Aug 4, 2011

Memories and Meadows

After signing off for the summer -- practically speaking for the remainder of June and the whole of July, since I'm now back at my base and resuming writing -- I drove from the Hudson Valley in New York to the Midwest, where I picked up my children and headed out with them on a series of trips traversing northeastern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, and southwestern Wisconsin, residing alternately with family, friends, and occasionally at hotels.

This has become a yearly ritual, a marathon of days, a few of which comprise down time, many of which involve some additional travel from whatever places we temporarily call home.  This five-week period, we hit Michigan City's Summerfest, the Waukesha County Fair, a local 4th of July Celebration, and our annual 3-day Lemco Family Reunion.  We ate at  restaurants, picnicked, cooked, and hit LeDuc's for what remains still the best frozen custard.  We visited, among other places, Navy Pier, a Lego Museum, Donely's Wild West Town, two Zoos, the Milwaukee Public Museum, Holy Hill, and a Honey Museum, located just north of Ashippun, Wisconsin.  And, it was at the latter -- or rather by it -- that I realized something.

I greatly enjoy -- and find myself revitalized after -- such trips returning to the region where I grew up and lived most of my life, the Midwest.  Getting to introduce my kids to places that mattered to or delighted me -- sometimes rediscovering forgotten aspects of such places with them -- that is one consistent high note running through the time we carve out of otherwise packed summer schedules together.  My daughter and I (my son, still just below an age-threshold, did not accompany us for this portion of the trip) spent a day at the Milwaukee Art Museum, taking in not only the remarkable China exhibit currently there, but also much of the permanent collection.  I've been visiting some of those pieces since I was younger than my daughter is currently, sometimes just glancing at them, sometimes lingering a long while with them, growing in my grasp of them as artworks.  I have to admit that it made me proud that my nine-year old girl both made a deliberate effort --  admittedly aided by my reminders -- to devote enough time to some artworks for their features, scope, suggestiveness, details to impress themselves upon her, and that she happily caught on after just as few questions to the joyful but challenging activity of trying to articulate what the artwork conveyed to her.


As evocative as I find walking the always recognizable but ever-changed streets and neighborhoods of Milwaukee, recognizing the smells and sights of the great inland sea Lake Michigan set right in front of me, and passing through artistic amalgams of pigment, marble, workmanship and time -- all of these familiar, even in some sense loved settings that it does me good to make time and place for, to share in and communicate about, to enjoy again in new configuration -- on this trip, the strongest, most moving experience I had took place in a Wisconsin meadow.

Outside the Honey Museum, located out in the hilly woods, fields, and meadows a bit west and north of the countryside I grew up in, there was a nature trail visitors were invited to walk.  And that is precisely what we did, climbing up first through a needle-dampened pine stand along paths both deer-trampled and mower-cut through grasses, weeds, scrub, and prairie blooms, the muteness and clean scent of the evergreen forest giving way to wing-buzzing bees darting back and forth then coupling to the flowers, the drone of cicadas, occasional whips of wind rustling honeysuckles and grass leaves, and even the shrill of a hawk lazily circling high over us.  The sun was out, but the heat of the day was broken some time back, and we traipsed along, hand in hand.

As we walked side by side through the breezy heat suffused with familiar leafy, sweet, occasionally pungent scents, and I pointed out and named to my daughter plant after plant, looking at a great toothy, brilliant purple-headed thistle, the first realization struck me:  I am home again. This is the land that I love and knew.

I grew up in the wood, meadow, hillock and ridgeline, kettle and moraine of old farm country west of Waukesha, climbing and counting trees, digging my hands into dark loam, imagining games out of sticks, stones and crumbling silos, improving snacks out of burdock pith and dried mullein heads, carving our own "nature trails" under sprawling honeysuckles, through head-height grasses, under gangly oaks. 

I've since lived near or in, and greatly enjoyed, even come to love, other countrysides, where the soil is different, rockier or sandier, where other grasses, flowers, bushes, tree-stands flourish, where other weeds and aggressive bushes and trees -- autumn olives and poplars silvered in waving leaf and stark line in Indiana, just as one example -- have to be cut through and kept back, where old farmer's fields are taken over and fallowed by grasses that were to me first strange and then, after tasting their pulled shoots, equally appreciated.  But, at least applying to some places there is a greater goodness, a higher perfection to or in -- for one who has come to learn, lose oneself in, and then leave -- the complex living landscape of one's native terrain, something to be sure one can cognize and articulate (as I am trying here), but which must be experienced through slivers of time and recognized as a surprise through one's memories.

Many people are happy transplants, discovering features to their new environment grander, less bothersome, more attractive, better suited to them than where they first encountered and engaged with the natural world outside of houses, sidewalks, and cities.  I'd thought myself at the very least a good adapter, while never becoming more enamored of the plants, the scents, the configurations, weather, and denizens of each new location than I had been those of of Waukesha county, nevertheless allowing a healthy woodsman eye -- attentive to opportunities as well as identities of leaf, stem, branch -- full range anywhere I went, noting what grew wildly and what only eked out life, grasping the beauties, the pleasures of complex form consistent to the character of plants, lines or whorls or broad ellipses adopted, growth and waxing observed, the scents of hot bergamot scent or biting mint or sweet grasses on the wind, the plumpness and colors assumed by berries waxing into harvest, juiciness, and taste, soaking up summer sun.

