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Some Thoughts on the Landscape in American Culture

Rarely do humans stop thinking about nature for large swaths of time. More specifically, we continually think about the landscape – what it looks like, what is on it, and our interaction with it. Sometimes we desperately pull ourselves toward the landscape, as if its power could make us whole. Other moments we push and push and push away, settling our gaze on human-made artifacts embedded with promises of physical and mental improvements. Maybe we can transcend our humanity for true perfection. Either way, we define our place in the world in relation to the land we walk upon. The push-pull underscores human history and its future. Who are we? Where do we live? What are our limits? How can we burst through those restrictions?

To say Americans have an affinity for the natural world may be an understatement. The first settlers and explorers arrived with the belief that the land was a wilderness. (Though, before we raise criticism and remind ourselves that there were thousands of humans living in the Western hemisphere, remember that wilderness is a construction of beliefs. Someone’s “wilderness” is someone else’s state park.) Early Europeans’ understanding of wilderness set the groundwork for exploration, pillaging, and spiritual awakening on a grand scale. Radical spirituality found a home and an identity in the dangerous land. Puritans escaping an unsympathetic Europe found their wilderness (think: the temptation of Jesus in the desert) in the New World and sensed the promise of its “birthright” as a City Upon a Hill.[1] Other early Americans sought a new life for various reasons and the wide expanse of the unknown offered incredible possibility. Of course, the New World wilderness was home to many before settlement began. For these indigenous men and women, the concept of uncultivated wilderness did not have the same connotations, but the land still contained powerful meaning. It was a part of them in the same way humans around the world throughout history found identity in the land.

Caledonia State Park, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

Caledonia State Park, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

The distance of the North American landscape to the Old World provoked tensions between the new developing cultures and the established European political leadership who sought control. After the establishment of the United States, that same imperialism transformed into a concept called Manifest Destiny. At its heart, it formed an identity with the American landscape and instigated a ravenousness hunger for more. When American explorers “discovered” the Sierra Nevada for the first time in the nineteenth century and laid their eyes upon giant sequoias, the Christian experience of land ownership was confirmed.[2] The trees date to the time Christ walked the earth, they concluded, and it was a sign of their birthright.

American attraction to the landscape should not be funneled into a one-dimensional interpretation. From the beginning of the nineteenth century onward, Americans venerated authors who found brilliance and creativity in the landscape. James Fennimore Cooper made real the historical union of American humanity and land through The Pioneers (1823), The Last of the Mohicans (1826), and The Deerslayer (1841). Spiritual life and its relationship to nature morphed from one that was based in fear, to that which worked in conjunction toward wholeness. Ralph Waldo Emerson, leader of the American transcendentalists, was overcome with simultaneous delight and fear, and had real spiritual awakenings in the midst of the natural world. His student, Henry David Thoreau, sought a deeper bond with nature, and through his life wrote as his experiences and understandings transformed.[3] Men like Thoreau and John Muir have entered our imagination as heroes who separated themselves from the shackles of technology to find renewal in the purity of the wilderness.

Wilson College, Fulton Farm, 2014 (credit: Sarah Wilson)

Wilson College, Fulton Farm, 2014 (credit: Sarah Wilson)

The twentieth century met new challenges as technology transitioned and separated humanity by degrees away from the natural world, in search of physical comfort and national prosperity. Still, at the turn of the century, large portions of the American landscape would be conserved through the national and state park programs. Two world wars and a depression brought changes disguised as improvements for farming, gardening, and even warfare. Rachel Carson would sound the alarm in 1962 with her pivotal work, Silent Spring, causing a turn again toward nature as something that requires protection against human endeavors. Our heroes of American nature were found again in Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard. Generations of the twenty-first century venerate the choices made by Jon Krakauer (and Christopher Johnson McCandless) and Cheryl Strayed.

Through music, television, film, fine art, video games, outdoor activities, and literature, Americans still find fascination with the landscape. Since there is a long tradition of a turn toward the land, if we locate the ways in which the land is described, used, and understood, we can illuminate changes in the American worldview. Imagine the idea of the landscape as a thread that weaves its way through the tapestry of American culture. Up and down and through varying hues and textures of time, the landscape idea, in some form, remains. No, it is not specific to American culture. One can look to Japan, Brazil, Germany, Canada, and all other nations and find the ways they relate to their landscape. Through the tapestry of American culture, the landscape idea becomes unique to Americans.

How, in the twenty-first century, do we deal with a more severe turn toward our screens, in the throes of a digital revolution? How do we understand the American landscape in relationship to a globalized world? No longer does anxiety stem from the closing of the frontier, as illustrated by Frederick Jackson Turner[4] almost 125 years ago. Now we may feel as if the technological creations of humanity are closing in, threatening to overtake us all.

Near Rehoboth Beach, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

Near Rehoboth Beach, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

At the same time, we try to turn our faces toward the fresh breezes and warm sun of the natural landscape. Americans are running, hiking, biking, and generally enjoying the outdoors in record numbers. Technology is answering the call for GPS assistance and activity-tracking while out in the field. Websites like Pinterest.com allow users to browse incredible vistas from around the globe on personal digital devices. Contemporary foodways seek new cuisine that is rooted in the land, is more natural, and borders on the exotic. Homesteading is rising in popularity and families in suburban homes are raising their own chickens. Popular companies sell outdoor gear as street fashion. Clearly, our relationship with the natural world is shifting – again. The question is: Why?

Hiking in Caledonia, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

Hiking in Caledonia, 2014 (Credit: Sarah Wilson)

[1] Perry Miller, Errand Into the Wilderness. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1956.

[2] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

[3] Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

[4] Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” A paper read at the meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago, 12 July 1893, during the World Columbian Exposition, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/gilded/empire/text1/turner.pdf.


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