Elizabeth Dodd

In the Mind's Eye: Essays across the animate World

box2009 Association for the Study of Literature and Environment Creative Book Award Winner

2009 Ohioana Book Award Finalist

This collection of essays began as a year-long sabbatical project. I wanted to write about cultural responses to landscapes—a kind of survey of historical, aesthetic, literary, and personal renditions of what it feels like to be in a particular landscape. I wanted to step out and explore, and to see landscapes in all seasons, so the year was a wonderful adventure.

My brother spent several years working for an environmental organization in the Pacific Northwest, devoted to saving old-growth forest ecosystems, so I knew I wanted to think and write about that kind of forest, which I do in "The Kingdom" and "The Scribe in the Woods." Though I'd grown up in the woodlands of Southeast Ohio, I really didn't know old growth very well—I mean, trees that are older than the presence of European immigrants on the North American continent, seven or eight hundred years old, even older. My brother Hudson was a great guide, and took me backpacking into some of the landscapes he'd worked to save, as well as other wilderness areas. I knew that the great forests of Europe were pretty much gone by the time immigrants began colonizing the Americas; in the British Isles, for example, the deforestation had been going on for literally thousands of years. As I did some serious reading for this project, I realized that the great, intact tracts of land in the northwest were not the only places I'd need to visit. It was time to go home to Ohio and hike in a tiny section of old growth that was owned by the very university where I'd studied as an undergraduate—a forest now threatened by coal mining. Trees and forests have been such potent symbols for so many cultures, so I wanted to think about some of the writers, through time, who have used them suggestively, movingly. My research included thinking about some of these important texts, from poems in Old English to essays by European explorers in what they called then "the new world."

Literary responses to landscape—poems and essays—really was just the start. That's the language-based attempt at dialogue or conversation—a person turning to words-as-art to express the great complex of feeling that wells up when one loses one's self, or at least part of the self, in a powerful place. The sublime may leave you breathless for awhile, but for many people, the return to language comes rather quickly. I think often that it's a form of call and response—we feel called to, though nonverbally, by the richness and wonder of the physical world and we try to answer back. That's the basis of the lyric impulse, as I understand it. Answering back to whatever has called to us.

I also wanted to think about art that had become part of a landscape--ancient installations of paintings or pictographs that, centuries or millennia after their composition, remain potent and present in the place. The rock art of the desert southwest was an obvious choice, from southern California to Arizona; I was frequently alone with the carved or painted faces of stone left by the precolonial inhabitants of these places. Often I was off the grid, by myself, and that kind of experience made me feel much more present—an aesthetic participant in whatever the art still had to say.

The next obvious place to go was southern France, to see the famous Paleolithic cave paintings. Many of these are open to the public, but I wanted to visit Chauvet, the site of the oldest known cave art in the world. I'd read about these incredible paintings—lions, mammoths, horses, etc.—when the cave was first discovered in the 1990s. And I visited not only Chauvet, which still smelled like charcoal, more than thirty thousand years after the soot was used in drawing some of the figures in the deepest chambers, but a few others, too, that I would never have been able to visit as a typical tourist. In the company of scholars, I was breathing in those little atoms of carbon, released from trees cut in the Pleistocene.

Working on the essays of this book, one after another, was like the constant exhalation of all that I'd taken deep into the lungs. I hope, in describing these experiences and shaping these thoughts about them, I have been able to serve as a kind of traveling companion, bringing readers along with me.

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