In all of these, there are, as certain schools of moral philosophers would say, various apprehensions of differing kinds and orders of goodnesses discoverable in the objects and environments of the natural world -- a set of experiences of which far too many in our own time are so deprived that such apprehensions and such objects become difficult to even envision, let along relate to, except in very standardized, stereotyped forms:  scents imprisoned in candles rather than carried by breezes, landscaped plants, the single sampled hawk cry heard in so many movies and video games. 

The goods of wood and meadow, like most other worthwhile goods, both require a certain --often imperceptibly carried out -- refining of one's sensibilities and sensorium, and respond to, even awaken potentialities of pleasures, desires of which we were unaware.  Who could have known, ahead of time, a priori, even from photographs, what a mulberry laden down with so-sweet almost-black fruit would look like?  -- every tree's canopy of limbs, after all, has grown differently, though they all writhe at angles softer than those of oak branches, and droop less, though nevertheless reminiscently of willows graceful arcs.  Such has to be experienced, and has to be experienced in multiple intersecting moments -- that is how the fabric of memories of environments gets formed and lived through again, I think.  These can be communicated, can be shared, always admits of being grown further like crystals on a string. 

My daughter and I left the paths blazed by the honey museum, and took up those running along a farmer's field, clearly still in cultivation, but allowed to fallow this year.  As we walked out, on our left we passed mulberries, currants, gooseberries not yet ripe but already large and going green, and black raspberries already picked over by the birds. Grasses, and the occasional mullein and burdock, grew up through interstices of these canes and stems.  On our right, the field, now a meadow in which blossoms topped the grasses and stray alfalfa:  vast swaths of creamy Queen Anne's lace and purple clover in particular, but also blackeyed susans, duckweed, milkweed, goldenrod, and "baby daisies" (actually, a type of Aster) -- and of course, thistles.  White sulfur butterflies meandered across our path as we made our way down the path.  Honeybees and the occasional bumblebee buzzed on flowers, then darted past back across the field. Under the shadow of the mulberries, I realized with both joy and longing that all of this was something I had missed, deeply, inchoately, and for a long time.

What was it that I had missed and then recognized?  It is easy enough to spill out names and descriptions as I am doing here, but infinitely -- impossibly -- difficult to proceed into describing the specific configurations all of these plants, sights, smells, moments assumed -- and it would be in some sense pointless to do so.  What do we experience of any environment?  Only portions, slivers, snapshots, sometimes even perceptions entirely distorted, mistaken, onesided -- but then how do these become associated into a greater whole that can be recognized, distinguished, even debated about?  Through our faculty of memory, which acts in rather mysterious manners upon all of the information - or rather upon a selection of it -- discerning, without us necessarily noticing this consciously, the sens of what comes through our senses.

I deliberately use that French cognate here in a play of expression, for it is wider in range than its English counterpart, covering the senses through which we take in information about external things and even about the interior of our bodies, but also meaning, quite simply, "meaning", the "sense" of something, its significance, its meaning, even its configuration, its value and valence.  Sense, meant by reference to this analogously configured set of meanings, is intimately assocaited with, indeed often dependent upon the workhorse faculty of memory, the dimension by whyich we retain and acquire a past, move and remain and have our being in time.

The example of my reaction to southeast Wisconsin semi-wild landscape, in my view,  illustrates something quite interesting about memory, recognition, value, and environment, whose full implications would demand something more like a book than a blog entry to work out.  So, I'll simply end in an assertive and evocative mode rather than in one developing these matters through careful and systematic argumentation. 

When I grasp that environment, as opposed say to the Hudson Valley yard adjoining a wooded ridgeline from which I write right now, as intimately familiar, as achingly good and desirable, as in some way a "home" that has been missed, I am grasping not only the goods -- or better put, aspects or features of goods of the myriad recognizable beings surrounding me, configured about me in patterns, in ways of being and growing together that seem more "right," even in some way "perfect" -- unsuspected up until that moment, grasped only through witnessing and finding oneself responding to them. 

Is this a purely subjective reaction, one due entirely to the vagaries of my childhood, its associations of pleasures, enjoyments, temporal rhythms, activities and itineraries?  No -- at least not in many respects -- since others can analogously enjoy and recognize -- and we can share meanings about that environment, its components, the experiences one can have.  But, it is not objective in any sense like that of being immediately obvious, of being encapsulatable or reproducible through the media of images or words, or even video. It remains, like most important matters, in between -- within an interplay of both poles.

Notice too that the recognition of an environment could take place on the basis of just several elements, or because of how those elements associate with each other, or it can suddenly break through into the fullness of sense and old meaning newly revived after many elements and many configurations spatially and temporally proceeded-through -- like taking a long walk -- have heaped up their cumulative calls upon one's memory, which at last, a certain threshold now exceeded, gladly unveils to one that this is the same, another portion of a land loved, an environment enjoyed, a home dimly retained and hoped for -- but in many cases, including the meadows of my childhood, not only unstocked by the same plants, untraversed by the same fauna, but undone, developed, and thus no longer existent, except within that world invisibly borne with me, my memory.