What signifies the beauty of nature when men are base?
North Carolina Mountain Landscape, Wilhelm Karel Anthonius Frerichs, 1829
Nature and landscape are palimpsests of history and social violence more than they are alternatives to them. They show back to the observer the durability and definiteness of the world people have made so far, as well as its fragility. In my mind, at least, thinking in response to terrain, as Thoreau always tried to do—and sometimes found, in the grip of politics, that he could not—can also support a kind of political clarity, an alternative to the hopeless way in which the world runs away from us but still will not let us go. It can propose a vantage point.
I realized some time ago that this is what I was after in a recurring dream of landscapes. In these dreams, I start walking up a wooded slope, and—departing from the low terrain of the Carolina Piedmont where I live—the slope rises and rises, through the loblolly pine into steep pastures, which level out into high meadows, then rise again to crests of stone. Sometimes there’s no stone, and the meadows are the top, sloping along a broad ridgeline, or there may be just a couple hundred vertical feet of pasture, tufted with a mix of beech and red oak.
Only waking destroys my new geography. My sense that the dream showed something real is strong enough that I have looked up topographic maps, just to see whether the hills are there. Their place on the local terrain is definite enough that I squint at precisely the loose, fat topo curves of the gently varying Piedmont precisely where the black lines ought to draw together to mark the steep rise that I dreamed.
These dreams might seem to belong to the genre of the hidden room. In hidden-room dreams, a familiar house, maybe a childhood home or college dorm, opens up at the back, or through the attic to reveal new spaces: grand parlors, ballrooms, greenhouses, formal lawns, interior pools. The idea that strange worlds wait behind a quotidian portal strikes me as one of the basic intuitions of magical thinking. The portal is C. S. Lewis’s wardrobe, Madeleine L’Engle’s tesseract, the Tardis, and, of course, Platform Nine and Three-Quarters.