-conjured history. Samarkand and Tashkent; Tales of Scheherazade or Tamurlane, stories recounted by Richard Halliburton or Lowell Thomas. One thinks of old black and white National Geographic magazines.

Countless Victorian paintings depicted a romantic Orientalized version of seraglios, viziers, genies, pashas, often with women in various states of undress.

I have long been interested in this nomenclatural perfume, and how the names of places conjure up emotional states. The Sahel, Timbuktu, Cappadocia, Machu Picchu, Angkor Watt, Bali, Madagascar, the Caspian Sea, Tristan de Cunha, Isfahan. You listen to Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia or his Polovtsian Dances, or Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches, or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. Watch the Cooper-Schoedsack 1925 silent film documentary of the annual Bakhtiari migrations in western Iran, Grass

There are Paul Gauguin’s brown-fleshed vahines from Tahiti, or the Red Fortress of Delhi, or the Taj Mahal. 

All have taken up residence in our subconscious imaginations. Places we likely will never visit except in art or literature. We watch Michael Palin and vicariously sail across the Arabian Sea on a Dhow, or look south from the Tierra del Fuego towards the icy basement of the planet. We read Herodotus, Marco Polo or Ibn Batuta. The best writing of Charles Darwin can be found in his Voyage of the “Beagle”. Or Melville’s Encantadas

And how often those aromas and scents are ambiguous as to be unplaceable. Where, for instance, is Bessarabia? What about Saxony? I have written before about how borders change over time, and the names of places change along with the borders, but here I am writing about the emotional resonances of those place names.

Saxony, Westphalia, Silesia, Franconia, Pomerania, Swabia, Thuringia: These are names from history books, but we are quite unlikely to know where to spot them on a map. They are all sections of Germany and Eastern Europe that have been subsumed by more modern nations, but a few centuries ago were their own kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms. Some reappear as regions or counties in larger nations, but some are pretty well evaporated. Saxony, for instance, as it exists now as a part of Germany, was originally a separate nation, and not even in the same place where the current Saxony lies.

The older names often have a more exotic connotation than the current names. Siam brings to mind Anna and Yul Brynner; Thailand may elicit thoughts of sex tourism. Abyssinia is a place of Solomonic apes and peacocks; Ethiopia is a nation that went through the Red Terror and famine of the Derg. Burma had its Road to Mandalay, its Kayan women with their elongated brass-coiled necks or even George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” but Myanmar brings to mind military rule, extreme xenophobia and Rohingya genocide.

Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon, but it was also known as Serendip, from which we get the word “serendipity.” Both “Ceylon” and “Serendip” derive from the ancient Greek word for the island, Sielen Diva. And according to legend and literature, it was originally named Tamraparni, or “copper colored leaves” by its first Sinhalese king, Vijaya. That name becomes the more common Taprobana.

The older names are almost always more resonant, more perfumed, which is why they show up so often in poetry and literature. Where have you heard of Albion, Cambria, Caledonia, Hibernia or Cornubia, but in verse? England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall just don’t have that literary heft. It’s hard enough for non-Brits to keep straight the difference between England, Britain, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom or UK.

If you’ve ever wondered what the ship Lusitania was named for, that was the former name for what is now Portugal. When James Joyce talks about Armorica in Finnegans Wake, he is using the old name for Brittany. Firehouse Dalmatians are named for the former Roman province located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy and now part of Croatia.

Eastern Europe is a coal bucket of forgotten or half-remembered toponyms. These places don’t translate one-for-one with modern nation-states, but across the map from Poland through Ukraine and down to Romania you find such redolent names as Pannonia, Sarmatia, Podolia, Wallachia, Pridnestrovia, Bohemia, Moravia. All of which makes the region a fertile spot to locate a fictional country when you want to write a spy novel or film comedy. Just make up a name that sound vaguely plausible.

Of the following, only one has ever been real. The rest are made up. Can you pick the genuine from the bogus?

If you picked Ruritania, a slap on the wrist for you. You have probably heard of it, but it is the fictional country that Anthony Hope used to set his 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. It has since been used myriad times as a stand-in for any small nation in a movie or book.

(Other fictional countries that show up on celluloid: Freedonia and Sylvania from the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup; Tomainia, Bacteria and Osterlich from Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; Moronica in the Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy. There are many more.)

The ringer in the question is Ruthenia, which was a real name for a real place in Eastern Europe, now parts of Hungary and Ukraine. As for the others: Brungaria is from the Tom Swift Jr. series of boys’ books; Estrovia is from Charlie Chaplin’s film A King in New York; Lichtenburg is from the 1940 film, The Son of Monte Cristo; Pontevedro is from operetta and film, The Merry Widow; and Grand Fenwick is from the Peter Sellars film The Mouse That Roared.

