Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Adirondack Philosophy: The Landscape of Memory

My friend and I walked down a trail at the end of the afternoon, mindful that this day soon would slip from the present into memory. We had spent the last several hours on the side of a hill looking more often out at the Adirondacks in the distance, than at the near landscape where we whiled away.

In retrospect this was fitting since most of our recollections, all of our shared stories at least, had settled years ago between the rise of those mountains and the fall of their valleys. And here we were, older and perhaps better though surely in other ways lesser, versions of ourselves.
Across twenty years and one known lifetime the winds of the old days braided together with a blowsy March breeze and our histories took shape, play-acting to the rhythm of our spoken recollections in the space between us.

I like that notion – that we can animate our past in the retelling of our beloved stories and of people themselves long since gone. But it raises a question about precisely what is the space between us over time? Are our recounted memories made manifest in the physical space between bodies, sharing dimension with his pack, the smoked Gouda and a baguette? Or is the gauzy veil of memory always transcendent of three-dimensional time and space? Once the physical expression of our moment-to-moment is gone, does time reclaim history loosening it from our grasp like pollen in wind? How do memories and histories exist and where? I wonder.

I can feel the substance of memories as if they have weight in some other-than-physical sense. They’re present I’m sure. We dig them up like turning over soil and we find the roots of feelings and the veins of moments half-remembered. I think of what Emerson wrote that the “sculpture in the memory is not without pre-established harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.” I take him to mean that there is symmetry between what we remember and what actually was. That divine intention (let’s call it the work of the goddesses) positions the body and the mind alongside the world in such a way. And when we trace back along the lines of our recollections, history – our history – emerges in that sequence.

As for where and how these remembrances occupy space, it has long seemed to me that the Adirondacks holds histories and memories openly as if they’re all swirling slowly under a low ceiling of sky. I continue to be surprised by them when I attend to places where I’ve been in the past. I’m struck each time by how I am infused in this landscape and how my past flourishes under the ministrations of a Pythagorean harmony of mind, body and world not unlike the one Emerson told of.

Days later with no answers to my questions, I’m still eating oily black olives with red wine and I notice that the label is sticky on my hand from where the bag of purple grapes squished in his pack against the bottle. Also there is grass in the Camembert, which I smile at and eat anyway. These are remnants of an afternoon added to the gone world, recalled now in the ancient quiet of this familiar Adirondack forest. That day, like all the others, will be like a painting that becomes more obscure the closer I try to get to it. As if in reply Joan Baez hums in my ear of memories tumbling like sweets from a jar

And take me down to the harbor now
Grapes of the summer are low on the bough
Ghosts of my history will follow me there
And the winds of the old days will blow through my hair

Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher, writing and teaching in the Adirondack Park

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Marianne Patinelli-Dubay leads the Environmental Philosophy Program at SUNY-ESF’s Newcomb Campus on the Huntington Wildlife Forest. In addition to teaching and writing, Marianne chairs the Adirondack Chapter of the Society of American Foresters and is an active member of the Forest Stewards Guild.   Please send comments to

One Response

  1. Pete Klein says:

    Memory is a funny thing, to be trusted with a grain of salt.
    The future is a total blank. The past and the present are often seen “through a glass, darkly” as stated by St. Paul. Or as sung in “Gigi,” “Ah, yes, I remember it well.”

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