As we anticipate long, overdue, and extreme winter conditions in the Northeast (with temperatures as low as 40 below with windchill), I notice my body adapting to tolerate such drastic changes. They are modifications that are both chemical and physical. 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. Just the scent of snow — metallic and melony — makes the glands in my mouth water. It reminds me of 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, to develop an intuition in regards to the weather. I have been told this sense becomes finer-tuned with age and experience. It is also a badge of honor worn by New Englanders who have endured the seasonal occurrences for multiple decades or generations. Traces of a Libertarian mentality can be found here, where nothing provokes or discourages. It is a stubbornness and a geographic toughness that is almost biological and masochistic.
February is my birth month, however I was not born a cold-weather baby. I was born in the deep South, at an army hospital in Alabama. When my father was released from his military duties, we moved North when I was a year and half old. I have called New England my home for nearly 36 years, but according to true New Englanders (those born in the land of maple and stone walls and white-washed buildings), I am an interloper.
I have no memory of my earliest beginnings, though there are times when I retrieve age-old, bodily knowledge that predates my Northern occupancy: I am instantly hypnotized when I catch the shimmering light through the leaves of the black locust, and the sweet scent of the untamed honeysuckle in our backyard is both dizzying and disorienting at the height of summer. Pre-verbal imprints have resonated in this body, carrying on a place I once knew.
It is not place alone that gets stirred up spontaneously when I have familiar experiences or encounter recognizable scenery. I would neither describe such recollections as projections on a movie screen, nor have they been distilled from childhood stories retold and rehashed until they feel real. There is a deeper emotional attachment. 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. They are details that are more sentimental and personal, than they are Other.
A recent study has revealed 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 either forming personal attachments or aversions. They are engineering a hybrid experience, with details pulled from the past, which in turn provide context in the present. I imagine the span between place and memory to be 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.
Place is a human construct. On a solo excursion into the most desolate deserts of this planet, even if we are the only inhabitant for miles, we are still left with our many selves and our bodies. If the human influence and presence is taken out of this equation, we are left with geography.
Human beings bring many things into the landscape, whether on purpose or by transference. The ego, time, and politics are profoundly impactful. “It is a simple equation,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams in her opening to Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert. “Place + people = politics.” She implies that this dynamic and relationship is unavoidable.
Edward A. Casey believed that regions and environments 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. The elements of a place are manageable to process, portable to carry, and can be easier to access.
I feel no specific loyalty as a Southerner or Northerner, but the sounds of cicadas and cats paired with summer heat is grounding.
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. We sent encouragement from the shores, as chunks of ice and patches of slush bumped up against our half-submerged and vulnerable bodies. Immediately, afterward, we stripped out of our swim 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. Then we drove on our separate ways, imprinted upon, altered.
Some of 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 the body’s elasticity and wherewithal. As a child, I felt little inhibition diving into the North Atlantic in mid-November in my underwear, 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 untethered, challenged, perhaps, changed.
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, static means lacking in movement, action, or change, while static 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.