131: DW Meinig’s Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes

The Interpretation of Everyday Landscapes: Geographical Essays is a collection of landscape studies edited by DW Meinig.  It represents a conscious effort to complicate the cultural landscape and reclaim it from the abstractions of science, in a way that both respects the visual nature of landscape and takes advantage of its discursive possibilities.

In his Intro, Meinig defines an ordinary landscape as a continuous surface created by and through the “routine lives of ordinary people.”  But it’s also not that simple: landscape is a coherent unity of physical, biological, and cultural features; it has both functional and aesthetic components; it is more visual and panoramic than an environment, but less subjective and experiential than a place; and it is both a geographical formation and a representation, a history and a text, a symbol and an accretion of meanings.  Landscape is both space and meaning; it doesn’t exist without interpretation.

The essays in this collection generally support Meinig’s rather complex definition of landscape as a field of study.  A few highlights:

  • Peirce Lewis argues that “our human landscape is our unwitting biography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible form,” and that “like books, landscapes can be read, but unlike books they were not meant to be read,” so we have to teach ourselves to see.  
  • Meinig uses “ten versions of the same scene,” which progress from pure, “unconstructed” nature to pure aesthetics, to show how landscape is “composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads,” and that it therefore “deserves the broad attention that only ordinary language allows.”  He also, in another essay, discusses symbolic landscapes as an iconography of nationhood.
  • Marwyn Samuels discusses authorship of the landscape and the difficulty of finding the voices of the people who created the landscape when the masses leave no signature.  
  • Yi-Fu Tuan argues that a landscape is both subjective and objective, created when the mind’s eye combines imagination and selected sense data into a coherent whole; reading culture in the landscape therefore requires learning “how to see from the landscape to the values and pathos of a folk.”  
  • David Lowenthal contemplates how monumentalizing kills the past by marking a space off from the rest of everyday life, so that everyday landscapes evolve, but “what previous groups identify and sanctify as their pasts becomes historical evidence about themselves.”
  • JB Jackson says he is still confused about landscape; even though he sees the American landscape as “the last and most grandiose attempt to create an earthly order in harmony with a cosmic order,” he still “persist[s] in seeing it not as a scenic or ecological entity but as a political or cultural entity, changing in the course of history.”
While these essays do not complicate culture as much as we would expect in 2013, they do complicate landscape, showing it to be both temporal and spatial, objective and subjective, material and symbolic, and individual and collective.  That it is consistently a visual, discursive space speaks to their own debts to JB Jackson and his version of cultural landscape studies.
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