Landscapes and Memory
The Blended Art of Melissa Cowper-Smith
"I like thinking about different perspectives of time, from the constant movement of clouds, wind, sky and animal life, to seasonal succession, to ecological succession and even geological movement. In the quote when I was thinking about how landscapes are changing now, I was also thinking about global climate change—how there’s a dialog now about our roll in shaping and destroying landscapes on a global scale. The dialog is shifting our experience on an individual level too."
"I do hope landscapes can be beautiful for our children —we hold an ancestral connection to our landscapes and a responsibility to future humans, animals and plants. This is a familiar sentiment, but it seems that we continue to take our responsibility too lightly. When I look at an old forest, besides being in awe of its diversity and beauty, I feel gratitude to those who left it to grow. I feel an enormous grief for lost ecosystems—for immediate gain we have left ourselves in long-term debt."
"Another stand out piece is Melissa Cowper-Smith’s, Arkansas Landscape a digital animation involving layering and freeze frame techniques to render a mélange of imagery that is transparently layered over one another…The layered and disappearing landscapes with setting suns, ethereal clouds, trees, snow, mountains—all appearing and then fading away evoke a powerful melancholy of longing and nostalgia.”
I remember several years ago asking my mother how it felt to be in her nineties. Over time, she said, she had come to be thankful even for the tragedies because, as she put it, “they helped make me me.”
In saying that the past events helped make me me, she wasn’t bragging. She was just saying that she wouldn’t be a self in the first place, without the past and the memories of her past.
She told me about relationships from her childhood and also about the landscapes of Camden, Arkansas, where she grew up.
I sensed that, for her, the landscapes and the people were blended together into memories, and that the memories were sacraments. We took out some photographs and looked at them. They helped us remember more.
Please know. My mother at ninety-five was not just about remembering. She was also about being in the present and anticipating the future. She was changing even as I visited with her. She is ninety-six now.
I asked her to write an article describing her outlook on life, and she did: Now That I am 95 I have Time to Reflect and Learn. Be careful, though, because if you read the article it might make a process philosopher of you. She is a vivid example of someone who knows that our very souls at not pillars which stand firm amid the flow of time, but are instead participants in, and outcomes of, that flow. My mother is a living example of the idea that souls are in process.
I thought of her when I read the following lines from the philosopher Robert Mesle, which were delivered to a young couple getting married:
Let me tell you a great secret of life—a soul is not a thing, it is not something which stands untouched by the events of your life. Your soul is the river of your life; it is the cumulative flow of your experience. But what do we experience? The world. Each other. So your soul is the cumulative flow of all of your relationships with everything and everyone around you. In a different image, we weave ourselves out of the threads of our relationships with everyone around us.
Mesle invites us to imagine our psyches -- our souls, as he puts it -- as ongoing acts of weaving a tapestry. The threads are our felt relationships with other people and with the landscapes that shape our physical and emotional lives. Always we are trying to create a tapestry out of these threads. These threads are our memories.
For Mesle a soul is not supernatural and it is not something that endures bodily death. It is as natural as a tree or a cloud. I shared Mesle's idea with Melissa Cowper-Smith and she reminded me that, even as our individual essences are weaving, they are also unraveling. Not only do we live from moment to moment; we die from moment to moment, too. As Whitehead puts it, no subject experiences twice. There is the cumulative development of the tapestry over time, perhaps resulting in a growth in wisdom and compassion. But there is also the perpetual perishing. We are more like clouds than we know.
When we try to remember all the threads that make us “us” we find it difficult. We tend to create a composite and forget the details. Here is how Melissa Cowper-Smith puts it:
I feel as though I can return to places in my mind, but then when I try to represent the place in an artwork I realize how much I forget. Like the shape of a shadow, or the way the light passes through the trees. My memory of a place seems to be a composite of many memories of the place.
In order to de-compose the composite, in order to see the details, we can receive help form photographs. Melissa Cowper-Smith writes:
I like how photography can capture a particular moment, in a way that our memories can not....To capture a moment, even as it is passing.
You and I both know that we cannot fully capture a moment. The flow of the universe is a creative advance into novelty; and this advance involves and even requires a perishing, a passing away, of each moment. There can be no "new" without a passing away of the old. Even we are passing away all the time. My mother knew this. When she was 95 her 15 year old self was a memory.
The landscapes are changing, too. This is true of build landscapes and also natural landscapes. The reality of change is intensified when we think of light and its comings and goings. A landscape as experienced includes the dawn and dusk of light; and the light is always passing into something new, leaving something behind along the way.
Moreover, when we remember a landscape, we don’t just remember what it was, we remember how it felt. That memory becomes part of what we weave into the tapestry of our current situation, and it shapes how we will anticipate the future. Melissa Cowper-Smith puts it this way: As landscapes continue to change, we are very interested in imaging future landscapes and remembering the beauty of past landscapes.
Can we hold our photographs with a relaxed grasp, letting them remind us of the beauty of the past but also accept that the events they document are over? If we are never quite the same at any two moment, can we learn to say, of life itself, once is enough? Maybe it is enough to remember but not possess. Maybe it is enough to capture the moment, and appreciate it for what it was, but never own it, because only then can there be space for new light and new landscapes.
I find myself imagining future landscapes and hope that they can be beautiful for my children and all who live after I die. They will need as much beauty as their hearts can hold, and it is my job to make the world safe for their photographs. It is enough to live with the nostalgia and enjoy those brief moments, as in the video below, when things stand still, just for a moment. The moments are enough.
-- Jay McDaniel