What is Your Inner Landscape?

“An environment is also an inward reality.”
James Baldwin

One’s inner landscape is more than a locale provided by imagination. It is a medley of memory, a conjuring of images, a projection of hope, and a topography of self.

Our inner landscape is the habitation of the mind’s eye, the home for the spirit.

"Interior Landscape" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964.
“Interior Landscape” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1964. “I had the landscape in my arms when I painted it. I had the landscapes in my mind and shoulder and wrist.” Learn more. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

What is your inner landscape?

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought but actively produce it.

From Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways

Robert Macfarlane’s writing on the paths we forge and how landscapes can be maps of human invention and interest centers itself at the entwined relationship between movement and cognition:

In non-Western cultures, the ideas of footfall as knowledge and walking as a mode of thinking are widespread, often operating in particular as a metaphor for recollection – history as a region one walks back into. Keith Basso has written of how, for the Cibecue Apache, the past is figured as a path or trail (‘intin), trodden by ancestors but largely invisible to the living, which has to be re-approached indirectly via the prompts of certain memorial traces. These traces – which include place names, stories, songs and relics – are sometimes called by the Apache biké goz’áá – ‘footprints,’ ‘tracks.’ To the Thcho people of north-western Canada, walking and knowing are barely divisible activities: their term for ‘knowledge’ and their term for ‘footprint’ can be used interchangeably. A Tibetan Buddhist text from around 600 years ago uses the word shul to mean ‘a mark that remains after that which has made it has passed by’: footprints are shul, a path is shul, and such impressions draw one backwards into awareness of past events.

Macfarlane’s consoling thought is we do not merely venture into landscape, we carry it forth in our own minds.1

"Blue Form in a Scene" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1961. From the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“Blue Form in a Scene” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1961. Frankenthaler was a major painter in the abstract expression movement of the 20th century. Her paintings suggested abstract landscape and slight figures. Learn more. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

“My life was written on these tree-lined streets,” wrote novelist Graham Greene of his formation of self, echoing Maya Angelou, who believed we carry the gristle of home behind our ears (and thus in our minds).

What is your inner landscape?

Is there a horizon? People? Are there boundaries? Are you viewing from the edge?

David Attenborough remembered playing in fields near his home and was delighted by what he found under rocks. He credited these childlike activities in forming the early basis of his wildly successful and enthusiastic naturalist self.

Our early experiences with landscape form our sense of who we are as we go into the world, and we hold on to them our entire lives.

Helen Frankenthaler's "Mountains and Sea", 1952. Courtesy of the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.
“Mountains and Sea” by Helen Frankenthaler in 1952, a breakthrough of a new soak-stain technique in which Frankenthaler used an unprimed canvas and highly thinned paint to give the impression of watercolor. It enhances the conceptual aspect of the painted space. Learn more. The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

This vast, intimate space is necessary for retreat and renewal, so what happens when we lose our defining ability to conjure this inner landscape?

During his long career connecting neurological disorders and behavioral abnormalities, neurologist Oliver Sacks encountered a patient who had achromatopsia, a brain condition characterized by complete loss of color vision.

Sacks details how disorienting it was for his patient to lose his color vision:

His despair of conveying what his uselessness of the usual black-and-white analogies, finally drove him, some weeks later, to create an entire grey room, a grey universe, in his studio, in which tables, chairs, and an elaborate dinner ready for serving were all painted in a range of greys. The effect of this, in three dimensions and in a different tonal scale from the ‘black and white’ we are all accustomed to, was indeed macabre, and wholly unlike that of a black-and-white photograph. As Mr I. pointed out, we accept black-and-white photographs or films because they are representations of the world-images that we can look at, or away from, when we want. But black and white for him was a reality, all around him, 360 degrees, solid and three-dimensional, twenty-four hours a day. The only way he could express it, he felt, was to make a completely grey room for others to experience – but of course, he pointed out, the observer himself would have to be painted grey, so he would be part of the world, not just observing it. More than this: the observer would have to lose, as he himself had, the neural knowledge of colour. It was, he said, like living in a world ‘molded in lead.’

From Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars

Sacks’ patient couldn’t bear museums or seeing pictures of his family, as Sacks wrote “not just because they were bereft of colour, but because they looked intolerably wrong.”

