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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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