Research and Memory(1): a small project in recollection

Photo by Kate Williams

 I’ve fallen into the habit, when I travel and research, of taking photographs of the rooms I stay in. I like the stories they tell me—tales I will likely never get around to writing—and the objects in these rooms bring back time and place for me in a way nothing else can. Sometimes, too, I make little sketches in my journal: these also fix the moment in mind although this may have more to do with the attention it takes to draw them. I don’t believe I have ever tackled a room. Landscapes more often: the particular curve of a bay, or perhaps a field, buildings, a church. I think, in the case of the photos, that the objects in them act as reservoirs of thought, not unlike the much more disciplined practice of those Rhetoricians Francis Yates talks about in The Art of Memory who had only to contemplate objects previously stored in a constructed mental space to recall –well, almost any thing they wanted, including entire books.

Recently, I came across an image of my work space, taken in 1988 by the photographer, Kate Williams, for an article in Monday Magazine. Although the same floor space exists in my house today, it has been transformed into part of a larger room. For me, the photo is a time capsule, a section of personal history and I’ve decided to examine objects in that photographed room, from time to time and in whatever order they strike me, and see what I can find.

The View Out the Window

It makes sense to begin here, with the forest pressing close to the glass. The trees are Douglas Firs and cedars, and mixed in with them the alders that line the stream banks at the bottom of a steep drop about twenty feet beyond the window. In winter, after heavy rain, they become markers in the middle of a rapids-filled river. Since the photo was taken, several of the trees—some now over a hundred feet tall—were taken out after sections broke off during a storm. Most wind storms come from the south-east; but over the last few years we’ve noticed a change: a shift to warmer winds from the south-west, to which the trees aren’t habituated, and resulting greater tree-damage.

If the wind is from the north-east, it is cold; the cats come indoors and we have to watch that the pipes don’t freeze.

When this was my work-room, I’d watch the birds in the branches eating pine-nuts, and it was here that I noted the first of many annual visits from a nut-hatch.  ‘Noted’ doesn’t quite cover it as it hammered for hours at a knot-hole in the house siding. I could see it from upstairs when I leaned over the balcony. I don’t see how it could have been the same bird, but ‘someone’ returned every year to embark on the same useless project. I used to worry that the time it wasted could have been better used to build a nest.

I still look out at the forest when I work, but from the other end of the house and at a desk with a three-ways view: south and north to the trees, and west to a fern-strewn hillside. A small current bush grows tightly against my window and for some reason, it attracts small birds. In summer, especially, feeling watched, I’ll turn and find one examining me at eye-level.