I am always surprised and grateful when a new (or newly remembered) landscape adds itself to the library of topographies in my imagination. Like the Grecian Urn, these constructs invite us to enter the world of memory where we may reinhabit important landscapes of our past. I find that I am constantly in the act of revisitation. Whether I am listening to music, driving, speaking to someone, or reading, I regularly awaken to the realization that I have been exploring familiar or remembered landscapes in my imagination, often as if I were floating, moving through them in a way that would be impossible if I were physically there.
There are a few standard landscapes in my rotation—mostly childhood landmarks or homes—but a slight provocation can take me to another unexpected landscape, one that I have neglected. Only last week, the smell of boxed hotel soap returned me immediately to a boarding house in London where I had spent part of a summer fifteen years ago. The scent recalled to me very specific details about my tiny room overlooking Bloomsbury square, which, even now, I access with greater and greater ease.
Revisitations in the analog world are documented often: one visits a childhood home only to find that the exterior has been repainted, the sloped driveway is not nearly as steep as the five-year-old version of oneself remembers, or the side of the house where the kitchen once was has been gutted and enlarged by new occupants. In some cases, we even summon the courage to knock on the door and politely ask for a tour of the house. Yet even if we only sit in the street as the car idles, staring at the front of an old home, there is often a sense of broken nostalgia. Even if the place has been improved, something is not right. How dare these new people ever change a thing? And then we are wounded because this new version of the landscape, which to this point had remained rosily revisited only as an inner landscape, has now intruded on the memory, bleeding into the permanent record.
Yet I find that I still look forward to some distant day when I will revisit other landscapes of my past. I know that to do so will be a disappointment at some level, but the thought of never being in those places again as long as I live is even more upsetting. I prefer the naive dream that I will revisit certain locations from my past and find myself electrified by the perfected moment: the weather will be just as I want it to be; nothing will have changed, but there will be no signs of decay; and the smells will draw me back into a moment of solitude that I shared with this place at an odd hour decades before.
It is a peculiar phenomenon that I can already almost rehearse that desired moment by way of Google Street View. On a number of occasions, I have revisited my landscapes by using this tool, finding that it intrudes only very slightly into my memories. The view is nearly always the same as it would be if I were sitting in the idling car, and yet the effect is wildly different because there are no sounds or smells. There is weather, but it has no bearing upon my experience because I cannot feel it. Instead, I am invisibly floating at the curb of my landscape, able to move laterally and to zoom in two dimensions, but I cannot access the third or fourth. It is a sleight of hand that allows me to refresh some of the details, or to be mystified by the changes, but never actually to engage with the landscape. For that privilege, I must withdraw.
Though I hear, see, feel, the waking dream is silent; it offers me no insight into itself. I move through it at will, but feel no power to control it or its features. Nevertheless, my primary feelings toward these landscapes are of pleasure and gratitude that they exist. These stages are silent, though the kettle is just now boiling, and we know that we have only just missed seeing those whom we sought, who will now nevermore return. Such is the power of landscape.