On the Importance of Landscape, and the Landscape of the Imagination

The other day my friend Sara and I were discussing camp. She went to a number of camps; I went to one camp for many, many years. Neither of us had a particularly good time.

During the first five years of my life, we went to Enosburg Falls, Vermont every summer to stay with my father’s parents. The summer of 1981, though, my grandfather died, and a month later, my father died, and after that we never went back. The summer of 1982, when I was six, I went to the hippie summer school (a bit different then from what it is now), which, despite the fairly free flowing nature of the Montessori school I’d gone to before that, was too free for me. It seemed like going to school with an amoeba, never knowing which way it was going to move next, or when it would gather you in and when it would spit you out. The next summer, I started going to camp in Maine, and for seven weeks every summer (with one exception, when I was seventeen), starting after first grade and ending right before college, I went to that camp, first as a camper and then, the last two years, as a counselor. And then, just as suddenly, I stopped going.

Today I was reading through Booklist at the library and came across a familiar name in the Cookery section: Phoebe Damrosch was a girl a year or two younger than me who went to the same camp.� We were in a play together, and when I was a junior counselor, she was in my cabin.

It was a bit jarring, because although I think about camp quite often, I almost never see or talk to or even much think of any of the people I knew there.

Wohelo was very big into having its campers make lifelong friends. I learned a lot of things there–swimming, sailing, windsurfing–they even tried to teach me tennis, though with miserable results–but I never made any real friends. I spent a lot of time there as the odd one out, and though that bothered me, it must never have bothered me very much, because I kept going back. When I remember things about camp, they rarely involve other people. I remember the day I passed my windsurfing solo. I remember sailing idly by myself, often drifting off whatever course I was supposed to be on: I loved to sail, but I was never very good at it, and I finally gave it up after capsizing an MIT Tech Dinghy for the umpteenth time. I remember swimming miles and miles–we swam, at the older girls’ part of the camp, between two docks far enough apart that it took three round trips to make a quarter of a mile. I remember walking back from the showers once or twice a week, feeling cleaner than I ever have before or since.� And I remember watching the sun set over the lake every night.� In my first cabin, when I was seven, I had to hold my head up to see out the window.� My last few summers there I climbed out onto the rocks and lay back, nothing but rock below me and water around me, and the reds and golds and pinks and purples of the sunset of the sunset spilling into the water.� At that point, it didn’t seem to matter very much to me that the girls in my cabin had asked me why I brushed my hair funny, or told me I had to say swear words or they’d push me out the fire escape door, or whispered among one another just loud enough for me to hear, or made fun of my underwear. All those things bothered me while they were happening, but when I was looking out at the lake, they didn’t seem to matter very much.
My mother went to this same camp for one summer, when she was fifteen, and for all the years that I went to camp, she came at the end of the summer and stayed for a week of family camp, where old campers and their families came back to see how very little had changed. When my mother was there, they still bathed in the lake, but other than the addition of showers, she could find nothing different.

A few years ago I had a dream about a garden that my family and friends had made for me. The garden was a circle cut into four quarters. Sara made one quarter into a prairie with tall grasses and wildflowers. Another friend made one quarter into a southern Utah red rock desert, with juniper and piñon pine. My grandmother made a third quarter into an English garden, with a crumbling stone wall with roses running over it. And the last quarter my mother made into a little piece of Maine, with granite boulders and white pine and hemlock and birch. It is, I think, the loveliest dream I have ever had, but it seems notable to me that none of the people who made the garden were in the dream. I knew they had made it and put it there for me, but the dream was just about the garden itself, and that was enough.

It took me a long time to realize that landscape was the most important thing in the world to me. The landscapes of the garden are only partly real — I have been to Maine and to southern Utah, and they look, in part, much as my dream garden did. The English garden comes from Beatrix Potter and The Secret Garden; I have never been to England myself. And though I grew up in Iowa, I grew up by corn and soybean fields, and in cities and towns. There are prairie restoration projects in Iowa, but there is no more original prairie: my image of that part of the garden comes entirely from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

It sounds ungrateful to say that the land is more important than the people, but for me it seems to be true. The people are important, of course. But when Carole King sings “I always wanted a real home with flowers on the windowsill/But if you want to live in New York City, honey you know I will,” I can’t really get behind her. I love and want people in my life, but I need land. I need the dear muddy earth, or the dear dry dust. I need space, and I need to be able to see the sun set. I learned that, or much of it, I am sure, at camp, but it took me a long time to understand it.