Speaking of a part of the world as a landscape is to consider it in a specific way: as a terrain that is viewed, seen, organized by the eye, even - especially - if it is only the mind’s eye. A landscape is a place organized by the meanings it has for people. I am going to talk about some of the ways that our meanings form and organize landscapes.
First, as an origin. Famously, nature, nation, native, all have the same root - birth, the place where life arises and renews itself. [etymological image?] Nature, in this sense, means the world, viewed in light of its life-making powers, the origin of each of us and every other living thing, and, ultimately, of every thought we could have about it, or one another. And by the same token it is linked to nationalism, to nativism, and other doctrines that have been demanding our attention.
I want to start at this etymology - this common root of words that name the very idea of roots - because it is especially vexed, and vexing. Talking of origins is always partly fictional. In a sense, because we are born of nature, we come from the whole world. In a sense, because we are born, we are native to just one other person. Nation, with the same root, is famously an imagined community, a story about an Us and a Them, a kind of story that has done a lot of harm, and is not finished doing harm.
Saying these things about how origins are fictional and nations, like nature, are constructed, is easy in my generation of the academic humanities. You might even say it comes naturally, that it is second nature. But I think there is something else also worth naming, in the idea that a landscape of origin, of your birth, where you are native, is also your nature, who and how you are. There is an image that people come to again and again of being born from their terrain. A few examples:
E.P. Thompson’s great study, The Making of the English Working Class, is very nearly the antithesis of picturesque landscape writing. Nonetheless, the book has a steady rhythm of place-names and terrain that infuses an earth-born quality into the human action he details. One time he comes out and says it. Writing of Dan Taylor, “a Yorkshire collier who had worked in the pit from the age of five and who had been converted by the Methodists,” who “built his own meeting-house, digging the stone out of the moors above Hebden Bridge and carrying it on his own back” and went on to walk 25,000 miles to preach 20,000 sermons, Thompson concludes: “he came from neither the Particular nor the General Baptist Societies: spiritually, perhaps, he came from Bunyan’s inheritance, but literally he just came out of the ground.”
And here is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky agrarian writer, in an essay from the 1960s called “A Native Hill.” Berry writes of a place “where his face is mirrored in the ground,” imagines his own death and decay on his native hill, and concludes, “When I move to go, it is as though I rise up out of the world.”
I could multiply examples, but I think these will specify the thought, or feeling, that I am after here.
Second, as a record of wounds. A landscape is partly a place that is held in memory in a certain way. The Polish-Lithuanian poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, “It is possible that there is no memory but the memory of wounds.” And it is surely true that the way a landscape memorializes us, how it holds our memory, is largely in the harm we do in our use and habitation of it.
In the passage where Wendell Berry imagines rising from the land of his “native hill,” he also reflects that his walk is several feet below where he would have walked, if his ancestors had not cut the land in ways that cost it all its topsoil. The Appalachian hills where I grew up, which are steeper than his, are a beautiful place of wreckage: mature red oaks collapse with their roots out because the soil is so thin. Gullies slash the hillsides where people farmed sheep during World War One, answering a booming demand for wool to make uniforms. The streams are sluggish and muddy because all the topsoil has run through them.
What does this terrain show about us? Thoreau wrote about wild places that we go there “to see our serenity reflected in them; when we are not serene, we go not to them.” But what about when what they show back to us is a breaking of the land on a geological scale? What we find there is ecological derangement. What can we say that it reflects of us?
It’s partly because this question is unpleasant that a third way of viewing landscapes has been so appealing to many Americans. This is a painterly view of landscapes as instances of aesthetic ideals. Viewed in this light, we may catalog the qualities of landscapes in the way that Frederick Law Olmsted did those of Yosemite Valley, which, he wrote in the 1860s, combined the following: beauty, the look of a welcoming, regular, gentle world where you could feel at home; and sublimity, the wild, strange, even frightening extremity of a world that was not made for your comfort or safety at all, that was vastly bigger than your powers and maybe even bigger than your imagination. These aesthetic principles were also psychological, even spiritual principles: they tuned your mind a certain way, toward peace and calm or toward inspiration and wonder.
