Saturday, October 18, 2014
The landscape I know
Sometimes I cannot remember where I am. I cannot remember if I'm in Oregon or New York. For example, I just read that Jonathan Safran Foer lives in Brooklyn and I thought Of course and I pictured Brooklyn as a grayish spot on a map, a hub of brownish buildings cobbled up over sidewalks lined with black garbage bags and London Plane trees, all far east across the continent. And then I thought, No, it's just across the East River. And just a few days ago I thought of London Plane trees and how their hardy leaves make good ghosts and that we should go pick up some to paint for Halloween and then stopped because I don't know if London Plane trees grow in Portland. I think they don't. Because I was in Portland then. (Where we have two enormous healthy elm trees that make as good company as the Hudson River, but that is another story.)
The story today began with a trip up the Hudson to Cold Spring, NY, where we bought pottery and dress-up clothes. We had duck with fennel and guinea hen with apple ragu for lunch. The leaves along the Taconic were orange and yellow, and sometimes blew across the road. The sky in the afternoon turned dark blue-gray and splattered us with some heavy drops, but not too many. There were barn sales and tag sales and traffic. And I said it was odd, the way I love the Northeast landscape. The old rocks and huge deciduous trees, the soft hills and majestic light. It makes sense to me. Woods with little underbrush and white three-story farmhouses. Its odd because I still feel like I'm a foreigner here; all the memories of these places were made by my adult mind in the last 15 years. And even though I've repeatedly visited places like Rhinebeck or Saugerties or Cape Cod I know I don't exactly belong. That is not to say that I do not drive like a New Yorker, or expect people to be direct and knowledgeable like New Yorkers, but that in my heart of hearts I am not a New Yorker.
And it is the opposite in Oregon. I feel that the landscape is my own, not because it makes sense to me or is beautiful, but because I just know it. Because as we drive the geography reveals itself like the shape of my own arm. I know where to turn for Canby without knowing that I knew where to turn for Canby. I can guess that the trees in the orchard we are passing are hazelnut, but I wouldn't have known three minutes ago how to describe a Hazelnut tree. Not the way I could describe a Linden, Honey Locust, or Copper Beech. New York is my adult mind. Portland holds my child's mind, a mind that holds far more than I knew.
Years ago my Dad came to visit me in New York, and then we drove out near Akron, Ohio, where he was born and raised. And as we rode down wide, flat lanes lined by brick houses so far back from the road that the lawns seemed oddly large, he would tell me things like, This is where Aunt Anna lived or This is where we sold flowers on Saturday or This is the road to the old coal mine. And while the landscape seemed hot and yellow-green and sort of all-the-same to me, it spoke of different things to him. I wonder if he has felt like Oregon is a foreign country all this time.
To my adult self the hills around Portland are dark and spiky and a little unfriendly. They seem too new and the deciduous trees too small (and too few). There isn't any schist lying around sparkling, not enough rock in general. I despair of split-level or ranch homes or slanty-wood-fronted buildings. I despair of people who never disagree with you, of people who drive slow. People who drive as if they are apologizing for their carbon footprint with timidity, No, no, you go ahead. At least the bicyclists are worth their salt and seem to think the point of transportation is getting there.
And yet, despite all this, Portland is where I belong. The land is connected to places and people that are my own. The roads lead to Dad's house or Mom's house, to the old nursery, or by skate church, or near my high-school, or my university, or Saint Nicholas. Hippo Hardware hasn't changed, nor all the strip clubs, or the coffee shops. I pass the place where I fell out of Dad's truck and Heidi yelled Amber's dead! and I felt myself all over and thought I don't think I am. I live a few blocks from the dry cleaner where I worked two afternoons a week in high school. I don't feel even remotely foreign there.
I think of the children's book by Allan Say, many times read to my children, Grandfather's Journey. When the grandfather was in Japan he longed for California, and when he was in California he longed for Japan--and when the grandson grew up and moved from Japan to California he felt much the same way. (Allan Say, coincidentally, lives in Portland, Oregon.) And I too, long for a different landscape: for golden magnificence of New York when I am in Portland, and for the damp clean of Portland when I am in New York.