I think about landscapes… a lot.
I think about what we do on them, how we name them, the ways we reproduce them as images in song and canvas. I think about how we move between them. I think about the methods we use to divide them. I think about the layers of history that are identified with landscapes that create deep and emotional meaning. I think about how we separate ourselves on them – how we split as individuals and as groups. I think about what we do to manipulate landscapes to serve our cultural and political purposes. I think about what we do to keep people away from particular landscapes to “preserve” its integrity.
I think about the love, fear, anxiety, and spirituality connected with the landscapes we inhabit – and even the ones we do not.
As I write this I look out to a sea of green beyond my home office window, where I purposely placed my desk to seek academic and spiritual inspiration during my workdays. The window is open because over the years I have become dependent on the songs of the birds that make their homes in the trees along my road. The most distinct to my ear are the mourning doves, who coo so smoothly and deeply that it presses on my soul and generates instant comfort. I wish I knew more about the birds in this area. At times they can be so pervasive – their sound boosted by the enclosure of the trees – that it is legitimately loud. They certainly compete with the cars that speed down my road.
The perfect thing about a landscape is that we can engage with it on multiple levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is easy to fall into the delight of landscapes and nature, but to focus on “beauty” is the easiest route to take. There is nothing wrong with remembering charm of a landscape, but my professional intentions are to explore and understand the roles “landscape” and “nature” has in our lives. This requires me to look beyond the picturesque to its deeper portions.
Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing left outside us to see?
What, if not transformation,
is your deepest purpose? Earth, my love,
I want it too. Believe me,
no more of your springtimes are needed
to win me over—even one flower
is more than enough. Before I was named
I belonged to you. I see no other law
but yours, and know I can trust
the death you will bring.
See, I live. On what?
Childhood and future are equally present.
Sheer abundance of being
floods my heart.
(From the Ninth Duino Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke)
Several concepts must be presented before further consideration:
- That landscapes are culturally constructed spaces that we live and move upon.
Think about this for a moment. Bring a particular landscape into your mind (a farm, park, urban space, etc.) Would it have the same meaning if human culture did not give it a name? Probably not. National parks are what they are because we create a law. Urban landscapes exist because of engineering technology. Your home has a backyard because of its relation to the building. A battlefield is national sacred space because of the memories we place upon it.
- That the meaning of a landscape, including its purpose and use, is dependent on the worldview of the individual.
If a landscape is a culturally constructed space, no matter the efforts of the body politic or “national culture,” the infinite variety of perspectives that exist will result in an infinite variety of meanings on a landscape. The combination of memories alone creates diversity and no level of institutional education will create a true cohesive understanding. Historical facts may exist, but names and dates do not matter as much as the way those names and dates are translated in the mind.
A landscape exists in our awareness beyond the “thing” that it is. This concept is easy to grasp if we imagine a space that is constructed for a specific, obvious purpose such as a soccer or baseball field, the National Mall in Washington D.C., or a state park. We can agree that these spaces exist for recreation. But consider a more complicated natural landscape: a beach. To many, this space is a vacation destination and a place to kickback after months of hard work. To others it is a work place for fishermen, hospitality industry employees, and lifeguards. To some it is a space of hostility, a place for the homeless or an unpleasant location for those who experienced injury along an oceanic setting. Even the “easy” landscapes above become complicated when we consider individual experiences. A demarcation exists along lines of privilege.
Privilege is not a word we like to use in the United States. Politically, the word is often thrown around as an insult. Liberals like to rationalize actions of ignorance with the concept. Conservatives push back from it as a sign of accepting authenticity. “Privilege” seems to signify anti-American actions, regardless of political perspective. We think it is counterintuitive – in fact, it is counterintuitive to our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-Horatio-Alger-and-Henry-Ford narrative that we like to tell ourselves, but it is not in opposition to the real history of this country… for the most part.
But when we talk about landscapes we must speak about privilege. One’s privilege is also her perspective, and thus her translation of the world. Keeping in mind the principles noted above, one’s privilege would translate into a particular, specific, and individualized view of the world, resulting in a precise understanding of a landscape.
The key point I am making here is this: the way landscapes “work” is through the filter of our histories, identities, and beliefs. We act as if landscapes are “pure” and locked in a natural state, but in fact, they hold specific meaning for each person individually.
Deep meanings associated with landscapes move beyond the narrative of indigenous people finding spiritual connection to the earth, though this is often the first thing that comes to mind when white Americans consider this concept. Americans of European heritage will often think of themselves as being the standard-bearers of our culture. This kind of thinking is a slippery slope, rooted in privilege, toward labeling anything different as abnormal. Emerging from this mindset are all kinds of prejudices.
How does this relate to the idea of landscape? I want to end this post with a recent example (among many) of this kind of privilege. Twenty-fifteen is a year that has seen many types of activism surrounding urban violence. Fergusson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, saw unprecedented activities that altered how the urban landscape is understood. Additionally, commentary about the protests illuminated attitudes about the people and the place. A common sentiment was expressed on social media during the Baltimore riots:
“That is not my Baltimore.”
The complications and layers within this statement abound and soon on this blog there will be a deeper investigation into this idea. For now, I want to consider two perspectives: first, a Caucasian individual who was born and raised in the city, now living outside of the area, reacting to the protests with the comment above and a second, a person involved in the protests, living in the city. It is not my intention to legitimize either perspective, but to show the ways a worldview alters the meaning of a particular landscape. A suburbanite making a statement like the one above holds a particular interpretation of the urban landscape – what it looks like, who lives there, and what kind of “vibe” the city holds. On the other hand, a city dweller that participated in protests holds a different perspective. Both standpoints are deeply affected by elements of race and class. The first may understand the city as a place to visit a childhood home, attend a baseball game, or enjoy a weekend trip. The other views the landscape as a current home, but also the place where he cannot fully realize the potential of his worth, or worse. Political and social decisions are made based on these worldviews that affect the city of Baltimore. Additionally, the commentary spewed by folks who are not directly involved with the situation damages the growing misunderstandings between the two groups. The urban landscape, though, is the commonality and the image to place complicated attitudes and judgments.
I think of landscapes often. I think of how we live and move upon them.
 Thankfully, literary scholar Michael Moon shows us how the Ragged Dick stories somehow morphed into the hard work myth from a storyline of luck and patronage in “The Gentle Boy from Dangerous Classes:’ Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger,” in The New American Studies, edited by Philip Fisher (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991): 260-286.