If this is a painterly ideal, what is the brush? Whatever made the world, of course, is one answer. But another, also true, is the law that picks out these places as special and preserves and manages them according to aesthetic principles. In national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, the law has picked out hundreds of millions of acres of land as the exemplary American nature, the places where what is best in the world reflects what is best in us, and the other way around. In what I suspect is the most widely read of all his amazing and invaluable work, Bill Cronon has now taught more than a generation of students and scholars that the ideal of the exemplary, nearly sacred place is connected with the willing sacrifice of the fallen place. In prizing what we prize, we also give ourselves a license to neglect or wreck what we do not. More than the atmosphere connects Yosemite with the coalfields.
Parks and wilderness areas suggest a connection between the most abstract and literary ideas about the nature of nature and why it matters to human beings, and the most material facts about the world - the landscapes that compose it. The link between the two, which completes the circuit, is often the law. The circuit that law completes is very clear when we are looking at legislation as a kind of landscape architecture - rather like the aristocratic gardens of England and France, except that - as Olmsted emphasized - here they should be thought of as parks for citizens, not for owners, and for that reason must be shaped by a sovereign’s power rather than an owner’s. But just as law can perform landscape architecture when it has a very clear, painterly template - in the same way it can shape other landscapes in line with other ways of seeing.
So, for instance, we might see a landscape in a fourth way, as a stockpile of resources to use for our utilitarian purposes. And this is the way of seeing that the US Forest Service was created to implement in the almost 200 million acres of national forests that it manages - an area almost the size of five Wisconsins. This idea was very important to utilitarian reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the national forests dedicate terrain to the idea. They make it real, as real as dirt.
Or you might see a landscape as ratifying a national mission and identity. The idea was widespread in the early republic that the world, by its nature, belonged to the people who could make it bloom - and blooming meant being economically productive, according to the paradigm of the agriculture and the commodity markets of northern Europe. People who settled, timbered, and planted land could become its owners; those who merely hunted and lives transient lives there were owners; they passed over it like deer, the lawyers of the time said, or like ships at sea. All of this doctrine had the convenient effect of showing that Native Americans had never become, legally or morally speaking, rooted in the place; only Europeans could do that. John Marshall, the second chief justice of the US Supreme Court, explained in one of the more candid treatments of this issue that although the European claim to North America offended one’s sense of natural justice, it had to prevail: the alternative was to leave the continent a forest, a wilderness.
This image of the continent and the national mission it called forth is, of course, intimately linked with the expropriation and genocide of Native Americans. And, contrary to certain historical images, very little about the clearing and settlement that it set in motion was spontaneous. Much of American law in the first century of independence was dedicated to converting frontier into private property. Federal statutes offered a series of bargains: you could become an owner, a proprietor, by settling a place, by cutting trees in forest land or planting them in grassland, by draining wetlands or irrigating drylands, by mining valuable minerals or, in some cases, gathering stone. The thing was to transform something, in a way that drew economic value from it and brought it into the legal terms of ownership. The landscapes we mostly know, the private land of the East and the Midwest, began in these ways. John Locke’s famous parable, that people made property by mixing their labor with nature, happened again and again under the aegis of American law - often via the labor of enslaved people; in North Carolina and other Southern jurisdictions, settlers could claim extra acres for each body the law said they owned.
A few points are emerging here. One is that different kinds of landscapes are produced by different kinds of legal landscape architecture. Laws creating and managing parks are only the most obvious example. In fact, for every part of every landscape - the soil, the trees and other plants, the animals, the water, the oil or gas or metals underground - the law has said, in some respects, what shall be done with it, and, in every case, who will make that decision. The sum of these two questions - what will be done and who decides - is our collective, often implicit landscape architecture, whether it is the cathedral of Yosemite or Glacier or the geology of wreckage in the Appalachian coalfields, which you can trace through property deeds, the legislative compromise that produced the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1978, and the interpretation of the Clean Water Act that allows the burial of all those streams. Not every way of seeing a landscape corresponds to a legal regime as neatly as the ones I have been discussing; but when a way of seeing shapes a terrain, when ideas and materiality rise to meet each other in a changing landscape, law is generally the circuit that links them.
