“How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how
paltry and puny in comparison to the human consciousness, to a
single individual recollection…”
-Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory
Anyone who knows me, sees my art, reads my stories, or has dinner in my home, knows that my life is hugely influenced by the years I spent living in the desert. The colors, the light, and the layers of sandstone, left such an impression on my psyche that they show up in everything I do.
Despite the current passion for the desert aesthetic, the desert did not become my home-place because it was pretty or hip, and definitely not because it was a habitable place, but because I lived ordinary life there. It was in the wide open desert spaces near my home in Albuquerque that I began the work of becoming my own. I started celebrating that I was not who I thought I would be or who anyone thought I would be. I began to become aware of all I did not know and all I did not see, and I started looking, not only into myself as a maker and as a woman, but at the world around me, I began to see the landscape, to relate to it, to exist not in it, or atop it, but as part of it.
I returned to New Mexico last year to take photographs of the desert for a series of digital paintings I would later title, Intimate Geography. I packed the essentials: a camera, clothes, a sun hat, a few rolls of film, and water…. gallons of water. Every plant for 100 miles could sense my whereabouts. I followed access roads through herds of cattle to the Bisti De-na-zin Wilderness in NW corner of New Mexico.
Ditching my car in the gravel lot at the entrance to the wilderness area, I hiked out onto to the edge of a plateau to find my bearings and begin my journey. I could hear the place markers in my brain straining to pin point boundary lines and to mark the edges of the landscape, but there were none, besides a small unkempt wire fence leaning between one piece of matching earth and another. Immediately I was reminded why I love the desert: There is a tactile response to stillness, to light and shadow, to the time which has made the space between the rocks. The desert earth reacts to the water in the body. It makes passes at you — romances your bones. It calls you in close. It asks for every drop. It will make you cry over the beauty and sweat out your stores of water from the heat and then it will kill you, turn you to dust, roll you about in a gust. It was brutal and I was in love. I wanted to savor every last speck of dry honesty in the place.
In open landscape the body starts to hear itself. First there is coming to terms with its own sounds. Then there is the looking out, and a listening out and a reaching out. Sight. Sound. Touch.
Goethe, the German philosopher and poet, once wrote that the human being himself, to the extent that he uses his senses is the most exact physical apparatus that exists. I became the apparatus, the instrument of those moments, the measurement of all things dusty, wind weathered, and desolate and through this interaction there were knowings embedded in the body and they stayed with me. The feeling of hand on stone… the sound of my walking… the experience of solitude… the sky a color just so.
I have tried to keep it with me. To bring it here, now, into my stories, into my paintings, into my home. It still affects me, moves me, and yet, I move it as well. I affect it even still. I have changed the desert that I have carried over time. I have paired it down to the sounds, the smells, the feeling of the dry sun on freckled shoulders, the weight of solitude.
My body fights to hold onto the details, to rebuild them as they slip away. In the book The Memory of Place, Dylan Trigg writes: For nowhere is the conjunction of familiarity and unfamiliarity, absence and presence, intimacy and impenetrability clearer than in the body’s hold on the places it has inhabited. The durable nature of memory allows us to recall a distant place over and over throughout our lives. Still, the fallibility of the body in relation to time compromises the security of such memories. As an experience is recalled, the memory of it is influenced by other memories and more recent experiences, therefore, inevitably, all recollections eventually change in character. Over time, attention to specific details instead of others weakens the disregarded or less recalled details, gradually changing the shape of the memory. Therefore, not all things can be recalled perfectly from the original moment. For example, I know the notion of the striations in the desert rock but cannot create them exactly. The imagination must gather the colors and lines and rebuild a likeness within me.
Sensations, emotions, biases, cultural associations, and sickness, as well as time, play extensive roles shifting the interior landscape of past within the body. Therefore, while there exists a certain scale of resemblance from one reconstruction of an experience to the next, the gesture of recollection begins anew with every will to recall, as if to drop a plate, gather it, repair it, drop, gather, repair, continuing ad infinitum. With every repair there is, however minuscule, a change in the fresh memory image. This results in each gathered memory being slightly altered from its previous iteration.
Dylan Trigg uses the term “felt corporeality” to define the holistic experience of recall. “Once lived,” Trigg writes, “the past does not temporally expire, even though the event itself may have ceased to exist.” No, instead, the past resonates into the present. As the body activates place through recollection, place also activates the body calling iterations of the experiences of those places over and over again throughout life. The body and it’s memory, together with the imagination, create the gesture which newly defines what is absent from the body.
The imagination fills in what our memory alone cannot conjure. The imagination paints the colors that our feelings fill in. The imagination recreates sounds similiar to those we think we heard. While they may not be exact replicas, these are likenesses, which may piece together a house long since gone, a field a thousand miles away, a face of a long lost friend. The imagination not only acts as a bridge to the past, but a marker of absence in the fallible and porous mind.
Affected by aesthetic, intellectual, sensory, and temporal cues, the body begins to weave memory traces and associations into a recollected image. This new image exists within the body, in the context of all recollections that came before it, and altering the context of all that will follow, weaving over time a sense of identity and being in the world. This occurrence and reoccurrence of imagery resists linear time creating a place within in which the past and present simultaneously coexist.
So, to speak of memory, I must speak of the entire body.
To speak of memory I must speak of an alchemy of the senses, the heart, the land, and home-place.
To speak of home-place I must speak of the desert. It is in this recalling of a place, which the body knows but cannot see, that the work of the imagination becomes apparent.
When I remember the desert, my body now so far removed, I must build upon the absence of it. The reconstructed image becomes the amalgam of all stories I have heard of the desert, all sandstone, all light, all sage, and every rush of wind on the body.
It is in my hands, the stone of the desert. It is in my feet the crisp clay of the playa floor. It is in my skin, the movement of that air around the stillness of the earth.
It is in my heart the becoming. To know the smallness of the body and vast lattice work of narratives which made a place a place. It lives in the gut. A knowing.
The exactness of the place seeps out of my body while I live. While I sleep. There is always forgetting in such fragile, porous bodies. I know the notion of the striations in the desert rock but cannot recreate them in perfect detail. The imagination gathers colors and lines and rebuilds a likeness within me.
Each new desert called into existence resembles the one before it and calls toward every future iteration. Life, the constant fold-and-tangle of then-and-now and those delicate weavings of the body to recall a certain kind of light.
We live. We gather. We remember. We are.
As place persists in the body, we find our dwelling not in the past but in the moment to moment, and there exists, in this remembering, both a reverie and an effort.
Images from the series Intimate Geography, digital alterations to 35mm photographs, Sarah Simmons, 2015
A bit of further reading on memory, reverie, and home-place can be found here:
Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions. Ed. Eliot Weinberger. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Dessingué, Alexandre. “Towards a Phenomenology of Memory andForgetting.” Études Ricoeuriennes / Ricoeur Studies 2, no. 1
Lippard, Lucy R. The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society. New York: New Press, 1997.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Accessed March 15, 2016. http://archive.org/details/TheNotebooksOfMalteLauridsBrigge.
Trigg, Dylan.The Memory of Place: a phenomenology of the uncanny. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012.