There are names for mythical places, too, and they really carry their exoticism well: Atlantis; El Dorado; Shangri-La. Less well known, but once more current are the lost continents of Mu and Lemuria, both popular with cultists, and the sunken Arthurian country of Lyonesse and the drowned city of Ys.

But even real places have their exotic past. What we now call Mexico was once Aztlán. Iceland was once the almost legendary land of Thule. What we know as Xi Jinping’s China was to Marco Polo, Cathay. There is more incense to that than the more modern smog-choked superpower. Properly, Cathay was the northern part of modern China during the Yuan dynasty; the south was called Mangi. Shangdu is the modern name once transliterated as Xanadu. It has gone the way of Ozymandias.

Ruins of Xanadu

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union and is a NATO member, but in the far past, we knew the part of it east of the Dardanelles  as Asia Minor. But even that part was originally known by its regions: Anatolia in the east; Bithynia in the northwest; Cilicia in the southwest; Pontus in the northeast; and Galatia in the center (that’s who the New Testament Galatians was addressed to). The nation’s current capital is Ankara, but how much more soft and silky is its earlier incarnation as Angora?

The Middle East is now divided up in a jigsaw created after the world wars. What was The Holy Land is now Israel and its surrounding lands, which used to be aggregated as Palestine. But that whole end of the Mediterranean used more commonly to be called the Levant. I love those old terms: The Levant east of the sea and the Maghreb along the sea’s southern coast west of Egypt.

Hawaii used to be the Christmas Islands, counterweight to Easter Island. But speaking of counterweights: Tonga used to be the Friendly Islands and to their east is Niue was once Savage Island. (“Niue” translates as “Behold the Coconut”).  Back in the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were latterly the Fortunate Islands.

Nations like to attempt to make their own emotional perfume, with more or less success. Some nicknames are quite familiar: Japan is “The Land of the Rising Sun;” England is “The Land of Hope and Glory;” Ireland is “The Emerald Isle.” Norway is “The Land of the Midnight Sun.” Some nicknames aren’t particularly glorious. Italy is “The Boot;” France is “The Hexagon.” Some are just descriptive: Australia is “The Land Down Under;” Canada is “The Great White North;” Afghanistan is “The Graveyard of Empires.”

States have nicknames, too. Alaska has a bunch of them: “The Last Frontier” is printed on license plates. But others are less chamber-of-commerce-ish: Seward’s Ice Box; Icebergia; Polaria; Walrussia; the Polar Bear Garden.

Among the odder state nicknames: Arkansas is the Toothpick State; Colorado is The Highest State (which now has added meaning with the legalization of marijuana); Connecticut is both The Blue Law State and “The Land of Steady Habits;” Delaware is The Chemical Capital of the World; Georgia is The Goober State (for the peanut, please); Massachusetts is The Baked Bean State; Minnesota is “Minne(snow)ta;” Nebraska is The Bugeating State; New Jersey is officially The Garden State, but many call it “the Garbage State,” none too kindly; North Carolina used to be The Turpentine State; South Carolina used to print on its license plates, “Iodine Products State;” Tennessee is The Hog and Hominy State.

Cities have their nicknames, too. Some are in universal parlance. Paris is The City of Light, Rome is The Eternal City. In the U.S. we can drive from Beantown to the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and through Porkopolis on to the Windy City and head south to the Big Easy and then out west to the Mile High City (again, now a double entendre), and finally to The City of Angels or more northerly to Frisco. (The full name given to Los Angeles is El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles or “the town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels.” Put that on a Dodgers ballcap.)

But there are less common and less polite names for cities, too. And some real oddball ones. Albertville, Ala., is The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World. Berkeley, Calif., is “Berzerkeley.” LA is also “La-La Land.” Indianapolis is “India-no-place.” New Orleans is also the “Big Sleazy.” Las Vegas is “Lost Wages.” Boulder, Colo., is The People’s Republic of Boulder.

You can string together toponyms and almost make poetry, or at least a song: “Oklahoma City looks oh so pretty/ You’ll see Amarillo/ Gallup, New Mexico/ Flagstaff, Arizona/ Don’t forget Wynonna/ Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino/ … Get your kicks on Route 66.”

“I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota/ Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota/ Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa, Oklahoma/ Tampa, Panama, Mattawa, La Paloma/ Bangor, Baltimore, Salvador, Amarillo/ Tocopilla, Barranquilla, and Padilla, I’m a killer/

“I’ve been everywhere, man/ I’ve been everywhere.” 

But I ain’t been to Timbuktu. 

