Of land and time in memoir

(October 20/16)

The setting of my youth calls to the youngster inside to awake.

Hello journaling/memoir ones. I have landed in Niagara on the Lake, sort of unpacked (Cat in boxes, again) and arranged for the house to be repainted, re-carpeted, re-blinded and re-kitchened (are these verbs?) while working on two of the last courses needed to complete my journal facilitator certification.


As my first blog post after “the move” I could ramble on about having vineyards constantly in my view and formerly distant family suddenly here. There are a few empty bottles in the recycling and signs of festive family finagling over Thanksgiving  in my refrigerator (yes still).  Taste is certainly a valuable sense through which I can recall and tradition adds meat to skeletal stories.


But as I reacquaint myself with the province of my birth there is another, quite unexpected, voice that calls to the depths of memory.  I hear it as I walk under ancient trees that saw the Battle of 1812, as I break through the October clay that clings to still blooming roses, as I stand in awe of the dark skies that fill with wizardly strings of light and the boom of anger, as I walk the beach with dark sand stuck to my white TOMS, and as I witness a riot of colour strewn like boughs along the escarpment and the way the sunrise makes its’ way across the lake like a rosy silk scarf dropped into a breeze.


It has helped me to remember how landscape is a part of every story? Everything happens somewhere and readers want to know about the somewhere and how it imprinted on me. That’s one of the reasons it figures so prominently in works of fiction and poetry and should be so in memoir and journal writing as well. Take a quick look at some of your favorite books for stunning examples of how place, time and weather add to a story.


Ernest Hemmingway described weather associated with a place important to shaping his feelings, drives, motivations and insecurities in A Moveable Feast. In so doing he brought the reader closer to understanding him without giving a lecture:

 “…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.”


Thomas Wolfe develops his character George through a vivid evocation of place, the Pennsylvania Station, in You Can’t Go Home Again and in so doing illuminates George’s character, which makes direct explanation completely unnecessary:


“…The station…was murmurous with the immense and distant sound of time…It had the murmur of a distant sea, the languorous lapse and flow of waters on a beach. It was elemental, detached, indifferent to the lives of men. They contributed to it as drops of rain contributed to a river that draws its flood and movement majestically from great depths, out of purple hills at evening.”


Closer to home Canadian writer Harold Rhenisch (a man with a great smiling beard who I once met in Victoria, B.C.) tells a story about his parents through a description of the landscape where they moved in the Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Country and in so doing makes the reader, not just understand, but empathize.


“By then, my parents had moved at last, to farm cherries in the shadow of the Hanford plutonium processing plant, where the Bomb was birthed, and were screwed by one of their very good friends.”


I like the way Ariel Gore uses a description of her desert home in The End of Eve to set the mood. She talks about it as “a pale blue egg between two Nevada towns,” complete with its graveled shorelines and the silvery water glowing like some giant gasoline rainbow, “poisonous and beautiful.”


At the very least you must agree that landscape tugs at your memory strings. Remember my starry-eyed description of NOTL at the beginning of this blog. The official term for this phenomenon is “topology,” the art and science of assisting memory by association with things such as a place in which you are familiar. So I walked. I observed myself observing.  I began to understand how landscape imprints itself on a person. I touched on my instinctive recollections that can only be expressed through a combination of smells, the feel of the air and a sense of the presence of nature as a living entity all around me.


Before I go to rescue my dog from what looks like a racoon (hey it’s dark) I leave you with some questions you may like to play with about landscape in your memoir or journal writing:


How does the land (village, small town, ranch, city, neighbourhood) imprint itself on me? What kind of imprintings do I make upon the land?What do I see? Smell? Touch? Hear? Taste? Feel in my body?What about weather? What was its impact on the land and on my perceptions of my life? How does nature elicit human emotions, insights in my writing?


I have not as yet stood atop the hill where, at eight years of age, I watched the power of Lake Ontario pull earth from under our home.  I admit it put the fear of God in me more than did the nuns with rulers at my Catholic grade school. Yet there was something so alluring about the combination of power and fear, something worth exploring.


Tell me your stories involving the landscape and weather that shaped you. I will post the first few if you include your permission.

Talk soon

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