As we anticipate long-overdue and extreme winter conditions in the Northeast (with temperatures as low as 40 below with windchill), I also sense the impending physical and chemical adjustments my body will make in order to tolerate such drastic changes. It is a turning inward in preservation and efficiency, to keep one’s inner furnace firing, even when it has been reduced to a flicker of a flame.
There is a similar biological recognition to the scent of snow which infiltrates one’s senses- metallic and melony. Or, how severe thunderstorms can be detected by the pressure drops in the air and a staticky* sensation upon the skin. How joints and tendons ache with too much moisture, or too much cold. It is common, especially in Northern New England where we experience and recognize six seasons, for a sensitivity to the weather to develop, which I have been told, becomes more evolved and antagonistic with age and experience. But that is part of the nature and character of New Englanders; it is a badge of honor to tolerate the seasonal occurrences, to endure for multiple decades or generations. Traces of a Libertarian mentality can be found here, where nothing will provoke or discourage; it is a stubbornness and a geographic toughness that is almost masochistic.
February is my birth month. Though I was born in the deep South at an army hospital in Alabama, I have called New England my home for nearly 35 years. I have no memory of my earliest beginnings, however there are times when I retrieve intuitive, age-old, bodily knowledge that predates my Northern occupancy-how the eye is instantly hypnotized by the shimmering light through the leaves of the black locust; how the thick sweetness of honeysuckle can be dizzying and disorienting on a hot summer’s day; how the sound of feral cats in heat outside a cracked window is both strangely unsettling and familiar; how perspiring limbs feel vulnerable moving through the grass. Pre-verbal imprints have resonated in this body, carrying on a place I once knew.
It is not the place alone that gets stirred up spontaneously when I encounter familiar experiences or scenery. I would neither describe it as a projection on a movie screen, nor is it simply made up of childhood stories retold and rehashed until they feel real. There is a deeper emotional attachment, often associated with interpersonal relationships developed in connection to a place. Folded into this bodily suitcase, there are inherited maps and landscapes, and there are sounds, smells, textures and sensations that almost personify my place of origins- that make it less Other, and more sentimental and familiar.
A recent study has revealed that there is a place-memory bridge between the part of the brain that processes visual scenes and the part of the brain that processes spatial memories. That is why when a person recognizes something in a new context, for example, a landmark or a piece of architecture, they are immediately connecting to prior place memories, and that is why new objects or places can feel familiar. I imagine this place-memory bridge to be a space and span like Monet’s bridge over the lily ponds of Giverny- a distinct focal point can be found at its center, surrounded by a landscape abstracted.
This leads me to wonder whether it is in fact possible to have an experience in a place completely devoid of a social component or human influence? On a solo excursion into the desolate deserts of this planet, would it be possible to completely eliminate that human connection/influence? Out in the middle of ‘nowhere’, even if we have managed to isolate ourselves from other persons, we are still left with ourselves and our bodies.
The question then is, does our understanding of being social exclusively imply interactions between humans? Or, can socialization occur between other species, as well? Does an experience with a lizard, rabbit, or coyote imprint and become relational in our place-memory, in the same way, or to the same extent as an experience with another person does? Does a landscape, thus need to be personified in order for it to become a part of us and our identity?
Those attune to the natural environment and who are capable of emotional and reciprocal relationships with other species, would defend that it is possible to form such connections. Pick up a copy of Animal Dialogues by Craig Childs, and you are at once struck by how Childs’ interactions with other species are as resonating as his ability to transport readers to other places.
Yet, there is a drawn-out debate among those intrigued by phenomenology and place studies that often centers on the philosophies of Levinas, Thoreau, Merleau-Ponty, among others. The argument is as follows: Does the animal face (or, the face of the Other) provoke a similar emotional response as that of the human face? And, if so, is that connection deep enough to cultivate compassion for others and otherness, so that it blurs the line between all living species. Can such divisions, distinctions, and boundaries be completely stripped away from our experience and narrative of place?
In Facing Nature: Levinas and Environmental Thought, Levinas’ human “priority” in the environmental context is often pointed out. It is an argument based on the philosopher’s writing about concentration camps during World War II, where he had observed as a Jewish prisoner, the human capacity for compassion among the suffering. When a dog was brought into the camp, Levinas wrote how the presence of another species made the prisoners, who had been relying on their survival instincts, feel temporarily human again. Levinas’ anecdote shares similarities to Orwell’s story “A Hanging”, which examines the moral boundaries of humanity.
Some stand by the notion that humans bring politics into the landscape, whether on purpose or just by transference. “It is a simple equation,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams in her opening introduction to Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. “Place + people = politics.” She implies that this dynamic and relationship is unavoidable.
To follow a similar logic, transference from a specific place to a person must have a similar effect. It has been said that a region or an environment are conceptual geographies too expansive to really take into consideration or the consciousness, as a result, our identity is relatively less impacted by the notion of an environment or a region as it is by specific places. This could explain why I tend to settle on and hold elements of place close– they are manageable to process, portable to carry, and transferable–while I feel no specific loyalty as a Southerner or Northerner.
In a few short weeks, I will reach what society calls a milestone. I will turn 40-that is, 14,600 days old. I am trying not to obsess over the numbers, or the passing of time- the time I will never get back, or the time I have left. Instead, I am focusing on how I will make efforts to align and balance some of what feels out of alignment or out of balance.