I have lived in the four corners of the U.S. Born in the Northeast, I went to college in the Southeast, later moved to the Pacific Northwest and for 25 years, lived in the desert Southwest. I found value and pleasure in each region. 

But having moved back to North Carolina after so many years in Arizona, I am having lurching pangs from missing the West. I cannot deny that when I lived in Seattle, I had similar pangs about the South — I missed the tremendous variety of plant life when faced with forest consisting of nothing but Douglas fir and western redcedar. Hundreds of miles of Douglas fir and western redcedar. Where were the dogwoods, the sweetgums, the witch hazel, the sassafras, the red maple, canoe birch, beech, elm, oak? 

Aspens, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colo.

And so, I moved back to the East and back to North Carolina, where I had by then spent the largest portion of my life. I met my wife there and some years later, we moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where she got a job teaching and I found my life’s work writing for the newspaper. For the paper, I did a lot of traveling, and visited every state west of the Mississippi to write art and/or travel stories. It is always a pleasure to travel on someone else’s dollar. 

Pacific Coast Highway, Marin County, Calif.

After retirement, we moved back to the mountains of North Carolina, which I love. But I have to admit a nagging desire to spend time again in the desert, on the Colorado Plateau, driving up the coast of California, or revisiting the less glamorous portions of Los Angeles. The American West has wormed itself into my psyche and I feel almost as if some part of it has been amputated and I’m now feeling “phantom pain” or at least pangs in the missing limb. 

It is not the idea of the West that I harbor. The idea has been around since before Columbus thought to sail west to find the East. It was there for Leif Erickson; it was there for the Phoenicians; and before that for the Indo-Europeans. It was the idea that grabbed the early American colonists who saw the trans-Appalachian lands and envied their possession.

The West of the mind is a West of infinite possibility, of clean slate and fresh start, of fantastic riches to be had, of prelapsarian goodness. People emigrated to the West for a better life and a quarter-section. 

Fort Bragg, Calif.

The reality, of course, is something different: not enough rain for crops, prairie fires and tornadoes, mountain ranges nearly impossible to cross. And an indigenous people we first needed to wipe out and then mythologize into something noble and vanishing — as if the erasure had happened on its own. 

The Greeks had the Iliad and the Odyssey; we had our two epics: First, the Civil War, which is our battle epic, and then the wandering to find a new home in our Westward expansion, our odyssey. We made movie stars of our cowboys. The West of the movies is scenic and immaculate. It is a cinemascope landscape. 

But that isn’t the West I miss. The West I knew isn’t pristine; it is dusty, dry, spackled with convenience stores and gas stations, and getting hotter every year. It is even boring: If you’ve ever driven across Wyoming, you know what I mean. It has been described as “miles and miles of miles and miles.” 

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Gertrude Stein’s description of America is really a description of the West: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. This is what makes America what it is.”

The West I miss in my deep heart’s core is the dusty, windblown vastness, but it is also the crowded, traffic-choked cities. I miss Los Angeles as much as I miss the Rocky Mountains. 

And let’s be clear. There are four very different Wests. There is the Great Plains region; 

the mountain West; 

there is the desert West; 

and the Pacific West. 

Each has its character and its psychic magnetism. I am drawn to each. 

Route 66 near Oatman, Ariz.

The flat middle of the country is usually forgotten when we talk of the West. In the movies, Dodge City always seems to have the Sierra Nevadas in the background. The Kansas reality is very different: grassy, flat, and smelling of cattle dung. 

San Xavier del Bac, Tucson, Ariz.

As you drive across the Staked Plains of West Texas, you feel you might as well be out on the high seas with no land in sight. Indeed, that is how Herman Melville describes it in his story/poem, John Marr, about an old salt now living in the center of the continent. “Hooped round by a level rim, the prairie was to John Marr a reminder of ocean.” And the wind in the tall grass makes waves that undulate like the sea. 

Friends used to laugh when they asked where I planned to spend my vacation and I said, “Nebraska.” No one, they said, goes to Nebraska. How about the beach? How about Manhattan. But I had in my head a sense of Manhattan, Kansas, instead. I loved seeing grasslands, badlands, farmlands and cowhands. 

Republican River, Kansas

The mountain West is spread into broad bands. The largest is the Rocky Mountains that were such a barrier to the early pioneers.  We drove up and through the Rockies in many of its latitudes, from the Southern Rockies in New Mexico to Glacier National Park in Montana — and further up into Banff and Jasper parks in Alberta. 

My wife wanted to see bears. When we camped, she threatened to tie a peanutbutter sandwich to a string and drag it through the campsite, saying, “Here, Mr. Bear. Here, Mr. Bear.” I persuaded her that was a bad idea, but we found several bears on the side of the road as we drove. 

