A childhood memory revolves around a deeply overcast sky, unhemmed by hills or rooftops, a wind against face and ears, hands resting on a rough, cool stone, the stone gritty under fingers and palm, solid and unyielding, the stone a presence, huge, weighty, lying on its side and long grass growing up around it, the wind setting the grass swaying, the stone unmoved, its surface resting against the small hand resting against it, experiencing its existence. And shortly afterwards, sitting on another fallen stone, under grey clouds, stone hard — the impression of it against thighs, calves, still here, still summonable after so many years. Those physical sensations more vivid than the balance of this memory, facing towards the camera, the man behind the camera, the standing stones behind us, the resulting Polaroid skewing perspective, objectifying stone ring, boy sitting, the fallen rock: at odds with the matrix of remembered sensations, the obvious fact the boy looked into the camera as the father looked out. And pressed the shutter.
In the early 1970s, visitors could freely move around Stonehenge. No fences, no visitor centre, no interpretation boards. Simply the stones, the plain, the weather. And one’s senses and the physical interaction with the stones, the half-dome sky.
A much more recent memory: visiting Wayland’s Smithy. A still September morning. Overcast also but raining, a steady drizzle, neither winter-chilled nor late-summer warm. We get lost searching for the site. Joke we’re being led astray by the faery. The rain patters on a pulled-up hood. It drips from hedgerow and runs between clasped hands. Walking hand-in-hand until, through the trees, the old stones appear. Set within a ring of trees, the rain slackening and fading into silence. Stones arranged into an entrance portal, the mound long gone. Crawling into the tiny burial chamber behind the portal stones. Stone walls brushing against arms, head ducked. Smell of damp earth, rich and cool; smell of stones, enclosed space. Semidarkness, body blocking dim light. Crouched, turning little by little to face out, between the portal stones. Stillness. Drip of water. Stones hard against shoulder, close to crown of head. Hand reaching to rest against speckled rock, aware of hardness, cool, uneven. All these sensations more vivid, more evocative than the photographs taken
from this vantage, looking out of the chamber, as are the physical impressions of walking around the monument, seeing it from each angle, pausing between photographs, slowly returning to niche and portal stones.
Not that it has to be ancient monuments—a house in early evening, summer sun casting this side into shade, uneven paving stones underfoot, a voice, a face seen for the first time, air still and scented by the sea only a short walk away. A meeting that led to walking hand-in-hand in search of Wayland’s Smithy.
Hannah Arendt once said story reveals the meaning inside sensory impressions. Story comes in retrospect, drawn from memories that are themselves drawn from the interactions between the incarnate, feeling-experiencing body-mind and the world in which it finds itself.
The American poet, Jake Skeets, calls this the ‘memory field’, a matrix of place, sensory experience and memory, in which the elements making up the field interact in ways that make it hard to be certain exactly who is acting on whom. From Skeet’s perspective, time is fluid within the memory field. He speaks of that too-easy-to-ignore fact that the light we see from stars is old light, radiated years or millennia ago. Our present is the star’s past, our observation set some time in the star’s future. Place, time and memory interact with a similar disregard for the notions of linear time represented by calendars, timetables and smart technology’s pestering reminders it’s time to go to sleep.
As we’ve considered before: memory is a present thing, not the past tense of literary convention. Just as sensory experience is encountered in the moment, a continuous unfolding now, so our memories return to us in the same way: a small hand resting against a fallen stone at Stonehenge; the same hand, decades older, pressing against the stones of Wayland Smithy. These are together, in the same moment of recall and, in that recall, they are now.
Time becomes layered in memory. Skeets has spoken of visiting the Grand Canyon, of seeing the valley, aware of the place in the moment of sensory experience and, in that same moment, aware of the age of the site, of the millennia needed to carve the gorge out of the sandstone, the passage of weather patterns and days leading up to this now. Likewise, in remembering Stonehenge and Wayland Smithy, not only are decades conjoined into a moment of recall, so the awareness of how long that fallen sarsen must have lain there impresses itself as much as the awareness that once the chamber at Wayland Smithy was enclosed, buried.
Much as the star we see this evening is a star from the past experienced in this present.
Memory is not anchored by time but by place. The writer BS Johnson once stepped into the main hall at Nottingham railway station and was struck by a welter of memories about a very close friend who had lived in Nottingham. The station was a part of those memories (he had come to the city by train to visit his friend) as much as it was the trigger for the memories to return.
The landscapes we inhabit inhabits us, in memory, in story, in the very physical sensation of our experience of them. Landscape in this sense is far from passive — the field that Skeets refers to is both the zone of interaction and the physical field of the landscape itself. There’s no duality in this. Memory and experience don’t divide past from present, external landscape from internal sensation. The notional duality of person and/or place grows less clear the deeper we delve, as does the strict line between past and present: a child who visits Stonehenge always remains linked to that place, carries the sensation of the visit in an ever-afterwards… now.