On Landscape

Maybe eight months ago, I began dreaming landscapes.  I live in the middle of North Carolina, a frequently sticky region some three hours southeast of the Blue Ridge Mountains and about the same distance northwest of the Atlantic Ocean.  The horizon around here does not feature a horizon; instead, the sky rests nearby, on the roofs of neighboring houses and the canopies of trees, close enough that you could throw a chestnut and puncture it.

In these dreams, I begin walking up some wooded slope, and – here the dream departs from the local topography – it does not stop rising.  I pass through the ubiquitous loblolly pine into steep pastures, which level out into high meadows, then rise again to crests of stone.   Sometimes it’s less dramatic than that: the meadows may be the top, sloping along the broad curve of a ridgeline, or there may be just a couple hundred vertical feet of pasture, tufted with a mix of beech and red oak.  Their place on the local terrain is definite. I could draw a map showing where my sleeping self has been: the pasture west of Old Erwin road, the shadowed hills (it was late evening in the dream) south of Pittsboro, the stony peak north of Durham on Roxboro Road.

These are different from other wish-fulfillment dreams.  In the middle of one, I don’t recognize it as unreal, maybe because, unlike some fantasies, the imagined hills transgress no code of adult conduct, breach no precious or important relationship.  Only waking destroys my new geography.  The disappointment is often acute.  My sense that the dream showed something real is strong enough that I have looked up topographic maps, just to see.

These dreams might seem to belong to the genre of the hidden room.  In hidden-room dreams, a familiar house, maybe a childhood home or college dorm, opens up at the back, or through the attic, to reveal new spaces: grand parlors, ballrooms, greenhouses, formal lawns, interior pools.  That strange worlds wait behind a quotidian portal strikes me as one of the basic intuitions of magical thinking.  The portal is C.S. Lewis’s wardrobe, Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseract, the Tardis, and, of course, Platform 9¾.  In my case, it was the trap door to the tiny attic of the old Appalachian house my parents moved into the year I was born.  Built cheaply and without skill, it had no foundation or frame.  Rough-cut poplar wall-planks were nailed directly to the sill, which rested on eight blocks of crudely squared-off sandstone.  Unlike the London row-houses whose connecting crawl-spaces joined the ordinary and the magical in another of Lewis’s Narnia books, it would not have seemed an auspicious link to another world.  The root-cellar, cut into a slope a few steps from the house, would have been the likelier pick for a work of intentional fantasy.

Maybe the hidden room is right, but I have been thinking of my landscape dreams a little differently.  Although they melt and rearrange the real world with the casual facility of magic, they are also solidly of this world.  There is nothing other-dimensional in them.  The feeling they speak to is not that some other kind of reality pulsates behind the surface of this one, but that this old one we know must contain places to get above the rest of it, to see at a sweep the many tracks we usually follow, to merge in one image the many small horizons we move inside.  What I am hungry for is the geography of thinking.


But of course my dream landscape is not the only geography of thinking.  It is, rather, the one that might come back to shadow your thirties with its specious peaks if you had grown up where I did, in a very specific Appalachian landscape.  From anyplace that people lived, it was possible to escape on foot to a higher spot: every settled place contained its own upward exits and exceptions.  It was, really, not one landscape, but two, a pattern of valleys (“hollows”) with its counterpart in a second pattern of ridges, the pair of terrains joined by the ligaments of steep, mainly wooded hillsides.  Knowing the valleys did not mean you knew the ridges.  A slight misstep setting off from a high place could land you in the wrong hollow, among the wrong people, miles by road from where you meant to be.  The two landscapes had complementary logics, and moving between them took caution and attention – or a Tardis-like dash down a hill into uncertainty, which meant expecting to walk the length of some unintended valley.

I believe, wholly and without reason, that landscapes should do this: aid escape from within, side with their dissidents and refugees.  I also believe it is quite fair of them to exact the price of confusion, the likelihood of still walking the wrong way at dusk.

For the same reasons, it seems to me that landscapes should defy and constrain settlement.  My imaginary mountains organize people around them.  The real slopes and defiles in my part of North Carolina do not.  They are not formless, exactly, but they are so modest that the simple act of habitation shatters them.  From a large road or a housing tract, you would say there is no landscape here, and, frequently, it’s true that there is not much of it left.   I think my dreams attempt to make up for something I’ve lost, for the broken prospect of a landscape that helped you, required you, to make sense of it.

Fernand Braudel suggests somewhere that dialectical thinking fits the Mediterranean, where you can stand by a sun-washed sea, considering a snow-capped mountain in the distance, and eat ice cream made from that same permanent snow, the ever-present opposite of the near terrain.  The friend who introduced me to this passage was taken with the thought that coastal New England, with its repeating variations on marshes, tidal pools, and modest hills that come to nothing dramatic, had prepared him for a long dalliance with semiotics.

My own sense, if I start from my first landscape, that melting honeycomb of land that water carved from the ancient Allegheny Plateau, is that nothing important respects compass-points. The orientation of the land is just where the water has been, and it is the slopes and cuts, not the meridians or magnetic field, that decide whether you see the sun.  It seems to me that when things add up, it is mainly by circuitous accretion, so that there is no quick and safe way from knowing the part to knowing the whole.  I am most inclined to value something because eroding forces have left it whole so far.

I feel the charisma of other landscapes, and they, too, seem forms of mind as much as forms of land.  The Colorado Front Range, the Tetons, and Salt Lake City’s Wasatch smack me with epiphany, as their vertical stone rips its way out of the plains.  The orderly northeast-to-southwest ridges and valleys of the Blue Ridge have the orderly senescence of a Greek ruin, an Acropolis reduced to flagstone and some bordering pillars.  The arrestingly new, improbably polished, quartz-tattooed slopes of the Sierra Nevada invite head-spinning speculation, perennial newness, in a world where the demiurge seems just to have wrapped up a day’s work.  It is a strange kind of self-knowledge to concede that my imagination seems shaped along much less heroic lines, seems to want only a place that will repay attention, foster some bewilderment, and preserve the chance to disappear uphill.

Thoreau wrote, in a despairing mood after Massachusetts had enforced the Fugitive Slave Law against the runaway Anthony Burns, that the state had ruined his walk.  We go to the ponds to encounter ourselves, he said, and when we are in ruin, no liquid reflection redeems us.  A little later, though, he was struck that the water lily he found on that walk had no part in the Missouri Compromise, and this was enough to make his conscience feel less like a dead thing.  That is, the self we get reminded of on our walks is not always the one we set out with.  It is worth remembering that when the meaning we give to landscapes seems too subjective to matter.  Hills, forests, and stones are not mere projection-screens.  They reflect our minds, but change them, too.

Thinking – in a broad sense that includes acts of imagination and experiment – is often trying to get out of ourselves and nearer ourselves at the same time, since both are necessary for even a moment’s clarity.  Maybe this is why, along with gods and other people, we enlist landscapes to help us see ourselves: they are as familiar and strange as we are, and as much a joint product of the actual and the imagined.


 Jedediah Purdy: A way with rebar.