Then, there are the Sierra Nevadas of California, some of the most photogenic peaks in the country, and the background to so many cowboy movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The mountains are home to the sequoia forests and Yosemite National Park. The lowest point in the U.S. is Death Valley and the highest peak in the Lower 48 is Mount Whitney of the Sierras and they are only about 80 miles apart. You can practically see one from the other. 

The Sierras eventually turn into the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and Washington, and a series of giant volcanoes, such as Mt. Baker, Mt. Hood, and Mt. Rainier. And Mt. St. Helens. I have climbed up portions of Rainier and walked along the Nisqually Glacier on its southwestern face. On a clear day in Seattle, the snowy, ghostlike presence of Mt. Rainier seems like a permanent cloud on the horizon south of the city. It is immense. 

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, Calif.

The desert West is the one I know best. I lived in it for a quarter of a century, in Phoenix. But it is not Phoenix that I miss, except for the friends I left there. No, Phoenix is merely Cleveland in the desert. But outside of the city the desert is beautiful. In a good year — about one in every 15 — the winter rains make the desert floor a paint palette of wildflowers. The January explodes. 

To the north of the city, the Colorado Plateau is what I miss the most, those long vistas of grassland and badlands, the Navajo and Hopi reservations, the mesas and canyons, the Colorado River and a half-dozen national parks. The plateau continues north into Utah and into the southern parts of Colorado.

Petroglyphs scar the rocks and cheap souvenir shops, like those called “Chief Yellowhorse” dot the interstate. 

I can no longer count the number of times I have visited the Grand Canyon, both north and south rims, and the forlorn and uninhabited parts of the western stretches of the canyon on what is called the Arizona Strip. Anytime someone visited us in Phoenix, we took them up to see the Canyon. Pictures just don’t suffice; you have to see in to understand the awe. A picture is static, but the canyon changes color minute by minute as the sun slides across the sky and clouds pass over the rock. One of my great experiences was to arrive before dawn and watch the growing light slowly illuminate the stone and see the slim, glowing white ribbon of river a mile below us. 

South of Phoenix, there is the Sonoran Desert, with its Saguaro cactus and unending greasewood plains. And rivers with no water in them. The common joke in Arizona was about a long-time desert rat who took a trip to New York City and when he returned, his friend asked him about it. He saw all the sights, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge. “And did you see the Hudson River?” “Yeah, but there weren’t nothing to see; it was covered in water.” 

Lavender Pit, Bisbee, Ariz.

The picturesque parts of the desert are certainly attractive, but what I miss are the unlovely bits. The decrepit mobile home parks of Quartzsite, in the middle of nowhere, with its pyramid monument to Hi Jolly, the camel herder hired by the U.S. Army in a futile experiment. The burned out and abandoned shacks in 29 Palms, Calif.; the stink of dead fish along the shores of the Salton Sea; the shimmering fata morgana over the Wilcox Playa; the city-size holes in the ground where copper is hauled from the pits; and the mountain ranges of slag heaps hanging over the cities of Miami and Claypool. 

Miami, Ariz.

In so much of the desert, it is not the unsullied nature that used to be there, but the used-up quality, the peeled paint and weathered wood and broken-out windows, the abandoned and rusting cars, the roads cracked with weeds growing through. These would never be called pretty, but they have an intense kind of beauty about them. There is something very human about the ruins that no bland red sunset can match. 

As I said, it is the physicality of the West that speaks to me, not the idea. It is the West as it is, not as it is imagined to have been. 

Mural, Los Angeles, Calif.

This is true also of the Pacific West. I have written many times about Los Angeles and the parts of the city I love most: the concrete river, 

the oil wells on the Baldwin Hills,

the thousands of little strip malls and their ethnic restaurants and food markets. The bungalow houses, the back streets, the Deco architecture. 

I have driven from Tijuana to Vancouver along the coast, soaking up cities and redwoods, mountains and rushing rivers; the Samoa Cookhouse of Eureka; the bridges of Conde McCullough; the stonehenge of Maryhill; the Channeled Scablands; the floating bridge over Lake Washington; the Olympic Mountains. 

Jupiter Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park

I have visited every state except Hawaii and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador, and I have absorbed the geography into my tiny head, swallowed whole. 

Mexican cemetery, Chandler, Ariz.

We all become the landscape we have lived in. It is what makes a Southerner so darned Southern, the Yankee so taciturn, the desert rat so possessive of his burning sun-broiled gravel. In the past — and still in the American South — people tend to live within a few miles of where they were born, and their regional differences become part of their DNA. In more mobile times, when so many move around the country or even to foreign climes, that conflation of land and psyche may attenuate. But it is still there, defining, in lesser or greater extent, who we are and what we feel and think. It is why red states tend to be rural and blue states urban. 

