Landscape, Memory, and Home

I have spent the last seventeen years—minus a brief stint in Minnesota—living in the East. Though my adult life has been spent among the rolling hills and forests and strip malls of the East, my heart is firmly entrenched in the open skies and yawning spaces of the Midwest. When I was a kid my family lived abroad, where my father’s work took us from post to post. But every summer and Christmas was spent with family in Central Illinois. By middle school, my family had moved to my parents’ hometown and Central Illinois became my permanent home. Then I left for college and said “Goodbye to all that.”

Illinois Road, Courtesy Daniel Schwen (Wikimedia Commons)
Illinois Road, Courtesy Daniel Schwen (Wikimedia Commons)

The flat openness of the prairie can seem ominous and ugly to people who aren’t used to it. When my husband, a Pennsylvania native, first visited Illinois with me, he was unnerved by the endless vistas and flat space. To me, it was a breath of fresh air—a relief from the cramped, busy world of New York that I called home at that time. The East has its own scenic delights. I love its proximity to the ocean and its deep forests and rocky hills. But I long for the big open skies of the Midwest, especially in the springtime. I miss the drama of spring thunderstorms with distant lightning cracking the sky, I miss seeing clouds rolling in from the west, I miss watching rain fall miles away, while the sun shines where I am. The environmental conditions seem somehow more acute and more honest there: the haze of summer humidity hanging over the earth in an endless oil slick; the bleak white and gray of winter spreading out across the bare earth. It got into my bones at an early age that this is the way the world should look, and I can’t seem to change my mind.

Although I’m mostly removed from my Midwestern roots these days, I sometimes encounter works of art that remind me of the Midwest, and I’m continually drawn to them. I love them for providing me with a slice of the Midwest, while I sit in a Philadelphia row house. One of my favorite recent discoveries is the work of Spanish-American artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. His massive fiberglass and titanium “cloud prototypes” are suffused with all the power of a Midwestern thunderstorm, and he brings them into the rather sanitized spaces of official buildings. He imposes them on us. There are also larger, metaphorical issues at work in his clouds. But to me, these clouds provide a way to reconnect with my geographical roots. They remind me that the unpredictable, uncontrollable forces of nature are still out there, even in the tamer world of the mid-Atlantic.

I also, of course, love the works of Jacob van Ruisdael, the Dutch Baroque painter celebrated for his landscapes. His depictions of the Dutch lowlands remind me of the kind of flat land with a massive expanse of sky hovering overhead that you might see on a drive through the Illinois countryside. His View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds (c. 1670) is a great example of this.

Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, 1670–75, The Frick Collection
Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, 1670–75, The Frick Collection

And then, there’s the work of the Hudson River School. Thomas Cole’s The Oxbow depicts a bend in the Connecticut River in Massachusetts, but the sky and storm clouds are pure Midwest to my eye.

Thomas Cole, View from Mont Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm--The Oxbow, 1836, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thomas Cole, View from Mont Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, After a Thunderstorm–The Oxbow, 1836, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Albert Bierstadt, also of the Hudson River School, is famous for his paintings of the West and whenever I see one of his paintings, I’m invariably reminded of the sense of promise and relief I feel when I find myself in the commodious spaces of the Midwest.

Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I don’t see the Netherlands or Massachusetts or The Rockies when I look at these landscapes; I see the room to breathe of my former home. That’s the beauty of art. It means different things to different people. It is highly personal, and in that way it can be yours alone. My experience of these various landscapes reminds me that if it’s true that “you can’t go home again,” it’s equally true that you can never really be free of your home. It follows you wherever you go, for better or for worse.

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