Unreal Nature

July 4, 2015

The Smell of Wet Bathing Suits

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 6:11 am

… This kind of landscape perception is something no instructor can teach.

This is from the essay ‘By Way of Conclusion: How to Study the Landscape’ found in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America by John Brinckerhoff Jackson; edited by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (1997):

For a number of years I taught an undergraduate course at Harvard and at Berkeley that was called “The History of the American Cultural Landscape.” It dealt with such commonplace things as fences and roads and barns, the design of factories and office buildings, the layout of towns and farms and graveyards and parks and houses , and toward the end of the course I talked about the superhighway and the strip and certain new kinds of sports which I referred to as psychedelic. Throughout the course I showed a good many slides, and each student had to write a term paper on some aspect of the contemporary American landscape.

… Like every other instructor, I have read many hundreds of term papers. In my case, they discussed some aspect of the contemporary landscape — usually the landscape of the small town or the farm countryside. Those which I found most enjoyable and most perceptive dealt with such topics as the front porch or the local Civil War monument, or with barns and roads. I enjoyed them not only for their content — they often revealed obscure historical information — but because they seemed to be based on childhood memories and family traditions. It was from such papers that I learned about the complicated make-up of towns which to the outsider seemed entirely homogeneous: the nicknames for certain sections, certain streets and alleys, the location of all-but-invisible ethnic communities.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] The papers told of family customs, high school rituals, church festivities; they revealed half-forgotten farming practices and beliefs, and the existence of small gardens, where plants unheard of in the region were grown, year after year. All this made for pleasant reading. But there were also papers — not many of them — that recorded everyday sensory experiences of the landscape: the sound of snow shovels after a blizzard, the smell of wet bathing suits, the sensation of walking barefoot on the hot pavement. A woman student from North Dakota wrote of her family driving each fall to the nearest town to see the autumn foliage in the streets and yards; out where she lived there were no trees. This kind of landscape perception is something no instructor can teach. We can only be grateful when it comes our way, and encourage students to record such fleeting memories as these, and share them. They often make a whole landscape, a whole season, vivid and unforgettable.

-Julie

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