‘Landscape and Memory,’ historian Simon Schama’s poetic tome, journeys into the spatial world of the natural and built environment, through temporal vistas of history and myth. He maintains that ‘before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind … built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock’ (1995, p.6). In describing our perception of the environment and history as shaped by cultural understandings, Schama speaks of the human yearning for transcendence, ‘to find in nature a consolation for our mortality’ (p.15).
Reading his book reminded me of the experience, years ago, of visiting Scandinavia. Having devoured Tolkien’s entire world of Middle-Earth as a teenager, from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy to his accompanying stories, maps and histories, I was aware that he had drawn on Norse mythology. As I travelled through that land, it became apparent how deeply Norse mythology was steeped in, and grew out of, the landscape. I swear that I glimpsed elves flitting between the golden pine forests of Lothlórien in the Finnish lake district. I heard trolls deep within the rocks of Moria as a reached out from a small boat in the narrow chasm of the Trollfjord in the Lofoten islands in Norway.
Talking to a friend recently returned from the UK, we’ve been revisiting such places in our memories where people and stories have leapt to life for us. She had sat in Dylan Thomas’s armchair, in the boat shed where he wrote, looking at his water-view as she listened to a recording of his voice. Reading his poetry will never be the same again. I recounted visiting the wild Yorkshire moors after being in the confined order of Emily Brontë’s Haworth parsonage. I could hear Heathcliff’s name in the wind. Similarly I’ve walked over places inhabited by Jane Austen’s and Thomas Hardy’s characters and the landscape and buildings have spoken to my imagination.
But landscape and places closer to home also stir memories. Recently, I took my mother to visit the circa 1880 house where I was born, one of the oldest in the township. At the time of my birth, my parents rented a room at the back of the house with expansive views of the valley below. I only found out about the house in recent years and this was my sole visit. I may be accused of romantic fantasising, but although I only lived in that house for the first year of my life, I have always felt immediately at home in old houses. The quiet, cool light and spaciousness of high ceilings seems familiar and comforting. Was something imprinted on my memory in those early days?
Hard to say – but certainly, being mindful of surroundings, the smells, sights and sounds of places, can touch not only our memories, but our heart and soul, as Schama reminds us. Whether it’s awe, inspired by the expansive wonder of landscapes such as the Blue Mountains or Great Ocean Road, or the sensory comfort of feeling ‘at home’ in familiar settings, our stories are always connected to our surroundings. My photo –one I keep on my desk – is that of the mythological Trollfjord. Although photos can never evoke the experience of ‘being there’ – they do help.