A second point is that, although I have been naming a landscape to instance each way of seeing, every landscape in which people have taken an interest is also a landscape of conflict. They are cross-cut by competing visions and narratives. In Appalachia, for instance, my way of telling the story will run up against another in which the survival of coal mining against environmentalist intrusion is heroic. As recently as the 1970s, there was a third, advanced by the insurgent labor movement the Miners for Democracy, which held that miners should work in a way that preserved their own health and the health of the land, and should strike when they were asked to dig coal in ways that either threatened to give workers black lung or promised to destroy mountains and streams. Now that version of the coalfields is gone, along with most of the power of the United Mine Workers of America, and the meaning of this land is split between two poles. From one, the sacrifice of a region for a few decades of marginally cheaper energy is one of the great pieces of environmental injustice in our age. From the other, the victims of environmental injustice are the miners themselves, expelled from their work as farmers were expelled from the land that became Shenandoah National Park, a few hours to the east of the coalfields. I don’t share the second; I think it is ill-founded; but I do not find it mysterious.
In some landscapes, the lines of conflict fall precisely along the boundaries of overlapping and competing legal regimes. So on certain federal public lands, you find a palimpsest like this one. A federal agency, which holds the land in the name of all the people, both present and future generations, is directed by a statute to plan access and resource use on - let us say - millions of acres - from timbering and hunting and foraging to solitary camping and bird-watching. But that land is also pocked with private claims: rights to graze cattle under the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which carried forward and regularized the remnants of the old principle that public lands were open-access commonses for ranchers; mining claims that still arise today, sometimes with huge environmental and land-use effects, under the General Mining Law of 1872, which is the last of the great national-mission-of-privatization laws still in effect. The land may also be criss-crossed by public-access roads, which persist over and against federal planners’ preferences, created under Revised Statute 2477 of 1866, part of the general pro-development agenda that regulated American landscapes as potential private property rather than public land, and which federal courts have ruled are still governed by principles of private property. And those older, use-and-development regimes interact with ecological and environmentalist regimes from the 1960s and 1970s: designation of some of the land as critical habitat for a threatened or endangered species may take timbering or recreation off the table; the 1964 Wilderness Act may prohibit all roads, motorized travel, or economic activity on some acreage, dedicating it to what the Wilderness Act calls primitive solitude. Federal decisions to leave flowing water in streams to preserve endangered species may conflict with farmers’ legal right to use the same water for irrigation. And so forth. These disparate legal regimes, overlapping on a single piece of terrain and competing to shape it, are also practical expressions of competing landscapes, competing ways to see, value, and inhabit a place.
And the conflict is not just notional or metaphoric. These overlapping, competing landscapes have their constituencies, people invested in certain ways of relating to the natural world, in the ways they make a living, but also at the level of identity. Those militia types who occupied the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon last spring were carrying forward the view that the land really belongs to those who work it and make it productive. There beef was with each ensuing generation: federal land managers, Romantic aficianados of undisturbed beauty and, of course, ecologists who can explain how cattle grazing can harm the waterways where migratory birds rest. These landscapes are overburdened with conflicting uses, conflicting laws, conflicting meanings, and sometimes the lines of tension snap.
These landscapes of conflict, it seems to me, are very concrete expressions of something that is often said in grandly abstract terms: that the world has entered a new geological era, which some earth scientists and others call the Anthropocene, the epoch of humanity. I think the Anthropocene idea is best broken down into two ideas, which are distinct but entangled together. First is the Anthropocene condition: the intensity and pervasiveness of human influence on the world’s biological and chemical orders, which means that, from here forward, the world we inhabit will be the world we have made, shared with the other life we have valued enough to preserve it, on the landscapes our visions or, as with the coalfields every climate-changed place, our unspoken priorities even if not the ideas most of us would stand up to claim. Second is the Anthropocene insight, the recognition that all these competing ideals of nature and the human place in it are cultural creations, ways that we have learned to see and to be, and, usually, ways of arguing about our political, economic, and cultural lives as much as about the non-human world. Once we have peeled away the layers of human activity that shape these landscapes, and appreciated the many angles of vision from which they can make sense, there is no avoiding that they are Anthropocene landscapes. What else could they be, as long as we are in them?
