Topophilia: Thirty-five acres in Connecticut

In the summer of 2003, I moved with my family to Massachusetts. After a New England childhood, I had lived in six far-flung states and in China. Making a home in a new place had always come with ease, yet settling in to the Boston area proved difficult. In an effort to feel grounded, I did what I have always done and turned toward the landscape.

I began exploring and photographing the environment close to my newest home, wandering the many reservations, nature preserves, refuges, farms and parks. The cultural landscape is deeply layered in eastern Massachusetts; the lives of others are everywhere apparent. The stone walls, place names, plaques and markers that describe the land of Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott, and Revere lead one not only through the physical landscape but through a landscape of myth and memory. In his book, Landscape and Memory, historian Simon Schama describes how landscape is created and transformed by the projections of our collective imagination. Landscape is not only place or nature, but “a text on which generations write their recurring obsessions.” It is “the carrier of memory.”

Moving back to New England was, of course, coming home. Embarking on this project lead me, inevitably, to revisit the landscape of my own memory and imagination. I began visiting and photographing the place that shaped my conception of nature and, quite probably, my self: the thirty-five acres in South Central Connecticut known as the Wepawaug Conservation Area and Kowal Nature Preserve.

In the 1960’s, my newly married parents left the city of New Haven for what Leo Marx termed the “Middle Landscape”, that Arcadian balance between wilderness and civilization that may be the embodiment of the American landscape ideal. They purchased a wooded lot at the end of a new suburban subdivision in the town of Orange. The lot bordered the Wepawaug Conservation Area. The Wepawaug River ran behind the homesite, and across the river lay a hayfield that would become the Kowal Nature Preserve. My parents built a three-bedroom house in anticipation of a future family. Eventually, my brother and I were adopted. Shortly after, they let us out the door and into the woods.

“And if a child’s vision of nature can already be loaded with complicating memories, myths, and meanings, how much more elaborately wrought is the frame through which our adult eyes survey the landscape. For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is a work of the mind. Its scenery built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.” [Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory]

The experience of walking again through these woods was unnervingly deep and familiar. In spite of the newfound smallness of the space and the layers of landscape experienced since leaving Connecticut, the wood was magical, the light, otherworldly. It smelled of home. I felt a rush of what geographer Yi Fu Tuan calls Topophilia, the love of place that elicits responses varying from “the fleeting pleasure one gets from a view to the equally fleeting but far more intense sense of beauty that is suddenly revealed. The response may be tactile, a delight in the feel of air, water, earth. …it is home, the locus of memories.”

The place had changed slightly since my childhood. The giant maple tree at the far edge of our yard, which marked the entrance to the preserve, lay as a pile of logs. The hayfields had been left to grow wild. Signs of children’s play—a lean-to, some small attempts at campfires—were hidden in the trees. Still, the preserve remained a place of rock, wood and water, its feeling, dark and close. I knew every hill and trail, every stream and bend of the river.

But as wondrous and whole as my response to these acres felt, the “frame through which [my] adult eyes survey the landscape” is indeed “more elaborately wrought”. My projections are now densely layered. They contain not only lifelong memories and desires but also deep anxiety about the current state of environmental degradation, massive species and habitat loss, and the looming effects of global warming. I can no longer experience this place, or any like it, without complication. Though more than 7o,ooo acres in Connecticut are protected by land trusts, with tens of thousands more managed by state and local agencies,

“bioreserves as currently designed will always be too small and isolated from each other to accomplish their stated goal of preserving the wild as it is today. Embedded in a matrix of human habitation- cities, towns, farms, mining and logging operations- they cannot be isolated from broader human disturbances in the region, even if their own boundaries remain inviolate.” [Steven Meyer, The End of the Wild]

Looked at objectively, this small patch of conserved earth might seem paltry, doomed. And indeed it may be. It is a site of dissonance, a measure of the disparity between what we need and what we are willing to believe is enough.

On my first trip to the conservation area, I stopped to visit my brother in Meriden, Connecticut. Though he lives near the area where we were raised, he has never gone back. I believed it did not hold the same mystic pull for him as it did for me. I shared my concern that Google’s satellite maps seemed to show that our childhood home was no longer at the end of the road and at the edge of the conservation area. The map showed the road, with more homes, continuing for almost a half mile past our old address. I assumed development pressures had privileged construction over conservation. My pierced and tattooed brother, five years out of jail, four years out of recovery, twenty-five years out of the woods, and so tough looking that when he once visited, my neighbors rushed over to check on my safety, looked stricken. The idea that this land might have been lost nearly brought tears to his eyes. When I emerged from the woods after my first day’s shooting, he had left three, increasingly panicked, messages on my cell phone. When I called to tell him that the maps were incorrect, that the reserve was, more or less, as we left it, I could hear the breath of relief. Just knowing it is there makes us who we are. Perhaps, we can find a way to keep enough water in the shrinking pool upon which we, as a culture, project our myths, memories, and love of place.

-Katherine McVety

© 2007 Katherine McVety