Memory Landscapes – Places and the Language of Thought


Article for Crumble Magazine, Edinburgh, Issue 6, ‘State of Play’. March 2021

It is perhaps a feature of being confined so much in lockdown that the slightest sensations at the moment seem capable of transporting my thoughts to distant relatively banal memories. 

My mind has been wandering to many different places in thought whilst working or walking. These short momentary transportations or sensations, atmospheres, can’t be described quite as the thing that I’m thinking about but rather as forming the very language of my thought. The juxtaposing of sensations, a memory or a few words becomes a medium of thinking.

Although a fair amount has been written on how our very use of words is spatial, our mind is embodied and entangled with surroundings, we often tend to imagine that we can only ‘think’ in verbalised language strung into sentences. Yet in much the same way as learning words and their meaning can reveal new ideas, the breadth, depth and variety of physical sensations: smells, sounds, dampness of air, sun, colour, enclosure etc. etc. seem to be capable of exciting new connections in one’s mind. They act as living metaphors.

This emphasis has an importance for what one values in the education of children. In the same way that formal education considers the importance of children learning a wide vocabulary of words for developing intelligence, it could place a similar importance on this breadth of spatial and sensory experiences in expanding our reference points of thought.

To ground this in some real examples, I find myself drawing on instances as various as: the low winter sunlight coming through lichen-covered birch trees in the Highlands, leaping from one huge round boulder to another in a river in Brittany, the sensation of walking through mud fine as cow pat squidging between toes, or the dry sensation of attempting to taste (clean) toilet roll (something I must have done very young).

These various examples seem to point to the privilege of being able to travel to different places as a means of ‘widening horizons’, an old refrain, yet something that in the light of the climate emergency I think I have become wary of. But I don’t think that is the full story, poets have often been able to capture a whole plethora of sensations in a tiny place; simply by paying attention, we can discover a world in a single tree, or a patch of moss growing between paving stones.

The principle point seems to be that you need to be awake to your surroundings enough to gather those sensations in their variety to form the vocabulary, the memory landscape. Whilst a poet or a baby can find inspiration and a world in a single leaf, most of us, past a certain age, require something more to jolt us into noticing. The principle method for this is going on holiday: in a different place, we are more often in a state of surprise and wonderment, this keeps us off-guard, on-edge and extra attentive to whatever might come our way. In this state we absorb much more and consequently open ourselves to inspiration and the expansion of our memory landscape. Perhaps the travelling bug of always looking for new places to go can be traced to this. Though it is not exclusively or even primarily the fact that we are in a new place that does this, but rather the openness of senses that we have that causes us to see better.

So we could train ourselves to look with fresher eyes more often, but even that does not go the full way for there are certainly homes, neighbourhoods, streets that are more or less stimulating regardless of our state of openness. The mass-produced, repetitive city, stripped of the playful, the superfluous, the unprofitable, can leave something to be desired any day of the week.

Traditionally, settlements were always built at edge conditions: where the land meets the sea, or better, where river meets land meets sea, or better still where forest meets field, meets river meets land meets the sea. These edge conditions are the most life sustaining because they are the most biodiverse; within a five mile radius, they could encompass a huge variety of raw materials, plants and animal life, useful to people in one form or another. But edges are also sustaining for human life in another way, they simply have more ‘places’, parts that are distinctive, and so can help to form an expanded memory landscape. Variety is mentally simulating in itself but also leaves us more frequently surprised, open-eyed and attentive – taking us back to those fresh eyes.

In contemporary ecology, this variety manifests as the drive for biodiversity. It is the number one measure of achievement and there is a sense that therein lies some key to mending our relationship with the Earth. Tapping back into this offers us a clue to designing spatially diverse cities and neighbourhoods. If you’re designing to increase biodiversity, you quickly discover that a wide variety of spaces or habitats are needed to support these. And these all look different: they have different soil types and depths, rocky, sandy, they may be underwater, flowing or still, ponds or streams, lakes, forests, clearings, crags, caves… the list goes on. As we begin to think about biodiversity, we quickly find ourselves with spatial diversity also. Biodiversity could be the driving force behind the design of our cities and neighbourhoods, both for our ecology but also for us, for our memory landscapes, our vocabulary of thought. 

Some parallels and sources:

George Monbiot – Feral

Robert Macfarlane – The Old Ways

Rosie Milne – Species of Nooks and Other Niches – Thesis

Neil Gunn – Highland River

Jonathan Hale – Merleu Ponty for Architects

Mark Johnson – The Body in the Mind

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