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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

The Essential Landscape of Memory


My strongest memories are of events and experiences born of landscape.  My six-year-old self creeps along the rough grass and thick sycamores edging a creek on my mother’s central Kentucky farm, where I search for arrowheads.  My eleven-year-old self wanders a wide, cut-banked arroyo through the Santa Catalina foothills north of Tucson, where green-barked palo verde branches shine like the wild verdure gates of an Arizona Eden.  My sixteen-year-old self steers a canoe beneath the moss-laden branches of cypress and sumac on central Florida’s Juniper Creek—eyes shaded against silver reflections, wary of cottonmouths but keen, too, for the turquoise flash of striped bass and spotted gar.  Tied to each landscape is an incident of sorts: sifting for Indian artifacts, fleeing family turmoil, paddling beneath heavy canopy with friends.  It is not a stretch, for the more intense memories particularly, to call them sagas, spanning single incidents and strings of memories that navigate the dark evenings of my mind like a skein of clamorous geese.

“Memory is a set of sagas we live by,” writes Ivan Doig in This House of Sky.  The sagas often arise from landscape—for Doig, it is the spare Montana landscape of his youth; for James Baldwin, whose memoir Notes of a Native Son speaks from the grittier urban end of the landscape spectrum, it is the Brooklyn ghetto.  Whether urban, suburban, or rural is of little importance.  Scratch that: the nature of the landscape, in fact, matters immensely.  Regardless of its specific geography, however, landscape is frequently the defining feature of memoir.  While it is not possible to craft memoir completely absent of landscape, in modern literary memoir landscape usually plays a critical role.

Years removed from This House of Sky, Doig now suggests a wider view, concluding that “writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.”  Baldwin agrees, in a sense, when he says, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”  By knowing the landscape from which the writer comes, and then grounding his or her work in it, the memoirist interrogates and reflects not only on the memory as it pertains to the writer’s own life, but also as it applies to the wider audience—the reader and beyond.  But what, really, is the landscape of that larger country, the landscape of memory—and how is it known?

Landscape is not two-dimensional; it is not simple setting.  Setting is defined, in the context of literature, as “the locale or period in which the action of a novel, story, etc., takes place.”  It is also defined as “the surroundings or environment of anything.”  It is difficult to imagine a much broader definition.  But landscape as the crux of memory and memoir is not so much measured by breadth and width as it is by its depth.  That is, landscape runs deep—to the core of the writer, to the core of the place.  Additionally, landscape serves not only as the painted backdrop, but also as the writer’s continuous link to the memory’s source.  In a metaphorical sense, landscape is the soil and the writer is the seed and subsequent plant.  The plant is always nurtured from the soil, and also from the atmosphere, which likewise are composed of elements of the plant.  The official definitions of landscape, though, don’t render this linkage.  Rather, they claim that landscape is “an expanse of scenery that can be seen in a single view” or “the aspect of the land characteristic of a particular region.”

Characteristic may get to the core of landscape if the word is all-inclusive, but rendering it so makes the definition so wide as to be useless.  Better to focus on other, definable core components: geology, climate, ecology, culture, history.  Here, the problem is the opposite: the ologies slip into silos that, though overlapping in such broader areas as ecology, nonetheless do not equal landscape’s full sum.  Still, ecology bears further exploration.

I recall from my freshman year studying wildlife biology at Colorado State University that ecology is complex enough to seemingly represent all of landscape’s components.  Indeed, it is tempting to use its definition as a substitute for landscape:  “The science of the relationships between organisms and their environments.”  Yet the definition falls flat if for no other reason than it promotes science at the expense of art and creativity.  Though they are by no means mutually exclusive—art often succeeds because of science, as architecture can prove—landscape as the crux of memory relies in large part on craft, art, and (Carl Jung might argue) on the unconscious, which is the spirit’s link to the broader universe.

If landscape represents both place and the writer’s visceral connection to memory’s source, then knowing landscape requires not only an interrogation of and reflection on the memory itself (the traditional definition of memoir), but also interrogation and reflection on the literal place.  How place is interrogated, especially when the landscape of youth has changed as is so often the case, depends in large part on how willing the writer is to explore him- or herself.  Yet isn’t self fundamentally the same as memory, so that we’ve come full circle?

A recent experience developing an essay on the passing of my Swedish mother answers this seeming paradox, and that answer is no.  In the piece, I wove two supporting themes into the plait of my mother’s death: traffic roundabouts, which are compared with the roundabout nature of my mother’s later years, and the responsibility of children caring for their aging parents.  Additionally, two landscapes were involved: Tucson, my home, and Allonö, in southern Sweden, my mother’s girlhood home.  In early drafts, I wrote about the Sonoran desert landscape of Tucson both from memory and primary experience.  I simply walked out my door to find the saguaros, flocks of sparrows, and dense patches of prickly pear that provided not only setting but deeper meaning—the habitat of a roundabout down the street as one metaphor in my mother’s life.  I also wrote about the Swedish landscape of my mother’s youth—yet here I had scant experience and research could only take me so far.  Though I could draw imagery from old photographs and a very sketchy memory (mine), it wasn’t until I shared a later draft with my siblings that this foreign landscape took its necessary shape and meaning with their vital input.

My self was real and present, but my memories floundered, at least in the context of my mother’s Sweden.  It is not so much a failing as a lack of capability.  Memory is usually flawed, for even if we have the full capacity to recall every detail, we rarely do.  And in transcribing it, for the sake of readability and art, memory is compressed, adjusted.  The adage that each person is actually three—the way one sees oneself, the way others see that person, and the way he or she really is—applies also to memory, but is constrained even further.  Memory is not only three events—how I remember it, how another remembers it, and how it really was—but also how it is manifested in the writing.  Interrogating self is therefore not the same as interrogating memory, though both are necessary for memoir.

Here landscape returns, for it is not only critical to memory and so memoir, but also serves as a guide.  Place triggers memories through the senses: the peculiar sound of a tractor mower sends me whirling, knees thrashed from slicing through the pelvis-high grass of those rolling Kentucky pastures; the smell of creosote prior to a summer rainstorm brings me back to the brambly desert edges of a wide arroyo along Fort Lowell Park; skillet-soaked hash browns return the saturated taste of my mother’s pitti-pitti-pan-pan, a fried mix of potatoes and ham heaped onto paper plates, doubled up to hold the grease, as I sit at the uneven wooden dining table of our Ocala home following a canoe trip.

Landscape is best explored, when possible, by returning to the place, even if it has changed.  Sometimes the change itself triggers additional memories, or else creates a juxtaposition warranting further interrogation—an unanticipated and possibly delightful trek in the memoir and the writer.  If return isn’t possible, the writer’s memory tested against research and conversations or interviews may serve his or her  needs, though these should be standard approaches either way.  Otherwise, like any component of writing, it’s a question of sense and, too, no small amount of luck—something nestled, I suspect, next to memory’s source.

My strongest memories are of events and experiences born of landscape, of sagas centered on place, of knowledge embedded in the soils and plants and animals, reflected in parks and buildings and roadways, taught by family and teachers and community—and driven by the self.  Landscape is not memory, but comprises more than mere scenery, supporting and guiding us if only we choose to acknowledge and question it.  In the questioning, we find that the essential landscape of memory, of memoir, resides inside as surely as out.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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