Yosemite Falls

And because I lived in the dry air so long, with the greasewood flats and the arroyos and the roadrunners and javelinas, the West — not the idea, but the real thing — has become a part of my insides. It is why even in the gorgeous Blue Ridge, I miss the desert, mountains, plains and cities of the West. We are in some part, the same thing. 

Click on any image to enlarge

Near Pendleton, Ore.

Near Pendleton, Ore.

There are books that give us pleasure in the reading, books that inform us, books we are required to read, and there are books that become so internalized, they essentially shape the course of our lives. We can probably all name such books for ourselves. I made a list, maybe 15 years ago, in a moment of quo vadis self reflection, of those books that have most shaped who I am. I stopped listing after 50 books. Since I made the list, I could add several more; after all, I keep reading.

Pageant of Life

Pageant of Life

Of course, it is the earliest reading that had the most influence — as the twig is bent, so the tree inclines. Even the best of the more recent books cannot have influenced me even a percentage of how much I was shaped by, say, the Life magazine book, The World We Live In, which my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, and which left me wide-eyed at the wonder and diversity of nature  — volcanoes, blue whales, dinosaurs, jellyfish, rainforests, barchan sand dunes. I wear the badge of that book in my deepest heart’s core. It is the holy of holies.

But what caught my attention as I reread my old list, was that it continued to include lists of other things that shaped who I have become: music that influenced my developing psyche; art (that I saw in person, not just in books); movies; TV shows; — and last on the list of lists —  landscapes.

We don’t often think of how deeply landscape affects us, guides the direction of our lives — but how different might be the novels written by Fenimore Cooper or Washington Irving, or Mark Twain if those authors had lived elsewhere and seen different rivers, different mountains, different forests. I think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is practically a landscape — a cityscape — spread into lines of type.

Back Bay, Va.

Back Bay, Va.

Joyce had Dublin; Thomas Wolfe had Asheville, N.C., where my wife and I now live. Recently, I opened the first pages of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and read his description of Oliver Gant’s trip to western North Carolina. At one point, he describes a trip up the face of the Blue Ridge from “Old Stockade” to “Altamont” — thinly disguised versions of Old Fort and Asheville —  and as I read it, I knew that landscape — I knew that gravel road; I’ve driven it myself just last month. It’s still gravel and few cars venture it as it wanders and loops through the trees and snakes up the mountain. The interstate long ago made the trip faster and easier. But freeways are boring. As the old road loops and hairpins its way, you can frequently spy the railroad line as it winds its way uphill. That railroad was just being built as Wolfe wrote about it but even now, it  passes just under the hill where I live, and hear the locomotive whistle blow every night. It is uncanny to read about something fictionalized that you know as real.

But, in a sense, all the landscapes that are buried in the psyche are fictionalized: They have been transformed from mere fact into meaning. They are now metaphor and their existence takes on a reality that is imaginative rather than quotidian. It is imprinted as deeply as the smells of childhood, a mother’s kisses, the woodgrain of the school desk scratched with initials and scribbles.

Hudson River, West Point

Hudson River, West Point

Dunderberg

Dunderberg

My own internal landscape begins as I do, in New Jersey and New York, with the Hudson River running through it and the Catskills bumping one bank and the Taconics the other. The automobile drive around the dizzying Dunderberg north of Tomkins Bay was a white-knuckle ride when I was young, the three-lane highway incised into the edge of the cliff. My father hated that part of the drive; we kids loved it. The “mothball fleet” of rusting liberty ships off Jones Point was a living link to the war my father had returned from only a few years before. There was Bear Mountain, with its ski jump and the suspension bridge over the Hudson; there was Seven Lakes Drive through Harriman State Park, all trees and granite; there was the Red Apple Rest and its billboards on the highway.Bear Mountain Bridge for blog copy

I don’t know why, but the suburban life I lived in Bergen County barely registered as landscape. The housing developments and county roads never embossed themselves on my synapses in any significant way. But the summer vacation trips we took up the Hudson to Newburgh, NY, and to the “bungalow” that was my father’s family summer cottage in West Park burned themselves deeply into my awareness of the world. The Hudson River was the aorta that pumped the lifeblood of my awareness of the larger world.

Deep River, NC

Deep River, NC

So, when I moved to North Carolina and college, I was amused at the Tar River or the Deep River. They weren’t rivers. The Hudson was a river. Guilford County’s Deep River was a wet gully. I could have jumped across it.

