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.
Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History is a reflection on 8 years of work at her Boston nonprofit The Power of Place, which she started in 1984 to “to situate women’s history and ethnic history in downtown, in public places, through experimental, collaborative projects by historians, designers, and artists.” Written for academics, fellow practitioners, and the general public, The Power of Place shows how collaboratively-produced public art can bring together urban space and urban history in new, generative ways, while also identifying and preserving significant public places from changes in the configurations of capital. With the increasing interconnectedness of cities and the rise of placelessness, Hayden argues, an urban landscape history that accesses and generates “place memory” is the surest route to recovering both a sense of place and the historical agency/ capacity for social change that comes with it.
Preserving and marking a city’s cultural sites, in ways that incorporate members of the community into the design process and that give both insiders and outsiders access to the multiple meanings and histories of those sites, uses the power of place to recover both historical memory and historical energy. In other words, place can make struggles from the past feel real and accessible to people today – if it’s done right. For Hayden, doing it right includes involving multiple community stakeholders; incorporating vernacular, rather than heroic, structures wherever possible, so that the social and political significance of a building trumps its aesthetic appeal; inscribing the experiences of immigrants, women, and people on the landscape; and developing a network of preserved places to “reconnect social memory on an urban scale.” Throughout, she discusses various examples of this kind of preservation work: tenement buildings in New York that people can visit to get a sense of turn-of-the-century working class life; Cincinnati’s flying pigs; Kevin Lynch’s cognitive maps; the invisible angelinos in LA; Remembering Little Tokyo, an African American Homestead, and workers’ landscapes in LA; and the casitas in New York, which she reads as critiques of tenement space.
Throughout, Hayden looks for creative ways that ordinary people can connect history with cultural landscapes, so that place and memory can help generate progressive social change. While I suspect increased urban mobility might make it hard to find the long-term community participation many of her Boston projects needed, and I’m not sure how much a particular place is going to spur someone to political action, her emphasis on making memory more multiple and more visible on the landscape could go a long way toward opening up history to more diverse, and more embodied, perspectives.