Last year on my birthday, when our thermometer hovered around 20 degrees, I was invited to take a dip in a mountain spring. My friends used icepicks to open up the frozen surface just enough for us to slip down into those frigid unknowns, giving each other encouragement from the shores, as chunks of ice and patches of slush bumped up against our half-submerged bodies. Immediately afterward, we stripped out of our wet suits and sandals in our cars, and had warm beverages and salty snacks on the roadside. Invigorated from our toes on up our brain stems by our dip, we traded new year, new us stories, personal goals and well wishes. Brave or stupid, we had invited the cold and elements right on up to our bare skin, and it is hard to believe that something was not imprinted or altered in us internally.
Some our desire to take that plunge was our way of being antagonistic, of sticking out our tongues and raising our arms in defiance. And, there was also something therapeutic about testing my body’s elasticity and wherewithal. As a child, I felt little inhibition stripping down to my underwear to swim in the North Atlantic in mid-November, yet I have found as an adult with collective experiences I have a sometimes detrimental aversion to risk. Like the cold, practicality sneaks in, inhibiting spontaneity, and grounding the lively, rising spirit that beckons to be released.
But, I am certain, I will forever remember that day when the burning hot-cold quickly melted away, and how it revived in my body something that had a quality of possession.
* Static electricity is an oxymoron in this sense. By definition, means lacking in movement, action, or change, while and electricity used together implies an imbalance in charges which are circumstantial to the activity taking place in the environment and between “material objects”, that are in fact capable of transference, adjustment, and travel.
Here-- in, at, or to this place, position.
I have taken speaking for granted. I am just shy of 40, and I do not have a memory of learning to talk, nor do I have a memory of being taught to speak. There is no dreamy sequence lodged in the deepest parts of my consciousness that conjures acquiring this skill, no unique moment of acceptance when I realized I will forever be settling and compromising with language.
Picking out words and concepts from an internal dictionary may as well have come to me from the borders of the ethereal–I know I climbed that ladder, I know I arrived at this present moment with this knowledge in hand. There were witnesses, of course, however this does not compute the same experience as retrieving a personal and visceral recollection.
My memory of writing is different– I have managed to hold onto snippets that predate my learning to write. I do remember practicing letters by following dotted lines. Two, aquatic tanks radiated with heat lamps and purple lights nearby my desk, as monarch cocoons developed and dangled from wire mesh. Together, we were making progress each day.
I can still tap into that feeling of embarrassment when my S was corrected; the first letter of my name, which I wrote backwards for a whole year before someone pointed it out. I had to train myself cognitively to correct this mistake. It had been more natural for me to write it the other way. How I perceived the letter was tied up in other senses, how I heard it, and even how I imagined it to move like a little garter snake through grass. Much like a neurodivergent student I once worked with who saw letters in different colors. When I had given him a pack of markers to show me what he meant, he created layers of rainbows across pages. Prior to this he had been labeled dyslexic and illiterate, and his case managers assumed he never learned to read and write at the developmental age of literacy. What they failed to see was that in order for him to see letters on a page: He saw, had to be written, He saw.
“We do not have the time for that,” I was told by those same case managers, insinuating that the student was just belaboring the work we were doing.
Of course, it came down to time. I wanted to celebrate the fact that this student had read and written sentences beautifully and independently, yet his breakthrough did not align with the expectations and schedules of others, so again he was casted outside of the norm.
When our son, age 2, interacts with children who are developmentally further with their language, who are speaking in full sentences, and can articulate clearly, “I don’t know what he’s saying,” it makes me wonder whether children even as young as two and three have a memory of being nonverbal.
There is no doubt that children are communicating with us long before they learn words and syntax. Feeling comes first, as E.E. Cummings pointedly and poetically declared. Jacques Derrida argued that our Mother language is not our own– that we adopt the language of the Other immediately, that there is a disconnect between what we feel in relationship to the constructed world and our reality, and the words we use and choose to describe our experience.
So, when our son, O, began using the word here about a month ago, as in, I am here, I took a pause from what I was doing to quietly reflect on what he was conveying in the simple language he held. It was not just that he had discovered a new word, it was that the word itself contained an entire embodied experience and narrative within it. He had chosen the word intuitively.
From what my husband and I could intuit, he was expressing to us that he understood how his bodily position related to his environment, and that he was aware of being present in the midst of that environment and the experience he was having.
The definition of here-- in, at, or to this place, position.
There are, in my opinion, few words (in the English language) which capture a complex existential experience in a nutshell the way the word here does. Here rolls with time, a complimentary passenger. Even the word near does not capture the same presence. Near tells us we are close, but not part of. Here, when our son uses it, it has a contented quality to it: I am here, and okay with that. I am not in conflict or distress, you do not need to rescue me.
I agonize over how that change will come, when he calls us up one day to say: I am here, please come get me. I don’t want to be here.
I imagine the Welch word, hiraeth (like the German concept of sehnsucht, the Portuguese saudade, or the Romanian dor) possesses a related longing for hereness, something that becomes more difficult to achieve in age, and in a postmodern era so dictated by time and driven by progress.
For the time being, we will savor our son’s hereness, and how he holds his palms wide open to enhance what he is simultaneously experiencing and trying to say.