Saturday, December 06, 2003

Thought of the Day: Why does nature evoke childhood?
Why are pastoral paintings so evocative of childhood? Maybe it's just me, but when I see a portrayal of a field or countryside, or take a walk in the woods, it triggers flashbacks to some of my earliest memories. Which is odd, because I didn't grow up in the county, though it must have something to do with the fact that I now live in a big city. I think it also has to do with how the child's mind conceives places and scenes. Calling on some of my earliest accessible memories of storybooks, Sesame Street, and the paintings of fields and barns on my grandparents' walls, I recall just how vivid the scenic drawings were to me--they weren't just pictures, they were places that my mind brought to life. (In contrast, seeing the Marshall Field windows on State Street this year, with their serial renderings of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reminded me of how viscerally horrified I was when they sat my second grade class in front of the movie adaptation. I had nightmares about the boy who plunges down the chute and the girl who balloons and turns blue because they were so real to me.)

The child's mind is so vivid because it is not conditioned. Part of becoming an adult, I've been reflecting, is seeing what you expect to see when you look around. You lose at least half of your sense of wonder. When you drive around, you care less about the scenery and more about where you have to be and when. When you watch a movie now, it's harder to "suspend disbelief" because disbelief is now wired into you, especially in an age of cynicism about the entertainment industry. As a child, though, on a parent's lap, there were no boundaries, no cliches, no formulas or rehearsed meanings to the text and pictures before my face. What an evocative state to be in. At the same time, what a horrific one. Those Marshall Field windows evoked such dread in me, some 15 years after watching that movie as a child. And that was just a movie. I can only imagine what children who were abused go through. Lately I've found myself dissing the Freudian principle that, as one columnist once put it, our emotional selves are the "sum of our childhood traumas." But the warmth and wonder of these idyllic flashbacks, this instant transportation back to early youth (as Antoine Fisher experienced in the opening scene of that movie), has a gruesome parallel. Maybe that is why we shed some of our wonder as we get older.

Footnote: "For it is rather in nature that we see resemblance to art, than in art to nature; and we say a hundred times, "How like a picture!" for once that we say "How like the truth!" The forms in which we learn to think of landscape are forms that we have got from painted canvas." Robert Louis Stevenson, An Autumn Effect

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