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What we might mean when we say we remember

By Dylan Koenig, Phase I Fellow

Almost Heaven.

For days, it’s slowly been dawning on me that my time as a Phase 1 Fellow on the mountain are coming to a close. It feels unreal to be on the other side of this experience - after all the ups and downs, the application, the conversations, the Coronavirus, the delays, the sweet arrival at last, the learning, the growing, the eating.

The mountain was veiled in a heavy mist when I arrived here on Sunday, June 14th. I viscerally remember the feeling of driving up our windy dirt road that day, past the sign that reads “End of State Maintenance,” past the hand-painted markers, carefully following the driving directions (“stay on the road that looks like it’s used most often, go through the gate and close it behind you, and continue ahead 3/4 of a mile”). After the hours and days and months of anticipation, I was here. I slowly drove into the dreamlike haze, only able to see about a foot in front of my car, totally oblivious to the vast, vast valley pouring out over the cliffside on my left, the woodland to my right, and all that laid ahead of me in the coming miles and months.

Shapes and shades of the flock.

I think a lot about remembering. I think it may be related to my family’s history with Alzheimer’s disease and its profound ability to make us forget. When I was young, my grandpa Bert used to drive to my house every Sunday. He would corral my cousins and I, tell us to turn off the “idiot box” (TV), and take us to Wendy’s, or to Subway, or to the tennis courts, or to his house. This tradition was a staple in our lives for what feels like as long as I can recall. Besides the fine cuisine (he would order a baked potato) and the tennis lessons (“a sport you can play your whole life”), every week, he would share stories with us. Stories about growing up in Brooklyn in poverty, his father struggling to create a new life in America as a Jewish immigrant from Poland; about falling in love with dentistry (?); and many traumatic talks about “becoming men” that my all-male cousins and I will never forget.

Every Sunday, the stories kept coming, but over time they began to repeat, at first like déjà vu, and eventually like a broken record. What at first felt like reminders of life lessons, steadily became every weekend of the same stories. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but Bert’s Alzheimer’s disease was progressing. What I knew was this: it made you tell the same stories over and over, and maybe, call people too many times in a row. What I know now is this: it causes you to forget. Names, faces, where you’re going, what you’re doing. Loved ones become perfect strangers, or they become their siblings, or some blend of people you knew. Driving home becomes a visit to your neighbor’s house down the block. My grandpa was the smartest person I knew, and his memory - or whatever exists in between the pulsing synapses in our brains - was gone.

One thing I think about sometimes is how Bert shared these stories with us, week after week, despite not remembering so many other day-to-day occurrences. Brains are complicated, not like a USB stick filled with photomontages. How were these stories held within him, and drilled with love into ours? I’ve contemplated what my own fate with this burden might be, and these questions lead me to explore ways of remembering.

When I think about the time I’ve spent on this wonder-filled mountain farm, I want to hold it close to me forever. That said, I’ve always been more of the “can’t remember what they had for lunch yesterday” sort and so, I’ve found that there are certain triggers for me that make memories come back in a visceral way. A sound, a color, a taste, a song, and that one morning we spent washing lettuce in the thunder and lightning, comes rushing back as if I’d been transported through space and time. I've tried to capture some of these details in the past, and also during my time on the mountain so that I can always hold on to these moments and, maybe, share them with others in a way that might mysteriously connect with their own lived experiences. To that end, I gathered a small collection of some of the sounds of the farm, the coos of the hens, the moos of the cattle, the buzz of the Timberframe through audio recordings.

I’ve also collected the colors of the landscape visually, through pigment foraging and paint making. I love photographs, but I think their prompting can constrict how we remember. Our eyes are told what the colors looked like, or how everyone was standing just so, or how static everything was. With these more abstract pieces, I feel my memory is able to fill in the gaps in a different, more authentic way. And for me, it’s stories between those gaps, stories that are coaxed out by the suggestion of a shade from the labyrinthian place where they may always exist.

Scrape testing foraged rocks for pigment.
Processing rocks.
Paint making.

Watercolor paint made with foraged pigment.
Farewell for now, Bear Mountain.

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