Monday, October 19, 2009

what fieldwork is doing

[an aim]

These essays aim at a landscape ethics – a version of environmental ethics that begins from how people imagine and live amid nature. For a working definition, you could say that a landscape is an inhabited terrain, and, like anything humans inhabit, an imagined one. The further hope is that this project might say something general about ethics, because landscape has been central to the big and recognized themes of American life, and in ways that are often neglected or simplified. (That’s the rough burden of the last two posts.)

Here are a few points about how I mean to do this, and what partial success might look like.

1/ The method is a certain kind of phenomenology: to try to identify, express, and to some extent trace (and here it shades into genealogy) certain feelings and experiences – resonances, if you like the word – that some Americans feel about themselves and their terrain. I suppose that these resonances often precede explicit ideas, and do a lot to shape which ideas people will embrace. Once these resonances are more explicit and articulate, it may become possible to assess them, recognize their contradictions or, more hopefully, the unrealized wishes they may point toward. (A caveat that I hope would be obvious: in this project, I don’t speak for anyone who doesn’t recognize their own experience in what I describe, nor am I trying to prescribe American experience; I’m just trying to set out strands of it.)

2/ Part of the argument is that there are more kinds of American landscapes than most people ever see, and that they mark fissures in ideas and blind places in awareness. Seeing some of the major public ideas, such as wilderness and settler pastoral, can highlight what a wilderness area is all about; but it can also throw into relief the meaning of feudal landscapes in the migrant-labor fields of agriculture across the South and West (let alone the plantation landcapes of the slaveholding South), and of the mostly invisible destruction of strip mining. A project like this should help some readers to put more clearly what they love, and it should also discomfort them, not by simple reproach, but by making it harder to ignore what is often invisible. The more those discomforting and ignored landscape practices are integrated into a larger picture, the better.

3/ I want to think about how law expresses ideas about nature’s value and creates landscapes in line with what it expresses – again, from the national cathedrals of the Parks to the hidden zones of destruction, implications of values and practices whose consequences are easier not to admit. Law crystallizes diffuse ideas and interests into formulas that make things happen. If you want to talk about ideas written onto a landscape, law is one of the shaping instruments. This means it’s key both to tracing the story and to thinking about what could change.

4/ The ideal is something like reclamation (doing for scattered and fractured ideas and practices of landscape what the westward movement of development claimed to be doing for the continent): saying something about which ideas of freedom and order, freedom and community, make sense and are worth pursuing, not just as abstractions, but as landscape practices, ways of living on and seeing our terrain.

I like to work with stones – mostly, as it has turned out, the irregular sandstone rocks that punctuate the steep slopes where I grew up. I don’t carve them, but stack them one on another, weighing and shifting them in my hands to find the spot where one will settle snugly into another, turning two rough lumps of sediment into a single line of force against the earth. Sometimes the result seems to soar toward flight; more often it is just a squat, capped megalith. Either way, there seems to be some inclination in the shape of the stones, so that they will consent to be joined in a form that surprises and, if you’re inclined that way, seems just a little revelatory. That is the real method of these essays.

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