Ever come on a scene that you've never seen and yet it looks familiar? So much of our sense of place is informed by books, movies, TV, photographs, and imagination that any forest, mountain, or stream can be a setting we <i>know</i>.
Ever come on a scene that you've never seen and yet it looks familiar? So much of our sense of place is informed by books, movies, TV, photographs, and imagination that any forest, mountain, or stream can be a setting we know.
I was sitting at a white patio table in the garden behind the Monkey Tree café on Vashon Island, drinking a second cup of coffee while I enjoyed the morning shade and the wind rustling the flowers and young trees against the raw wood fence, when I saw a crow riding the wind just above roof level. The crow was flapping its wings as if it were flying north, but drifting sideways toward the east. It clearly knew exactly what it was doing; the sideslip was a matter of technique. I thought of the river canoeing technique called "ferrying," in which you align the boat largely with the current but paddle so that it moves sideways across the stream.
I remembered practicing that on rivers in northwestern Washington many years ago with my friend, Zev Siegl. Zev owned a battered aluminum canoe and a taste for white water. On a spring morning, when the rivers were running high with snowmelt, he'd call and ask if I was doing anything that day. If I wasn't, he'd meet me at the ferry dock with the canoe mounted on his old Volvo, and we'd drive to a river, swollen with spring runoff, for a day of paddling. If the canoe hit a rock too hard, we'd haul it out of the water so he could patch the rivet holes with bathtub caulk. When we reached our final take-out point, one of us would stay with the canoe while the other hitch-hiked back to the car.
One day, we drove to the north fork of the Stillaguamish River, which flows west from the North Cascades near Glacier Peak. It was a wonderful spring day. Whitehorse Mountain, still covered with snow, loomed just to the south. Sunlight glittered and refracted off the spray in every rapid. At one point, trees arched from both banks over the stream. Our canoe shot into the arcade, and I recognized the place, the feel of the place, immediately. I had a strong feeling of deja vu. But I had never been there before.
When I was a kid in grade school, I had read novels – all the novels I could find – about Indians living in the forest. I had imagined people living their lives under a high canopy of trees in perpetual shade, walking among huge tree trunks, rather like children playing under a table. When we glided out of the rapids and into the space beneath the trees above the Stillaguamish, I recognized the sense of enclosure that I had fantasized about as a kid.
I had not recalled that feeling for many years. Since then, I have recognized it many times. I have found that there really are places where you can walk freely among the trunks of huge trees under closed canopies of branches like a child playing under a table: the Northwest's old-growth forests. They are the places I knew in my daydreams.
We view the landscape through a number of intellectual and emotional filters, not least our false memories of landscapes that we "know" without ever really seeing them. We have virtually always seen "the West" through filters that have little or nothing to do with direct experience. There is a western landscape of buttes and mesas that we "know" from Hollywood movies and one that we "know" from postcards, grade-school texts, the pictures in coffee-table nature books, and the rhetoric of environmental campaigns. It is the landscape of marquee natural wonders that Europeans and Asians flock to see just as affluent Americans flock to see the Sistine Chapel and the Louvre. We recognize the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, and other iconic places rather than seeing them for the first time, just as we recognize rather than really see with unbiased eyes an iconic work of art such as the Mona Lisa or the Taj Mahal. We can seldom see the place itself without a sense that it is or is not just like – that it looks better or worse than – all the reproductions with which we have long since grown familiar.
We "recognize" many places, and many aspects of place, by now. Can anyone see Yosemite, for example, without at least subliminal echoes of Ansel Adams' great black-and-white photographs? Pale granite peaks truly do look dramatic against a dark sky - hike up into the Enchantment Lakes and see for yourself – but would we see them quite the same way if Ansel Adams hadn't photographed Yosemite in black and white? In Return to Wild America, Scott Weidensaul writes that the "unsettling thing about Los Angeles, for those of us who rarely come here, is how eerily familiar it is once we do arrive. Southern California is so embedded in the collective culture that the simplest landmarks ... seem almost mythological to an outsider. ... There's such a sense of deja vu that it's as though a character of fiction came to life and introduced himself to you."
It isn't just that the places look familiar; Weidensaul suggests that "to a birder, the whole world sounds like California. On film sets that are supposed to substitute for everything from Wild West towns to English villages, alien planets and medieval villas, those with a quick ear can pick out the calls of Pacific Coast birds on TV and movie soundtracks. James Fisher [the English birder who accompanied Roger Tory Peterson on a trip across America in 1953 and subsequently wrote Wild America with him] poking around with Peterson in the hills above L.A., heard the small long-tailed birds known as bushtits and immediately recognized their revved-up trills from Hollywood movies, although he'd never seen the species himself."
Sometimes our own non-Hollywood memories offer little help in distinguishing what is true from what is not. I associate a certain kind of forest landscape with upstate New York, where I spent my childhood and early youth. You can see it in some mid-19th-century paintings of the Hudson River School: water cascades down over gray rocks, between walls of dark trees and underbrush that mute the light. Think dark foliage, bright spray, the hardness and slick surfaces of wet rock.
When I encounter such a scene in the Cascades or the Olympics - say, on the steep trail up to Lake Constance – I think of it as East Coast. I remember the New York woods that I knew as a boy. But did I really know such a landscape in New York? Had I ever really seen one? Or had I just seen it in pictures, in a diorama at the state natural history museum in Albany, which my seventh-grade class visited on the day we all rode buses upstate to visit the governor? (Even after divorce and chemotherapy, my mother, who rode one of the buses as a chaperone, remembered that as the most difficult day of her life.)
I can't think of a single real place I knew that actually looked that way. I suspect I "remember" a kind of landscape that I knew only as the product of someone else's imagination. Now, when I see such places in the Pacific Northwest – real places where I hear the water, feel the spray, climb over the rocks – I seldom see them as themselves alone; instead, I associate them with "memories" of distant places I probably never knew.
This does not diminish their significance for me. Just the opposite. The evocation of childhood, of the place in which I spent most of my youth, gives them an extra emotional value. But it is probably based on a falsehood.
And why not? Our perceptions of the land can be enriched by mythology, whether or not we believe it, by history, whether or not it's our own - and by stories, whether or not they're true.
That crow brought a lot to mind as he drifted out of sight beyond the roof. I sipped my coffee. The daisies trembled in the breeze.