On Reading Landscapes and Cultivating Memory

Three years ago, I went on a “Literature and Landscape” study abroad to the UK where we toured countless literary sites — houses of Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, and Shakespeare. We visited castles and estates, museums and abbeys, churches, gardens and galleries. We climbed a few mountains, walked the Bronte sisters’ heathery moors, and traversed many, many sheep fields with twin, spring lambs.

It was a six week experience — a relatively shot period of time in my life, but one which has made a lasting impression. How is it that such a short time could infuse my life so strongly with its memories?

It’s often in the little things.

Sometimes, I remember the study abroad by seeing something directly related to it: a reproduction of Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott” in my living room, the original which I saw in the Tate Britain. Or I re-watch Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” which I first saw in a little theatre in London, after having visited Hardy’s homes and some of his landscapes. Or, since beginning my blog, I scroll through the many photos that I took on my trip, and connect one to my latest post as the feature image. These connections are clear, obvious, straightforward.

But then there are the ones which are a little more obscure.

Yesterday, I played tourist in my own city and went to the botanical gardens for the first time. Even as I left my place and drove to the station where I’d go underground to zip under the city on the subway, I felt the odd sensation that I was not in my native Canada any more, but in the UK, an ocean away. I don’t take the underground subway often, and so when I do, it often reminds me of London and having taken the “tube” for the 10 days I was there.

I was going to the botanical gardens yesterday to see the butterflies – more specifically, an exhibit in which thousands of live butterflies were set free in an enclosed greenhouse of plants and flowers, where you could walk along the designated paths and feel the brush of dusted wings on your arm.

The colours were vibrant and the varieties varied. It was a beautiful exhibit – one which I would like to see again.

But what perhaps made the biggest impression on me was not what I saw, but how seeing what I did caused me to remember, and be temporarily transported to another place, another time.

As I walked through the large expanse of gardens to get to the butterfly exhibit, and walked back again, I realized, with some awe, how similar these gardens looked to the ones I’d seen when I visited the ones outside of London, in the Kew Gardens.

I remembered similar winding paths and beds of flowers. They were half a world away, and three years apart, and yet, the memory of those gardens felt very close to me. Fittingly enough, the most impressive memory I have from Kew Gardens was finding a variety of small pink flowers that used to grow on the lawn of my childhood home.

Visiting the botanical gardens yesterday, then, was like revisiting a memory of a memory.

I wonder, now, as I write this, if my experience yesterday is typical of the way that memory works. I’ve concocted a fanciful thought (neuroscience notwithstanding) that memory is not stored in our brains, but in the external world. And that when we see something related — either directly or obscurely — the memory returns.

After seeing the butterflies yesterday and before walking back through the extensive gardens to the subway, I spent a few minutes perusing the gift shop.

I used to detest gift shops — thought they were just prying on people’s sentimentality and ripping them off royally. But on my study abroad, I came to actually look forward to going to them. In fact, by the end of the trip, I would often go to the gift shop first, and then look at the historic site or castle or wherever we had actually come to see.

As I looked around the gift shop yesterday, I was filled with a sense of delight: being there reminded me so much of the dozens of other gift shops I’d perused on the study abroad – it was in itself a kind of landscape. The details were different, but it was really all the same. The same collection of magnets, of silk scarves, of fine china tea cups. Of course, these were all decorated differently — with butterflies — and there were butterfly nets and other paraphernalia galore. But still: it gave me such delight, because, in a way, the gift shop itself was a memory of my study abroad.

I’ve become past caring that these gift shops are prying on my sentimentality: I’ve decided I want to pried upon! Everyone wants to bring back something from an experience, and I am no different.

But yesterday, I went past all the trinkets — lovely as they were — and decided to bring home something a bit more genuine. I bought a fern, which reminded me of a fern that my grandmother has on her window sill. And I bought two packages of Canadian wildflower seeds that I intend to plant in my backyard and finally create a flower garden and hopefully even attract some butterflies.

But as I went to the cash register to buy my purchases, I marveled at myself. I was buying a plant (“specimen” they called it), primarily because it reminded me of my grandmother, not of the exhibit I’d just seen. And I bought the seeds because I’d genuinely wanted some genuine wildflowers to grow in my city backyard, to give it a sense of the country.

The irony? In buying wildflower seeds, I was trying to cultivate that which is wild.

Memory is wild: it grows where and how it wants; it pops up unexpectedly.

The memories sold in gift shops — souvenirs — these are a way to try to cultivate memory: to have it grow a certain way.

I was wanting to create a landscape in my back yard which was at once my city’s botanical gardens, Kew Gardens, and perhaps even my childhood garden and the country surrounding it.

But you can’t decide which memories stick and which ones won’t stay. You can’t control when or how memories decide to pop up, though you can try by buying souvenirs.

Memory grows best wild.

Creative nonfiction is full of memory – so much of it is a reflection on what we’ve observed and experienced. I like to think that imagination has an important role in creative nonfiction, and while memory certainly has an even bigger part to play, I think they are closely related. But I’m wondering: in shaping memory in creative nonfiction, are we trying too hard to cultivate it?

And so I conclude by posing this question:

Question: What would cultivating memory in creative nonfiction look like? And can we genuinely represent memory?