A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Mystical Topography: A Naples Of The Mind


I wonder if the remark by Goethe I quoted yesterday - that his father could never really be unhappy because his thoughts could always return to Naples - resonated with anyone as much as it did with me? For I'm continually recalling special places I've been to, numinous places I've stumbled across, significant intersections of latitude and longitude on this fair earth I've washed up against - and this brings me deep content. It's something I often do before falling asleep each night. Revisiting these sacred spots in the imagination is something I never tire of. And, apart from happiness, I think it's also a source of creativity.

A jewel-like lake high in the Ariège in the French Pyrenees, the top of Haystacks in the English Lake District, the golden crescent of sand at Sandwood Bay in north-west Scotland, a birch and chestnut forest in south-west France on the Voie d'Arles pilgrimage route, the tabletop plateau of the Spanish meseta on the Camino Francés, a view across Monsal Dale in Derbyshire's Peak District on a still summer's day, when I lay in the grass over a precipice, insects busy all around ... The list is endless, and the pleasure of recollection unbounded.

But perhaps the most deeply embedded, the most meaningful of all are those place-memories from childhood. Some of these are inerasably etched on my mind, for they are the places which first gave me that feeling of the thrill and shock of the natural world, and that half-mystical shudder you get when suddenly 'ambushed by beauty'. Among these epiphanies of place I remember the summit of Potter's Hill near Woolacombe in Devon, the semi-tropical Undercliff area near Lyme Regis in Dorset, and the tiny 'island' my sister and I named 'Crystal Island' (a simple patch of grass, a few trees and marsh surrounded by farmers' dykes) which lay a couple of miles from our family home in Lincolnshire ...

We all have a Naples of the mind, a place where we can never really be unhappy. The memories of such special places are ours forever, locked in the treasure-chest of our minds and imaginations, always there to give solace, sustenance and inspiration whenever we turn the key.

(The photo shows one of my special places: the High Ariège in the French Pyrenees.)

8 comments:

Lorenzo said...

Yes, you capture so well the treasures we all collect in our inner "mystical topography". Happily, you seem to consciously connect with them regularly and put the to very good use instead of keeping them hidden away in a dark forgotten attic.

Alistair said...

I couldn't agree more. I still remember the first time I saw wind sculpted snow on a mountain summit above Loch Lomond when I was 15. I can still see very vividly the sparkle and course texture of the ice crystals with a backdrop of a very blue Loch.
The stag that ran out in front of me on a cycle tour of the Trossachs when I was 14 is still frozen in memory, leaping out of the trees on a very still morning by the loch.
Thanks for an inspiring post.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Yes Robert, I would agree that we all have a 'Naples of the mind' - I think mine is a lane in the village of my childhood - a lane where my father and I walked every Summer, looking for wild flowers and birds' nests. It has long since gone to new housing and I suspect my memories of it all are 'embroidered by time.' But it is nice to have a Naples to refer to.

George said...

This is a welcome posting, Robert, one that could only be written by someone who has traveled often and well, across landscapes of the heart no less than those of the earth. Once again, I find myself in total agreement.

"Revisiting sacred spots in the imagination" is something that I also do on a regular basis, not only to find contentment, but also to remember the essence of who I am. When they write my obituary -- which I trust will not be soon -- I would be pleased if they omitted the dates, degrees, job titles, places of residence, and social affiliations. Let them state simply that I loved strangers and strange places, walks through deserted back streets, the music of foreign languages, the fragrance of newly discovered flowers, the taste of spices that were previously unknown to my palate, the sound of a train clicking and clacking across the countryside, taking me to something new and challenging. These were the times in which the boundaries began to fall for me, and they have continued to fall with each passing year. These were also the times in which I was most liberated from the shackles of my worldly life, and with that liberation came a "lightness of being," to use Milan Kundera's words, a sense that all is well at the core of this mysterious thing called life.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Lorenzo and Alistair. I really appreciated them.

Yes, Pat, it's nice to have a Naples - essential, probably. In Robert MacFarlane's book 'The Wild Places' he cites a couple of cases of prisoners who survived their captivity by constantly conjuring up specific mountains, or special wild places, in their minds.

George, that was such a lovely response I read it twice! Now, if you don't already know Hardy's poem 'Afterwards', I shall not rest until you read it, for it's so apposite here. (I've quoted it in full in my post 'The Dew-fall Hawk' of 6 March 2009.)

George said...

Thanks, Robert. I went to your "Dew-fall Hawk" posting of March 6, '09 and read Hardy's poem, "Afterwords." So great, so moving! It really captures what I was trying to say in my response. How dismal it must be to live a life of exploration and inquiry, only to be remembered for things that never really mattered. Personally, I would be content with Hardy's words as an epitaph: "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries."

Thanks for sharing this poem with me. It will travel well with me as the years go by.

fireweed meadow said...

How wonderful! And how wonderful that all those who have commented have understood completely what you mean. I have many of these places. They're mostly lakes or mountains, or lakes surrounded by mountains, and one from childhood which is less a place and more an experience, of swinging in the trees of a northern forest and looking up at golden aspen leaves shimmering against a glowing blue autumn sky and listening to the leaves fluttering in the wind, sounding like silky bracelets rattling against each other in a soft breeze, or a rushing river in the high wind. Such a perfect sensory memory. I must have spent hundreds of hours on that swing under those trees.

The Solitary Walker said...

I really enjoyed reading your comment, Fireweed. Thanks for sharing your special places with us in such an evocative way.