Sometimes when I sit at my desk and work, my mind floods with distant memories from my childhood landscape. It is hard to say what triggers it, as there are no direct connections between what I read, think and write and what my mind brings up to the surface. I have recently been working on translating a novel from northern Kenya, a harsh and arid desert landscape which is almost as different from coastal Norway as one can imagine. But at times the images and smells, maybe particularly the smells, were flowing over me at breakneck speed. As I am transporting images of stars in the shape of a camel, cicada songs and blood on the dusty ground from one language to another, what I see and smell and taste is all that, but at the same time also the exact opposite: Sleet on a gray granite mountaintop, the scent of seaweed at low tide, the feel of gravel on asphalt roads after the winter snow has melted.
So, I wonder: Maybe those memories of landscape, of the natural world, is so much a part of who I am, that almost any kind of landscape – be it an experience or a description – will evoke the one that is in me, or maybe, that is me, or at least a part of me: Sometimes because there are similarities, other times because there are none, or because the similarities that do exist, highlight the immense differences that exist simultaneously.
Nature weaves its presence into our being. At times I can feel a bit homesick for the place I was born, thinking life would be so much safer and less complicated, seeing the appeal of social codes that are so much more easily maneuvered. Using my language, my mother tongue. But when it comes down to it, what really draws me is not primarily those practical considerations, but rather the sensory memories of place. And there are so many of them:
The feel of walking outside in late spring when you could finally put away your boots and wear “little shoes”, as we said, low-cut shoes with thin soles, so that you through the soles could feel the left-over gravel they had spread over the snow and ice to make passage safer in the winter, and which still wasn’t cleared off the roads. Your feet were light, the air was breathable, and you felt free. If you skipped too fast, the gravel could make you skid, but the summer shoes made it impossible not to skip.
The grass that grows in cracks in the rocky seaside landscape and that never gets cut. In winter, when snow comes and goes, the grass yellows and gets saturated with moisture, but doesn’t quite die. It doesn’t seem to die until the new growth starts in spring and hides the dying grass underneath the new and fresh blades of grass. Where I live now, on the Carolina coast, we have sea and grass, but there is no rock. And no winter; just a chilly season when heat is put on hold. This wild winter grass on the coast of Norway is still something that seems to exist in my body, though, and it brings with it a feeling of having escaped the stuffy indoors and entered the clean and liberating and limitless outdoors. It was at least partly alive all through that season that is cold and rainy and sometimes snowy and icy, and that grass held all the promise of milder weather and a summer that would come.
There’s the feel of the rock, silky smooth in places, rugged and cracked in others. Nearest the ocean it could be covered in barnacles, which hurt to walk on, but we did it anyway. Barefoot in summer, when it didn’t take much warmth before we were ready to go in the ocean.
The smell of the ocean, which I have realized is mostly the smell of seaweed, really, and maybe of fish and other animals in the sea. I grew up by the ocean, and now I live by the ocean again, but the smell is not the same. Maybe that has to do with the temperature, too, as it is so much warmer here, and heat does change the perception of smell, but I suspect it has mostly to do with the lack of seaweed. And I think the reason we don’t have much seaweed here, is that there is no rock.
And there are more smells. Smell is the strongest memory trigger, they say, and I totally believe that. The vegetation that has left the most indelible traces in me, are the Northern shrubs: heath, mountain birch, blueberry, lingonberry, crowberry. And pine. There’s a hillock I used to go to as a child, often to be alone, to just sit under the large pine trees and, I don’t know, just be? I went been back there a couple of years ago, more than 40 years later, and the trees that once were large, are now enormous. I am much bigger myself too, but the trees have surpassed my growth by a lot – which is interesting, as almost everything else one remembers from childhood shrinks when seen again as an adult. But the trees keep growing, and their scent is just as strong.
There are sounds too. The sound of falling rain, which is similar no matter where in the world you are, but the rain on the Norwegian coast is normally a softer and steadier rain than the torrents we get here in the South of the US. There’s the cries of seagulls, which really showcases how nostalgia works, because I cannot remember listening to the seagulls with any kind of pleasure when that was a daily occurrence, but now that sound signifies home. Or “home”. The place that was home a long time ago, the place that now exists mostly as memory but lends itself as a living museum when I go back to visit.
But it is the seagulls I hear when I write about the calls of the hadada ibis, and when I describe the thorn fence around a Kenyan cattle boma, what I really see is the wild rose of coastal Norway. The images get layered over each other, and though they are distinctly different, they still help me make sense of the unfamiliar. The sameness and the difference vibrate like a two-tone harmony, and that is how music is made. The child I was is gone, but I would not be me without the sensory memories I have from when that child was real, here in the world, in another place.