I recently spent an evening at Lost Malaya, a gallery and lounge that owners Chris and Alisa want to make a social hub for creative locals to mingle, show and enjoy each others work. It’s housed in an elegant and beautifully restored colonial property thanks to their enthusiasm and tuned sensibilities for the aesthetics of this era.
Up in the lounge, large open windows on three sides invited the evening glow to spill in. Looking out from it’s slight hillside vantage, I experience much more than the languid sunset views over the narrow Johor Straits to Singapore. It’s a poignant glimpse back to the landscape of my childhood. A little way down this same waterfront street is the house where I spent my first dozen years, a little further down from that, the hospital where I was born.
In this landscape an eternity ago, I climbed Mango trees, made Lalang grass arrows and chewed regularly on Begonia flowers because I liked their sour flavor. I hunted for stray eggs in the Hibiscus hedge that the neighbour’s chickens would sometimes lay. Days would be spent collecting the bright red seeds of the Saga tree and the exploded pods of the kapok tree, to name a couple of things from the bounty of flora that provided the daily resources for play. The fauna of Cicadas, Emerald Beetles and Fighting Spiders provided even more.
Is the similarity of the salt water ponds landscape of Rhode Island to this one what drew me to spend time there? Even the Cape Cod wooden clapperboard houses stir memories of the tropical wooden colonial ones I grew up with. The landscape of ‘home’ fascinates me. I was stirred reading a post about personal landscapes to reflect on my adopted landscapes, both English and American. I remember acutely when people talk about this, like the Swedish house guest who also likened the watery Rhode Island landscape to his Nordic home or my Serbian friend who told me that on seeing the African Savannah landscape for the first time she felt without knowing why, that she was ‘home’.
The house we used to live in has mutated over the decades, the verandahs walled in, the property shrunk and denatured. The road itself is currently a massive construction site as they dig and build a six lane highway. The muddy beach in front of our house where I chased hermit crabs, and dug up green cockle clams, the sandier Lido Beach where we went to swim at the weekends, gone, buried under the harsh new landscape of ‘progress’.
As I write this, I’m googling and finding more formal ideas about Environmental psychology, scratching the surface of a subject of increasing interest with urbanization and climate change. I found this intriguing term - “solastalgia” a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’ in the NYTimes article Is there an Ecological Unconscious?
The view out of the Lost Malaya window has triggered a less formal but revelatory insight, one that spans decades and continents. I do in fact have a personal landscape, with discernible components - wooden structures, ribbon strips of land and water, an environment rich with natural and botanic interactivity. I have in fact been ‘homesick’ all these years but this malady has responded well to an intuitive treatment plan of sojourns to Rhode Island and Cape Cod and gardening time in Mamaroneck. It’s a sad irony that this home sickness seems to be strongest now that I actually am, home.