I have lived many places, and in many landscapes, but they haven’t all dug wormholes into my psyche. I’ve traveled to every continental state of the union — most several times. When Hank Snow sings, “I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere,” I can honestly say that I have been to the places he names in the song: “Hackensack, Cadillac, Fond Du Lac … Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravellburg, Colorado, Ellensburg, Rexburg, Vicksburg, El Dorado, Larrimore, Atmore, Haverstraw” … the song goes on.

And all those places have landscapes that accompany them, the way a song accompanies each Fred Astaire dance number. They are there in the memory. But not all of them have transformed from geography to mythology. There are moments in life when you are particularly open, when your very skin seems adhesive to experience. It is like that when you are a child, but it also happens when you go through some life altering change, a first divorce, or a move across country, a close call, the birth of a child, or a new job. The rind of the psyche gets pulped, and becomes a place for a mythic sense of life to become rooted.

At vulnerable moments in the course of living, the world takes on an extra glow, a mythic noumenon and becomes fixed in the synapses as something larger than itself. The landscape thus internalized becomes an emotional nexus, a place where complex thoughts and feelings can be induced merely by seeing an image of that landscape, or reading an evocative description, perhaps even hearing a certain piece of music.

Mendocino County, Calif.

Mendocino County, Calif.

And so, these landscapes can influence the way you see the world. If you live by the river, you become Twain, if you live by the sea, you become Sarah Orne Jewett, if you live in Manhattan, you become Woody Allen — and all you write takes on the world view the land provides. Think of Faulkner and the red clay, of Hemingway and Michigan, of Henry Miller and Brooklyn (I know Paris comes first to mind, but it is the Brooklyn of the Rosy Crucifixion where you see the real Miller world view).

And so, when a seven-year relationship was breaking down in suspicion and acrimony, we took a trip up through Pennsylvania and the Delaware River to try to make things right. The heart was a sodden wet rag, and one chill fall morning at Port Jervis, the sun rose over a field by a railroad roundhouse that was choked with more wildflowers than I have ever seen before: yarrow, aster, ironweed, joe pye weed, mullein, sunflower, black-eyed susan, queen-anne’s lace. It burned into me, and is still there as a kind of metaphor for the infinite sadness of paradise.

Watauga County, NC

Watauga County, NC

Years later, when I first came to live with the woman who has been my wife for the past 30 years, our house was on a ridge overlooking the New River in the Blue Ridge, and the landscape of rolling mountains and hills, divided between pastures and forest, coves and hollows, whitewashed churches and unpainted barns, took on that numinous glow. It is why we have moved back to the mountains, although the same landscape has now quieted down into comfortable daily life.

Hatteras

Hatteras

When I first entered college, and the intellectual world gaped open for me, I traveled several times with my friend Alexander to the Outer Banks. The sea oats and dunes, the long beach, Hatteras point — climbing illegally to the top of the lighthouse at night under a blanket of stars, feeling the steady wind on my cheeks, the smell of salt in the air — so that coming back to the dorm and  listening to Debussy’s La Mer on the tiny Sears Silvertone portable phonograph, sealed the experience into the brain like a mordant fixes dye in a fabric.

In the years I was unemployed and nearly homeless, I traveled back to New Jersey with my brother for Christmas. On the way back South, we drove through West Virginia, where he had friends, and we spent New Years Day on the top of a mountain. Before dawn, I woke and dressed and went out into the biting cold, where the grass was brittle with frost and my breath clouded in front of me and I surveyed the Cumberland Plateau, bumpy with mountains, spread out to the horizon. I felt lost and alone in all that frozen landscape.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

Tsegi Canyon, Ariz.

The opposite emotions were engaged the first time my wife and I drove out West, in 1980, and the first time we saw buttes and mesas. The land seemed even more expansive than the West Virginia mountains, but they seemed to offer unlimited potential. The air was clear; you could see mountain ranges a hundred miles away. Over the quarter-century we lived in the West, there were many such landscapes printed on my psyche, from Christmas in the snow in Walpi, on First Mesa, spent with a Hopi family; to driving across the Escalante National Monument alone; to spending the night camping north of the Grand Canyon in a forsaken part of the Arizona Strip, one of the least populated plots of land in the country.

Landscape functions not merely as a stage set, a backdrop of other memorable occurrences, but for themselves alone, as metaphor, as an image of the inside state of one’s emotions and mind. It can be as if the landscape were not injected into your mind through your eyes, but rather, projected outward upon existence from the deepest recesses of your mind. If you were to enter my skull and photograph what you found, it would be landscape.

Big Bend NP, Texas

Big Bend NP, Texas

From my list, other landscapes you will find inside my head include the Olympic Mountains in Washington; Schoodic Point in Maine; Big Bend National Park in Texas; the sea-swell grasslands of eastern Montana that I rode past on the Empire Builder train from Chicago to Seattle; driving by night through the Big Sur in California; and Walden Pond in Concord, Mass., which I have circumambulated half a dozen times.

