Unreal Nature

May 16, 2015


Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… it teaches no copybook moral, no ecological or social lesson.

This first is from the essay ‘The Stranger’s Path’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

As one who is by way of being a professional tourist with a certain painfully acquired knowledge of how to appraise strange cities, I often find myself brought up short by citizens remarking that I can’t really hope to know a town until I have seen the inside of one of its homes. I usually agree, expecting that there will then ensue an invitation to their house and a chance to admire one of these shrines of local culture, these epitomes of whatever it is the town or city has to offer. All that follows is an urgent suggestion that I investigate on my own the residential quarter before I presume to form a final opinion. “Ours is a city of homes,” they add. “The downtown section is like that anywhere else, but our Country Club Heights” — or Snob Hill or West End or European Section or Villa Quarter, depending on where I am — “is considered unique.”

I have accordingly set out to explore that part of the city, and many are the hours I have spent wandering through carefully labyrinthine suburbs, seeking to discover the essential city, as distinguished from that of the tourist or transient. In retrospect, these districts all seem indistinguishable: tree- and garden-lined avenues and lanes, curving about a landscape of hills with pretty views over other hills; the traffic becomes sparser, the houses retreat further behind tall trees and expensive flowers; every prospect is green, most prosperous and beautiful. The latest-model cars wait on the carefully raked driveway or at the immaculate curb, and there comes the sound of tennis being played. When evening falls, the softest, most domestic lights shine from upstairs windows; the only reminder of the nearby city is that dusty pink glow in the sky which in any case the trees all but conceal.

Yet why have I always been glad to leave? Was it a painful realization that I was excluded from these rows and rows of (presumably) happy and comfortable homes that has always ended by making me beat a retreat to the city proper? Or was it a conviction that I had actually seen this, experienced it, relished it after a fashion countless times and could no longer derive the slightest spark of inspiration from it? Ascribe it if you like to a kind of sour grapes, but in the course of years of travel I have come to believe that the home, the domestic establishment, far from being a unique symbol of the local way of life, is essentially the same wherever you go. The lovely higher-income residential zone of Spokane is, I suspect, hardly to be distinguished (except for a few interesting but not very significant architectural variations) from the corresponding zone of Oslo or Naples or Rio de Janeiro.

The next is from Jackson’s essay ‘Looking at New Mexico’:

… Which comes first: the blessing or the prayer? It is not easy in this landscape to separate the role of man from the role of nature. The plateau country has been lived in for centuries, but the human presence is disguised even from the camera’s eye. There are ruins like geological formations, disorders of tumbled stone. These are immense arrays of slowly crumbling rocks that look like ruins. The nomenclature we Americans have imposed on much of the landscape testifies to our uncertainty: the ruins have unpronounceable Navajo names; the natural formations are called Gothic Mesa or Monument Valley or Chimney Rock.

It is the sort of landscape which (before the creation of the bomb) we associated with the world after history had come to an end: sheep grazing among long-abandoned ruins, the lesson of Ozymandias driven home by orating events no one had ever heard of, symbols of the vanity of human endeavor waiting to be photographed. But is that really the message of the plateau country? There was a time, several generations ago, toward the end of the last century when photographers, masters of their art, had a clearer vision: they wanted to leave history, even human beings, out of their pictures. Perhaps there were technical reasons for wishing to exclude all movement, or perhaps it was a matter of belief, a way of responding to the concept of time in the Colorado Plateau. For what makes the landscape so impressive and so beautiful is that it teaches no copybook moral, no ecological or social lesson. It tells us that there is another way of measuring time, and that the present is, in fact, an enormous interval in which even the newest of man-made structures are contemporary with the primeval.

My previous post from Jackson’s book is here.




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