My bookstore find this week: two small, square books of reprints of 19th and early 20th century postcards from Argentina, landscapes and gauchos, good tourist fodder. Some are black and white, others tinted in pastel shades that bathe the mountains in a perpetual sunrise or sunset. The backs of the cards aren't reproduced, but some have writing on the front--greetings from a loving aunt or a verse about the brevity of life. Waterfalls, glaciers that may have shrunk by now, feats of engineering. Gauchos with their horses and cattle, roasting meat, dancing, showing off their ponchos.
People still send postcards. Not as many, maybe, but the souvenir shops I've been in recently still stock a few. Still, now it's easy to send a digital photograph from phone to phone--which means no waiting, no trip to the foreign post office and no need to navigate confusing systems for queuing and buying stamps (but such pretty stamps, so often). No scrambling to write a card within the first day or so of a two-week trip so as to have some hope of it reaching its destination before the traveler gets home.
Not long ago, I received a copy of a Brazilian theater journal (a very up-to-date journal; it's available on-line, as well as in print: Repertório) in an envelope almost entirely covered with stamps commemorating various Brazilian species of bats. The stamps are beautiful, and they're shaped like bats; the assemblage is beautiful. When I first lived in Ecuador and we wanted to send letters home, the postmaster in our town would layer the stamps one on top of another, with just the value showing, so he could fit enough postage onto the face of the envelope. He didn't have the big denominations. People in town might send a note to a relative in the capital, but they weren't mailing multi-page missives back to middle school friends in the U.S., trying to maintain some sense of connection.
Did I mention that the town now has Wi-Fi in the plaza? No need for two dozen 5¢ stamps just to get a letter back home. But long-distance ties still need careful tending, whether by text or call or smoke signal.
Or by postcard. When he first immigrated to the U.S., my grandfather took postcard photos in the Midwest, selling them to drugstores. A landscape doesn't have to be far off or exotic to be commemorated or shared. A collection of postcards, years after they were made, long after they were written on and sent, is an invitation to think about the way landscapes are constructed in experience and in memory, and the way those landscapes support the ties we might try to forge or retain with those who aren't in the frame.