Re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, and the chapter The Blue of Distance. How she writes about the effect of geography on the psyche, the beauty of longing to be lost in a landscape where you have no anchor, the melancholy of absence, which is a kind of sadness and joy combined. The relationship to place which is often deeper than that to people, and how nomads have very stable relationships to place and very fixed circuits. Interwoven with allusions to music, art, stories from her life, this book is perfection to me.
‘The places in which any significant event occurred become embedded with some of that emotion, and so to recover the memory of the place is to recover the emotion, and sometimes to revisit the place uncovers the emotion. Every love has its landscape. Thus place, which is always spoken of as though it only counts when you’re present, possesses you in its absence, takes on another life as a sense of place, a summoning in the imagination with all the atmospheric effect and association of a powerful emotion. The places inside matter as much as the ones outside. It is as though in the way places stay with you and that you long for them they become deities – a lot of religions have local deities, presiding spirits, geniuses of the place. You could imagine that in those songs Kentucky or the Red River is a spirit to which the singer prays, that they mourn the dreamtime before banishment, when the singer lived among the gods who were not phantasms but geography, matter, earth itself.
There is a voluptuous pleasure in all that sadness, and I wonder where it comes from, because as we usually construe the world, sadness and pleasure should be far apart. Is it that the joy that comes from other people always risks sadness, because even when love doesn’t fail, morality enters in; is it that there is a place where sadness and joy are not distinct, where all emotion lies together, a sort of ocean into which the tributary streams of distinct emotions go, a faraway deep inside; is it that such sadness is only the side effect of art that describes the depths of our lives, and to see that described in all its potential for loneliness and pain is beautiful? There are songs of insurgent power; they are essentially what rock and roll, an outgrowth of one strain of the blues, does best, these songs of being young and at the beginning of the world, full of a sense of your own potential. Country, at least the old stuff, has mostly been devoted instead to aftermath, to the hard work it takes to keep going or the awareness that comes after it is no longer possible to go on. If it is deeper than rock it is because failure is deeper than success. Failure is what we learn from, mostly.
All those summer drives, no matter where I was going, to a person, a project, an adventure, or home, alone in the car with my social life all before and behind me, I was suspended in the beautiful solitude of the open road, in a kind of introspection that only outdoor space generates, for inside and outside are more intertwined than the usual distinctions allow. The emotion stirred by the landscape is piercing, a joy close to pain when the blue is deepest on the horizon or the clouds are doing those spectacular fleeting things so much easier to recall than to describe. Sometimes I thought of my apartment in San Francisco as only a winter camp and home as the whole circuit around the West I travel a few times a year and myself of something of a nomad (nomads contrary to current popular imagination, have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places; they are far from being the drifters and dharma bums that the word nomad often connotes nowadays). This meant that it was all home, and certainly the intense emotion that, for example, the sequence of mesas alongside the highway for perhaps fifty miles west of Gallup, N.M., and a hundred miles east, has the power even as I write to move me deeply, as do dozens of other places, and I have come to long not to see new places but to return and know the old ones more deeply, to see them again. But if this was home, then I was both possessor of an enchanted vastness and profoundly alienated.’
Painting by me.