This is where I’m from, roughly. It is also, now that I am away, an island of refuge to which my mind returns when I need to breathe. Open, alive, slow, simple, unencumbered, sometimes a little backward, always rounded out with wild, something like home. There are people out there, I think, I remember—we were there once—living and working, but usually not too many too close together, going about their businesses amidst spaces tricolored in shades of blue, green, and yellow. The gray-black of snaking, shoulderless roads and long, truck-heavy highways, their surfaces radiant with heat in the summer sun and criss-crossed with cracks and black tar patches. Lush, tangled, ripe and fertile, the ground and are air thick. That’s in the summer. But in the fall too, with different colors, deeper colors, earthy and odorous. This is what I remember most, the way, in all seasons, at all times, it enters your lungs, coats your skin, is absorbed by your clothes. These hills and the fields between and among them are nothing if not permeating and respiratory—they get into and all over you, in a wonderful envelopment that at once seems to protect, sustain, captivate, and silence. And when I’m there, when I return, the first thing that strikes me, striking harder and more deeply than anything else, never really wearing off but nevertheless receding into the background of consciousness as that first moment of impact passes and I settle into my presence and familiarities, is the scent. I can see, feel, hear how it smells. Wood, stone, leaves, earth, water. And air.
Late one night not long ago as I tried to wind down from the day, I happened upon something in Proust about scent and nostalgia, about the power of odors to effectively transport us to another realm of perception or some remote corner of our memory, linking us by a thread so easily overlooked to the entire feel of a time and place, a scene from our past. Inhale and there it is, with you right back in the middle. He suggested that the impressions left by a smell, some characteristic or particular aroma, whether pleasant, commonplace, or foul, stowing away in the deep dark subconscious when we’re not immediately in its midst, under its sway, disregarded by a memorial faculty either dormant or preoccupied with something flashier, more pressing, can conjure very particular feelings and emotions, surprising and even embarrassing us with their profundity at our next encounter, as if we had similarly failed to recall that ordinary olfaction can give rise to notions of a significance and complexity at least equal to those affected by abstract ideas or other apparent profundities.
I stayed up too late and reading morphed into listening. He went on (and on) about his love, his Swanns, his stubborn amorousness, of budding groves and painful renunciations—before returning to the issue of how it is that such things come to be forgotten and why they then strike us with such intensity and suddenness when recalled by a simple sensation from the oblivion of the all-but-forgotten. It’s a matter of being reminded in a reflexive flash, he said, of that which the “broad daylight” of habitual memory had deemed unimportant and placed in internal abeyance, so out of sight and out of mind that, rather than becoming weakened by the constant attentions of habit and familiarity, it’s allowed to retain every bit of its impressionistic strength and limpidity. Then some scent, sound, angle, or touch comes along out of nowhere and not only pulls an essential piece of the past from that preserving obscurity but even transforms and transports us to who and where we’ve been.
How true this is. A past self of mine is resuscitated upon inhalation of this atmosphere, a self through whose eyes I suddenly find myself (again) able to see. Funny how a slight breeze can channel the person we used to be and convey the constitutive core of memory, a sense of perfect location and placement untouched by habits, actions, thoughts, words, time, anything.
I take a long, deep breath when I see these images. It’s interesting how a two-dimensional arrangement of pixels is enough to be close again, touching the scenery and stimuli of a perpetual moment, a familiar and unending presence coursing through my veins, inherited and characteristic but overlooked by preoccupations with daily shuffles and overwhelmed by other, more immediate themes and narratives. Scent sticks, sight sees, truly—both feel, remember, sense. And what my memory reintroduces each time I see these places, whether in person, print, or screen, each time my nostrils flare on instinct, reaching back, is an impression of something home-like in its intimacy, but still not wholly defining. It is part of me, not all, and what I feel for and in it is not so much a matter of belonging, complete and absolute, as recollection in the most literal sense. Just as it is part of me, parts of me are still there—that’s what I notice. I love going back to gather them up, to dig them out from the bottom of my pile and remember what it was like when they were on top.