"Untitled" by Helen Frankenthaler in 1958.
“Untitled” by Helen Frankenthaler in 1958. One of the many canvases Frankenthaler painted while on her honeymoon in France. Her paintings suggested abstract landscape and slight figures. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.
We are grounded in visual memory.

This man had lost his actual vision as well as his mental vision. That visual scape that exists when we close our eyes and settle our consciousness.

Over time and with therapy, he reclaimed color in his own terms.

Inspired by the sunrise, he started painting again – he started, indeed, with a black-and-white painting that he called Nuclear Sunrise, and then went on to the abstracts he favoured, but now painting in black and white only. The fear of blindness continued to haunt him but, creatively transmuted, shaped the first ‘real’ paintings he did after his colour experiments. Black-and-white paintings he now found he could do, and do very well. He found his only solace working in the studio, and he worked fifteen, even eighteen, hours a day. This meant for him a kind of artistic survival: ‘I felt if I couldn’t go on painting,’ he said later, ‘I wouldn’t want to go on at all.’

It is overwhelming to think we lose memory, hope, imagination and mental tranquility should something happen to our brains. But of course that is exactly how it works.

“The mind too can be imagined as a landscape,” writes memoirist, and narrator of the human social experience Rebecca Solnit in her guided walk into unknown physical and conceptual spaces.

My great-grandmother disappeared from her children’s lives. And the question is whether this woman chose to disappear or couldn’t find her way out of her own thoughts. Was she lost only to them because she had found another way, or was she lost to herself as well, bereft of the ability to navigate the world and her own mind. The mind too can be imagined as a landscape, but only the minds of sages might resemble the short-grass prairie in which I played with getting lost and vanishing. The rest of us have caverns, glaciers, torrential rivers, heavy fogs, chasms that open up underfoot, even marauding wildlife bearing family names. It’s a landscape in which getting lost is easy and some regions are terrifying to visit.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

As you wander in your landscape, do you feel lost, found, or somewhere in between? Solnit revisits the same shul as Macfarlane:

‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by – a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

From Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

The most meaningful wander is the anonymity and freedom of inner landscape, a self-authenticating journey. It is vital to our rest and restitution of spirit.

"Red Travels" Helen Frankenthaler, 1971.
“Red Travels” Helen Frankenthaler in 1971. Acrylic and marker on canvas. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.

In his most famous memoirs, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a patient suffering from inability to form any form of short-term memory.

He remembered nothing for more than a few seconds. He was continually disoriented. Abysses of amnesia continually opened beneath him, but he would bridge them nimbly, by fluent confabulations and fictions of all kinds. For him they were not fictions, but how he suddenly saw, or interpreted, the world. Its radical flux and incoherence could not be tolerated, acknowledged, for an instant – there was, instead, this strange delirious, quasi-coherence […] continually improvising a world around him.

From Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The only time this patient felt silent was in nature. I love this. I imagine the outward landscape was so profound it nurtured the inner one.

What is your inner landscape? Is it concrete or abstract? Natural or manmade?

"New Paths" by Helen Frankenthaler, 1973.
“New Paths” by Helen Frankenthaler, 1973. Frankenthaler’s work spans decades and her later work contains even more abstract scapes that are, to me at least, even more familiar as defined space. Learn more. Helen Frankenthaler Foundation, Inc.
Of course, our inner landscape is more than an imagined space, it’s a basis of thought. How we define concepts like home, safety, community, and comfort depends on how we visualize those concepts in our mind.

“An environment is also an inward reality,” wrote James Baldwin emphatically on the consciousness required to reduce the enormous disconnect between the races. “It’s one of the things which makes you, it takes from you and gives to you, facts which are suggested by the word itself […] the only way to change is to surrender.”

I hit the streets when I was seven. It was the middle of the Depression and I learned how to sing out of hard experience. To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy. Indeed, without confronting the history that has either given white people an identity or divested them of it, it is hardly possible for anyone who thinks of himself as white to know what a black person is talking about at all. Or to know what education is.

From James Baldwin’s essay “Dark Days”

We are a product by our literal space and thus informed and indeed biased by its boundaries in our mental spaces.

I hear Baldwin’s words (there is an exquisite preacher quality to his writing), and I keep thinking we’re all walking around with worlds of inner space, layers of location.

What if we engaged on that level? Not “Where are you from?” but “what is your inner landscape?” Its boundaries, its peeks and dells. Describe it to me and we can discuss how it is same and different to mine. How we are same and different.