The Landscapes of our Souls

Hello dear readers, new and old. Wow: so many more of you now. Getting Freshly Pressed (thanks, WordPress editors!) really throws a writer for a loop, audience-wise. What lovely, thoughtful responses you’ve left, occasionally asking for more stories about Afghanistan. As I was discussing with Read Stuff with Me ( my depictions are admittedly very romanticized, rosy portraits from memory, as subjective as they come, bearing little to no resemblance with the Afghanistan you’d find today. (See Xenogirl for more up-to-date reflections: .)

The theme of my tale of Afghanistan–the great theme, if I might call it that, of this entire blog–is longing. In my scholarly life I’m researching longing for liberty in Greece. (Pop quiz: Let’s see a show of hands: how many knew that the nation of modern Greece is younger than the United States?) Greeks may have won their war of independence in 1830 but they’re still longing for political and economic liberty. Yet to travelers Greece has long been seen as a place to go to find freedom. So I’m also exploring that longing for liberty (personal, political, spiritual) that drives people to travel there.

Do you travel because you long for liberty?

Why do some places seem to promise it more than others?

There’s clearly a political answer to that second question, but I’m curious about the geographical or topographical answer. The answer, that is, of landscape.

I love a wild landscape. This is Band-e amir, Afghanistan. The fadedness of the 1975 photo, though, is preventing you from seeing the brilliant depth of color of both lake and mountain–those stark juxtapositions of color that appeal to my imagination. (Go Google the images!)

How many of you are drawn to wild landscapes? Do they make you feel free? Scotland and Greece capture my freedom-loving spirit more than England and Italy (two other beloved and somewhat related places) for the raw wildness of the landscapes, I think, in contrast to the domesticated, agricultured, groomed. Similarly, among my many childhood homes (I had a peripatetic upbringing), Boone, North Carolina is remembered as most freeing because of imprinted images of breathtaking mountain passes, while Omaha, Nebraska conjures the homey security of well-groomed old homes and elm trees.  Cue Burke: let’s launch into a debate of the sublime over the beautiful. Why is Alaska the most stunning of the states? Why, more scope for sublimity.

What are the landscapes you long for, and why? Are they different from the landscapes you grew up in?

There it is again, my ideal landscape: craggy mountain (here, technically, cliff) cheek by jowl with sea. Sounio, Greece.
Ah, the stormy sea at Sounio.

7 thoughts on “The Landscapes of our Souls

  1. As someone who swam in that lake in Band-e amir, I can attest to the utter piercing blue color of the lake isn’t depicted in the photo (and the fact that it was cold and had an incredible drop off not too far from the shore).

    But isn’t that what is crucial about the difference between the photographic “reality” and the “reality” of our recollection. I can tell you that my recollection is probably misinformed by remnants of other places (Athens, Ohio, etc.) in my past that I’m inscribing upon that memory of the lake in Afghanistan. Until it becomes a fictionalized version of what it was/is.

    I’ve always been mixed about picture taking when traveling. There are times in which I have no photos from a trip and others where there are hundreds of different angles of the same mountain (the beauty of digital photography and storage); does anyone remember looking at the number wheel and saying “I only have three left”.

    The landscapes that I am drawn to involve rock formations with either little or medium vegetation – not the lush hillsides full of trees – and perhaps a crashing ocean: Hawaii, Sedona, northern California, etc. I’ve never been to New Mexico or Patagonia but I dream about them.

    Travel is normally seen as an escape, but this business of longing makes us see it as an examination of self. Which makes it much more meaningful and not just a “trip”.

    1. I think travel is always an examination of self–or it should be, anyway; it’s odd to think of people who travel to places without any kind of self-reflection, although of course some places (and traveling partners, and occasions) inspire it more than others.

      You’re right that our recollections are bound up with (and “misinformed” by) remnants of other places and events. Mom expressed surprise that I was absorbing so much and being transformed while we were in Afghanistan and wondered why she didn’t know it. Well, at the time I was probably complaining that we didn’t have tv! But as I’ve gotten older and become interested in all sorts of things that make me think back to our time there, I see the effect and feel shaped by it, even as I know that I’ve shaped it, created a fiction (my life story, as the narrative psychologists put it) with the summer of 1975 as a momentous event.

      I wish now that I had really swum in Band-e amir. Just dipped my feet in and ran out squealing, as I recall.

  2. Azar Nafisi wrote in Reading Lolita in Tehran that when we leave a place, we also leave behind the person were when we lived there, and I think perhaps that’s the kind of longing you are talking about when you write about Afghanistan. It is a place you cannot return to and along with it, perhaps you are also unable to return to the person you felt you were when you lived there.

  3. I somewhat agree with ashanam. I personally feel that every friend you have and every place where you’ve lived affects your life in a way, sometimes positive, sometimes not. When you lose a friend or leave a place,you leave behind a part of who you are with them. Afghanistan affected you beautifully but you couldn’t help leaving a part of you there and you yearn for that part…for a slightly different ‘you’ !

    1. What beautiful responses, ashanam and Read Stuff With Me! Afghanistan is certainly not a place I can return to (figuratively and also quite literally). I wonder, though, if I feel so much that I left part of myself behind. Instead, it seems that I discovered some part of myself there, or even picked up a new aspect of self there and took it back to the U.S., and that I wouldn’t be the complete person I am today without that “Afghanistan” part of me–if that make sense. The yearning I feel is a form of gratitude, while it’s also an impossible desire to return to those moments and relive them.

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