And what, then, could be the value of imagining that you rise from a piece of land, continuous somehow with its spirit and meaning - the idea of a landscape as an origin, the place where I began this lecture? I would like to return to that idea now, but along a different path, by thinking of a landscape not as an origin but, in one sense, the opposite - as a sanctuary, a place of respite and reprieve: not the place where you come from, but the place you flee to. “Without wilderness,” said Senator Frank Church of Idaho, debating the Wilderness Act of 1964, “Without wilderness, this country would become a cage.” “We need a place,” Thoreau had written more than a century earlier, “where we feel our limits transgressed,” a place outside our villages and subdivisions. This was something that enslaved people understood when they escaped into the Great Dismal Swamp, at the border of North Carolina and Virginia, and established long-lasting settlements there with furtive ties to the solid ground where they would quickly be reclassified as property. It was apparent to the peoples of highland southeast Asia who resisted domination by lowland empires for many centuries - a story Jim Scott tells in The Art of Not Being Governed, a study in geographic imagination, that puts the upland margins of empire at the center of a counter-imperial picture of history.
I have my own way of thinking about this question, which, as it happens, I developed while thinking about a series of dreams that I began having a few years ago. In these dreams, I start walking up a wooded slope, and—departing from the low terrain of the Carolina Piedmont where I live—the slope rises and rises, through the loblolly pine into steep pastures, which level out into high meadows, then rise again to crests of stone. Sometimes there’s no stone, and the meadows are the top, sloping along a broad ridgeline, or there may be just a couple hundred vertical feet of pasture, tufted with a mix of beech and red oak.
Only waking destroys my new geography. My sense that the dream showed something real is strong enough that I have looked up topographic maps, just to see whether the hills are there.
I think that the wish these dreams express is for a way to get above a terrain without leaving it, to merge many small horizons into one image. These dreams sketch a geography of thinking, a way of seeing a place whole without being overcome by it.
Of course my dream landscape is not the only geography of thinking. It is the one that you might carry if you had grown up where I did, in a very specific Appalachian landscape. From anyplace that people lived, you could escape on foot to a higher spot: every settled place contained its own upward exits. It was, really, not one landscape, but two, a pattern of valleys (“hollows”) with its counterpart in a second pattern of ridges. The pair of terrains were joined by steep, mainly wooded hillsides. Knowing the valleys did not mean you knew the ridges. A slight misstep setting off from a high place could land you in the wrong hollow, with unexpected people, miles by road from where you meant to be. The two landscapes had complementary logics, and moving between them took caution and attention.
It is a landscape that would give its dissidents an upward path to escape on foot, at least for a while, and lend its critics a commanding view. It is not a safe or certain landscape, and moving across can always exact the price of confusion, the likelihood of still walking the wrong way at dusk.
Berry, too, wants the land to be with him for his dissent: from what he called, in the title of his most famous book, “the unsettling of America,” the separation of identity from place, pleasure from work, eating from knowledge. These claims of nativity are really bids for sanctuary, for a piece of ground where the larger logic of the world does not entirely rule, a seedbed for your dissent. What else are people getting at when they say, “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know that we were seeds”?
It was a “maimed and imperfect nature” that he was “conversant with,” Thoreau wrote in his Journal. For someone who went into the landscape to see himself reflected, that is a strong piece of self-knowledge. Walking to the ponds, as he put it, was never a return to something pristine. It was, like politics, a way of joining in with a record of damage, and of conceits and fantasies turned to material facts, which then have to be inhabited.
The violence of nationalism, and of nativism, is partly in their denial of this reality, their torrid fantasy of a terrain that is theirs and no one else’s, that is home to their meaning and no other. The violence is more concrete, of course, when it comes down to it, in detention centers and airports and the building of walls; but some of it belongs to this idea that any place in the world could belong to, and ratify, just one way of being in it. A landscape that sides with its dissenters, like a historical narrative or a constitutional culture that prizes its dissidents and outsiders, may be a resource for a certain kind of gentleness and self-restraint - at least for people like me whose minds are already and always bent toward terrain. In landscapes whose meaning is as crowded and conflictual as ours, there is room, at least, for strange kinds of dissent, unexpected kinds of consciousness.
When I finish a reflection like this one, I feel, like Berry or like E.P. Thompson’s collier, that I am recollecting myself, rising up from the ground and reborn into my usual consciousness. We might ask this question about any little ecological trip like this one, any sojourn: when we return, does it make the question of how to live among other people simpler or more complicated? If it makes it simpler, we should mistrust where we have been. If it makes the question more complicated, then we might, for the moment, be doing something right, no matter how difficult making sense of it may be.