I do not know if it is rare — I have not asked many people — but many of the dreams I manage to remember as I wake up, are dreams consisting purely of landscape, often highly imaginary, exaggerated like the Andes of Frederick Church. It is the space in these dreams that seems to carry meaning, the emptiness from the spot where I stand to the thing I see before me: In between is air, and the air has shape and meaning.

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

Ansel Adams, Clearing Storm, Yosemite

The best landscape painting and photography functions not as a record of the topography, but rather as an image of the interior state, vast and romantic, like Ansel Adams’ Yosemite in a winter storm, or Thomas Cole’s Crawford Notch. O blow you cataracts and hurricanoes, in the scumble of Turner, or cooly glow on the horizon, like the misty suns of Claude Lorrain, or the chessboard order of Canaletto.

 

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

Thomas Cole, Crawford Notch

 

Skull Island

Skull Island

When I was very young, perhaps 6 or 7, I first watched King Kong on TV, and what has stuck from then to now is the steamy, vine-clogged, rocky-cliffed landscape of Skull Island. That skull is mine, seen from the inside out.

If you want to shake the world out and make it larger again, get up at 3 in the morning and drive across the flatness of Indiana and Illinois. It is dark, the stars are thick as the July humidity. And the world seems quiet, empty and stretched once more to full size.

The sky grows upward as the stars populate it, lightyears away. Not only is the earth big, but you can see that you are a pebble at the bottom of a very deep universe.

You drive alone for miles and the only thing you see is distant headlights, like fireflies, flitting along the horizon line that shows up as the boundary between two different shades of black.

One set of headlights gets closer. You recognize a kindred spirit, someone else is driving in the lonely, vacant night. You wait a very long time for the lights to draw close. They are still miles away.

As the car gets nearer and dims its headlights — that salute of recognition in the dark — you see that it is the God of the Nighttime Highway, whose eyes are headlights and whose halogen gaze keeps the world from disappearing when everyone else is asleep.

And he passes and you drop once more into the large darkness.

Click on any image to enlarge

Baldwin County, Ala.

Baldwin County, Ala.

coal town wv
The view from the top of the mountain gives you the conventionally Romantic view of the landscape, the long view, closer to heaven and further from the streets. The view is pristine, and the tiny ants below, with their Ford Pintos and 7-Elevens, hardly muck up the scene.

It is the Romanticism of Caspar David Friedrich, of Frederic Edwin Church, of Albert Bierstadt and the landscape stands in for a kind of vast, sublime Eden.

This is the view of West Virginia promulgated by its official state song: “Almost Heaven.” And it isn’t that such a view is false. It isn’t false — there really is great beauty in the mountainscape of the state as seen from its peaks — but it is partial. Conversely, it is easy to see the bottoms of the mountains as some sort of dystopia: the epitome of Appalachia and its poverty, meth use, grime, coal-mining eco-disaster and educational malaise. coal tipple wv bw

But there is a Romanticism of the hill-bottoms, too. I don’t mean a nostalgia for the black-and-white WPA photographs and the “simpler, old-timey folksiness.” That kind of Romanticism is a refusal to recognize reality. That isn’t really Romanticism, it is escapism.

No, I mean that the soot, the coal trains, the sludgy stream in the mountain cove, the old homes, with their collapsing porches and front yard full of automotive detritus can elicit their own sense of the sublime.

You drive through the valleys of West Virginia coal country, around the impeding hills to the next valley and you pass grade crossings, coal tipples, rusting car frames half submerged in the streams, and lines of houses just up the hill from the road. Next to the road is the railroad track and next to that is the stream, all following the same geography. appalachian plateau BW cropped

The central part of the state, the Appalachian Plateau, is a weathered peneplain, where all the mountains are rounded bumps all about the same height, like the mountains children put into their tempera paintings, one seen in between two others.

It is primarily in these mountains that coal is mined. And in those valleys, crossed with a braid-work of streams, railroad tracks and roads, that most people live and work. Pocohontas wv

In the south, you have McDowell County, a center of coal production country spreading into Kentucky and western Virginia. The collapse of the industry means that the population is one-fourth what it was in 1950, poverty is rampant, and for those men that remain, the average lifespan is the lowest in the U.S. — 12 years shorter than the national average.

In the plateau region, which is what most people think of as “typical” West Virginia, the roads meander through the V-notches between the hills; it is impossible to drive in a straight line anywhere. You are always curving around some mountain into the next valley and around the next mountain.

