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Reclaiming Ground

What follows is something I came across today while looking for something else entirely – a writing exercise for some class or another I was taking in the early 1980’s. It is an exercise about memory, I guess, or about how things impress us. There are no illustrations because the writing is meant to be the illustration. I was sort of blown away by how the evocative nature of memory and how it could put me so squarely back into places that don’t exists anywhere else anymore.

Describe a place from your childhood

So, I’m to strip away the film of experience from my eyes to reveal the glittering colors, the hard edges, the mawkish impressions of myself as a child.

Describe the water. Agate Passage, where you could stand on the bridge 100 feet above the water and see the ducks dive to the bottom of the channel to feed. The sky as blue as the dyed sugar crystals you are growing in a jar, the water as blue as star sapphires, sparking out stars as far as you can see. The narrow, fast passage of water between the island the peninsula filled with dangerous currents and the undertow. Someone died there who was the grown son of family friends. We did not know him, except as the void in their lives.

The hard, steep decent to the Arctic cooled water is tree clad and softened by green. Pine, fir, hemlock, cedar, and madrona with its bark like tissue paper forever shredding to reveal the mystic smoothness of the wood beneath – ever, ever green.

That memory? That place?

Or later, driving out of Green River, at the border between Utah and Colorado, a place that was desert in the day, endlessly the same and forever different. Night comes with an electrical storm, but no rain. Dancing lightning blues the hillside and skitters along the ridge. It is the thunder that makes us stop the car. The sound somehow compresses us to the earth and at the same time fills us with the ecstasy of a clipper’s sail catching the wind. Something ominous has been killed in the desert. A great victory.
But there are so many places, people and occasions that crowd in. How do I choose, and how do I describe them? Childhood was a gypsy camp, filled with exotic spices, textures and colors. Animals. A thousand animal stories. Funny, mostly, sometimes sad. But am I getting away from the point?

Describe a place

The tack room of the barn at the house in Scottsdale. The mingling of horse sweat and leather and horse feed called Omalene that was filled with molasses. I can almost smell it yet. I close my eyes and remember a smell so powerful that it had texture and it had color. Smooth, like worn wood, and rich with salt suspended in the air. Brown to grey, glossy as cooling chocolate.
I started this one once before. The house on Bainbridge Island, full of mystery and security like a good read at the fireside in winter. A house that harbored music and laughter within the lumber of its creation. Terraced lawns in the inevitable green of western Washington, the tangled gazebo in the lower garden, a secret place in the blackberries; hiding in the smell of damp and sweetness in lazy combination with the breeze and the bees. The summer songs.

Describe a time

Oddly, though, time and place are inseperable. Time gives place dimension, doesn’t it? We are looking at paperweight scenes – snow in some, rain maybe, and sand. Maybe because memory sharpens color, maybe age and experience are cataracts that lead to blindness and all that remains are the images of innocence, imprinted forever within, glittering and near, but beyond touching, beyond alteration, amplified and enlarged by the process of preservation.
Where do the people fit into these places, times, vignettes? Museums capture thousands of scenes, too many from before memory, but the people are flat somehow, never quite the color of flesh, never just the texture of life. Not the fault of art, but we cannot recreate what we never knew. Research cannot replace the experience – how did those people really hunt the mammoth? With exaltation or with reverence and what is the difference?

Describe a place

A place is a collection of sensations. How would you compare what you know of a place the to knowledge of a blind man? The saguaro is awesome in the power it draws from the earth, to stand so tall and heavy on the face of the land. It breaks and falls, dried bones on the stump of its own greatness, but how does it smell? The great desert cats preen and clean like that domestic kitty, but still when caged they smell rank and wild.

So, describe a memory

Fluid things, aren’t they? Sort of like riding a terraced water slide – short pauses that run into the next and the next steep descent. That long, long waterfall on the pass out of Enumclaw, somewhere above Sweetwater. The striations of the stone, glinting like wet oil paints in the sunlight, and the smell of hot pines, a rising of resins from the needled forest floor. Camp birds begging bread. The wind, laden with spray from the falls almost reaching you where you stand.

Describe a sound

Places all have an uniquely personal sound. From childhood, there was always music. Travel songs in the car, the musical productions of off Broadway traveling shows. That time the flute was played in the art museum, the musician happy with the sighing reverberations through the halls. Art touching art; as poignant as the lone set of bagpipes at Glasgow Castle at sunset. Or those marching bands that reached inside me to twist emotion and respiration until I could only cry. Music, yes. Sweeping, grand, and glorious even at basic and simple levels. A child struggling with a plastic Flute-o-phone in the forest may one day become James Galloway.


I remember the library in my junior high school. Dreadful woman behind the desk but I wanted the whole immense room to be somewhere in my life forever. So it is. In class, a discussion of Charles Schultz and the immortalization of Beethoven’s birthday and it is I who am sent to the library to find something extra to celebrate about this day. I was young – how do you spell Beethoven? I could not ask that woman, nor would I resort to the card catalog. I would as lief spend my time idling through the B’s. Why do books smell so good? The glue, the fabric, the paper, the ink? Or the handling, the reading, the turning of pages and the shedding of microscopic traces of real lives that will, when ripe enough, or heavy enough or dense enough, make a book a “classic?” Forget Beethoven. Will I be a librarian when I grow up? Judging from the woman at the desk, no, it seems too removed from life. But books? There will always be books.
No computers in the library then. Only the crazed, clicking microfilm viewer that in my mind plays forever an endless loop of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge bucking and dissolving in a wind storm. Clickety click, clickety click. “Get the dog!” I yell in my head. Now they expect me to believe that the replacement bridge is somehow safer, better or more durable. The wind blows all of the time in The Narrows. It is often a wicked blow.

Fear and wonder, comfort and pain, love and distrust all dance around me like a circle of children holding hands, spinning, spinning, spinning, sometimes stopping only long enough to pull me into the dance at some random location, holding hands and spinning too, but in the place they have chosen for me, awkward in my height, and so, so vulnerable in my inability to join fully in the dance, stooped as I am to hold tightly to hands so much lower to the ground, that while reaching up, do not make it easy on any of us to include me. The music of the dance is at times inaudible, and at times crashes around me like the timpani. I retreat to the relative safety of the center, unsure when or how to feel, reeling and a little dizzy. I feel as though this is the only way to get through the endless birthing process that is life.

Thanks for your indulgence 🙂



2 thoughts on “Reclaiming Ground

  1. Hi Barbara, Just getting started on Linkedin and saw your piece. A blogger myself, I stopped to read and enjoyed your work. We met at the Swam’s and Jim and I live in Great Oak ( not sure if you remember me). Would be nice to chat sometime. Barbara Harbeson

    Posted by Barbara | March 19, 2012, 10:35 am

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