The Role of Place in Childhood Memories

Recently I read What Your Childhood Memories Say about You . . . and What You Can Do about It by psychologist Kevin Leman. The book boils down memories to your birth order, and the propensity for your dreams to be focused around social situations or completing projects.  He discounted the role of environment in the book early on when discussing nature and nurture: “even if you were to grow up on a desert [sic] island without family, friends, or any other human contact, you would still develop interests based on who you inherently are.”  To him, nature is something you are born with, and nurture or environment is the people who influence you.  

I find great error in this thinking.  Where is the role of place? Wouldn’t growing up alone on an island play a role into how you view the world? If you were “rescued” and brought to civilization–wouldn’t you be influenced by the nature you grew up in? Wouldn’t you remember where you came from?

Dr. Leman does not bring physical environment into the equation in relation to memories that form your later beliefs and values in life.  Although I am in no way qualified to speak with the credibility of a psychologist, I am not deterred from my belief that physical environment may have a lot to do with which moments in life resonate in your memory.  My memory remembers places just as vividly as it remembers people. 

I remember the pine and apple trees I climbed in my family’s yard. I remember the empty horse stable, chicken coop, and cow pasture at Grandma and Grandpa’s on the Farm. I remember the Back Forty acres of Grandma and Grandpa’s with White Hair.  The tall corn stalks I ran through like a maze, losing all sense of direction because I was smaller than them. I remember the willow tree I used to sit under in their front yard, daydreaming and wondering why the willows were so sad that they must weep.  I remember the bushes in front of the red brick porch that I climbed over and under and through, scratching my hands and knees with every push forward but loving the bristly feeling against my skin and the fresh green smell with every inhalation.

I remember the caves along the bike trail where my brother and I were not supposed to go, but we went anyway, our hearts pumping because we knew we were going to get in trouble if mom knew, but that just made us all the more excited to explore. 

I remember the tall pine trees that shot out of the grassy hill behind Mr. Lyon’s house, down the block from my house. A tiny arched wooden bridge connected the backyard over a free-flowing creek that flowed through.  My best friend John and I were curious kids, and we trespassed in order to take a closer look. We played tag and hide and seek on Mr. Lyon’s yard until we passed the pine tree perimeter and encountered a spittin’ mad overalls-wearing man with a shotgun who yelled, “Get off my property! Take one more step and I’ll shoot! And then I’ll call the cops. Damn kids think you own everything.”

That was my first realization of land ownership, that all of nature and the world was not mine to walk on. Tremblingly scared and very disappointed, John and I ran and did not stop until we reached his yard, a yard that would collect fall leaves and provide raking and jumping enjoyment for hours, a yard that in the back opened up to a big forest gully and had a tire swing and rope swing over a big drop-off into the gully below.

To me, my memories of environment were filled with excitement, exploration, fear, and peace. I find that my memories of place in some ways come back stronger and more vivid than my memories of people and social experiences. Dr. Leman would say that this means I’m an introvert, especially since most of my memories of places include myself or only one or two others.  But I think it means something more, and I am sorely disappointed Dr. Leman did not discuss at greater length the role of environment and nature in our childhood memories.

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