Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, there was nothing but rough, shaggy, red grass, most of it as tall as I was… As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the prairie the color of wine stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it, the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running… I felt the motion in the landscape, in the fresh-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass where a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping… Will Cather, My Antonia
When I was ten and eleven, I read so much that my father declared a rule that certain chores, or maybe it was just a certain amount of social interaction, had to be accomplished before I was permitted to absent myself to the room I shared with my sister, stretch out on the bright pink cover of our bed, and retire into a book. I don’t remember the specific tasks I was supposed to do, or if the rule was enforced for long. My memory of the actual events of those two years of my life is tenuous – dream like – distilled by time to a shifty track of short scenes that, also with time, have become so inflated with relevance they are possibly distorted beyond recognition to anyone else.
What I do remember clearly from that era is the books I read. Each one of them. I read through my modest library again and again and again. Certain books I read more than ten times before I eventually realized that I could also read from my parents’ shelves – though doing was to venture into worlds that often baffled.
My favorite genre in those days was that in which the protagonist was whisked, via dream or secret portal or piece of art, away from where she was and into the a time past – into history. I wanted this to happen to me, badly. And where I wanted to get whisked was into North America, as I glimpsed it in certain American Indian stories and legends my grandmother provided, and in stories about early European settlers and explorers.
I pictured a world of vast pine forests and expansive tundra, of ravens, wolves, and mountain lions, of sun-soaked meadows, jeweled northern lakes, and fold upon fold of smoke-colored hills, unbroken by a single road. It was the world evoked even by the Laura Ingles Wilder series, which, I must admit, I read repeatedly. Ms. Wilder wasted few words describing the prairie, exhausting her repertoire for suggestive detail on things like new bonnets and butter manufacturing instead, but the small bits provided were enough to bloom in my mind’s eye. Rolling oceans of grass, magnificent summer skies, withering blizzards, and – it filled me with wonder and sadness to think of this – clouds of passenger pigeons, not yet gone.
I immersed myself in my books, and did my best to be entirely consumed. I believe I spent more time trying to imagine these landscapes than I did trying to engage with the one I was in.
Nostalgia: Sentimental longing for or regretful memory of a period of the past, esp. one in an individual’s own lifetime; (also) sentimental imagining or evocation of a period of the past. – Oxford English Dictionary
Nostalgia is born of selective memory – a rendering of reality paired down from all the complex tones and shades and perspectives that are possible to, at best, one person’s view in a film-like snippet. Nostalgia is invoked by memories that are frozen still, like snapshots. And by abstract sketch, just sensation and feeling. Indeed, perhaps when it comes to gleaning meaning from memory, the simpler the drawing, the weightier the significance we put on each wavering line.
It is impossible to divorce how we remember things in the past from our feelings about things in the present. What we are nostalgic about is a view of the way we assign value in the world.
At the time I was doing all this reading, the landscapes I imagined felt as far from the one I was in as possible. While I read of violent winters and majestic elk, outside my window the tropical sun burned and chickens made their creaky afternoon sounds. I read of vast tracks nearly empty of people and the struggle of those therein to maintain their community; I, meanwhile, felt hemmed by a forbidden forest and over-visible in a culture I longed to escape. I read of girls my age with clear duties and necessary, simple roles in their societies; I was out of place in mine, unsure and unsatisfied with the options available to me.
The circumstances in my life are quite different now. Yet, my nostalgia for that landscape remains. I have learned some more, and I know that what I’m longing for is a an experience of North American before development, pollution, invasion, forest cutting, river damming, plowing, mowing and grazing, the dredging of lakes like St Claire, the flattening and fattening of islands like Manhattan, and the dwindling to near-extinction of salmon and sturgeon that used to crowd rivers like the Hudson so thickly that the surface bristled with their backs. As when I was eleven, my nostalgia is fueled in part purely by curiosity and that bittersweet ache to have something that is impossibly beyond reach. But, now as in then, it’s not just the landscape that pulls me. It is, of course, the idea of who I would be in such a land.
In the misty North America of 1700s and before that I imagine, (and sometimes I am nostalgic for much farther back, for the Pleistocene, when people were barely worth mention and mastodons thundered past the receding glaciers) I would be completely humbled by the enormity and power of nature. I would be dwarfed by its obvious invincibility. I would be aware of the brevity and insignificance of my existence. And it would be this sense of self in scale to nature and time that would be a relief. A relief from the burden of self-importance. A rest from thinking so much about how I should be and that what I did mattered. A relief from choice and the fear that I would not do right.
In such a landscape there would be no room for anything except living exactly as I was, exactly where, and exactly when.
* * *
I am launching a study of nostalgia, and I put forth a plea for interviews. Please contact me if you’d be willing to talk to me about what it is that stirs your nostalgia. Perhaps it is a place you have known, or a time in your youth, or a relationship that came to an end, or never began? Or perhaps, like me, a time in history you have never experienced, but that you imagine. How does your nostalgia affect you?
I would love to talk to you. And, if you will suffer my gaze, I’d love to draw you too! Please send this request to anyone you know who might be interested…
My email: email@example.com