Until the opening of the West Virginia Turnpike and I-77 and I-79 (work not completed until 1987), traveling anywhere in West Virginia was a slow and tortuous process, and locations not a hundred miles apart as the crow flies, could be more than 250 by car. Aside from the chute-the-chute of the Interstate system, driving in the state is still pretty much a slalom. bradshaw wv

In the small towns, smeared longways along the streams and tracks, the hardware stores and groceries have largely been supplanted by Dollar Stores and coin laundries, and the largest private employer in McDowell County is the Walmart. There are satellite dishes — many dangling and unhooked. The macadam at the gas station is potholed and the store sign advertises prices for cigarettes by the carton.

But, despite this triumph of entropy, the landscape has significance. It has meaning: Just ask any who live there. They may be needy to escape, but if they leave, they pine to return. It is a landscape that gets under your skin, like coal dust gets under your fingernails. keystone wv night coal mine bw

It is a mythic landscape, not a pristine one. It tells us things about the universe and about life.

It is a landscape with its own hell: underground fires that can last decades and at night glow red and orange like the combustion of hell. Some count over 500 such fires in West Virginia. Avernus may be the gate to the underworld for the ancient Romans, but it is West Virginia in the New World. coal train and house

The slow rusting of old refrigerators and Chevys, and abandoned buildings overgrown with weeds and vines, their glass broken out and now enameled with spray-can art, and the closed factories, with lines of smokestacks — these all tally the losses, the sucking down into the past of the present, spinning like water around a drain before disappearing into oblivion. This, too, is sublime. We feel it more in places like West Virginia; it is instantly visible.

Also, because the land is littered with the obsolete and abandoned, you can see them, can pay attention. In suburbia, familiarity has dulled our senses and we hardly notice the clapboards, the street curbs, the cars in the shopping center parking lots, the school buildings, the very trees that line the roads. They are there to be seen, but who actually looks? coal train in rain bw

In this moonscape of detritus, waste, loss and forgetting, the details are burned once again into us, made unfamiliar by rot and decay, so we can see them again. The very “thingness” of each chesspiece on this gameboard of depletion makes them palpable and gives them presence, and presence imbues meaning — significance.

There is a difference between the pretty and the beautiful. Postcard sunsets and green mountain vistas are all pretty enough, but they distract us from the essential facts; they are a magician’s misdirection, keeping our eye from the real thing. As Tom Robbins wrote, “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.” The real thing is our gaze into the eye of eternity, and you get that from contemplating anything bigger, vaster, scarier, more overwhelming than yourself. coopers wv grad crossing

Yes, you can look at the old tires and relic houses and see only a failed economy, but you look instead at the passing of time engraved on those same objects and you see intense beauty.

Old map

Recent studies have shown that most Americans can’t find the United States on a globe. Geography is a forgotten subject in schools, giving the students some rather bizarre ideas about the world they live in.

Some students believe Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Hogan came from the same country. Others believe Egypt is a part of India. Still others think that California is a part of this planet.

Even my wife, who is the most intelligent person I have ever known, suggested, when we vacationed in Maine, that we just go a few miles farther north and see Alaska.

So, to test your geographic acumen, here is a true and false test:

* The Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador, lie due south of St. Louis, Mo.

* Alaska extends farther west than Hawaii.

* Travel due east from North Carolina and you hit Africa.

* The state of Nebraska, noted for its flatness, is higher in altitude than the mountainous state of West Virginia.

* The Navajo Reservation in the American Southwest, is larger than the state of West Virginia.

* Russia is only 2½ miles from the United States.

* The sun rises in Chile, on the west coast of South America, before it rises in North Carolina.

* The Atlantic end of the Panama Canal is farther west than the Pacific end.

* South of Detroit, Michigan, is Windsor, Ontario, in Canada.

* Drill a hole straight down from St. Paul, Minn., and you reach not China but the Indian Ocean, where the nearest piece of land to where you would come out is St. Paul Island.

* The point halfway around the world from Phoenix is just off the east coast of Africa.

* Canada, often seen as a second-rate nation, is only the second largest in the world, after Russia. The United States drags in at fourth.

* Brazil is larger than the 48 contiguous states of the U.S.

* Algeria is three times the size of Texas.

* The sun rises on the giant stone heads of Easter Island before it rises on Tucson, Ariz.

* Tahiti lies farther to the east than Hawaii.

* Caracas, Venezuela, in South America, is farther north than the Panama Canal.

* Sunny Rome is as far north as Chicago.

Answers: All of these statements are true. If that surprises you, take a look at a map or globe.

Unless you answered, as my wife did when asked, ”Is Hawaii farther west than California?”

”You mean, from here?” she asked.

upsidedownworld