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What is Landscape?

by John R. Stilgoe
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2015
280 pp., illus. 18 b/w illus. Trade, $19.95
ISBN: 9780262029896.

Reviewed by Giovanna Costantini

The opening lines of Stilgoe's latest excursus into landscape and the natural environment lure the reader as a Siren's song to the rim of the ocean where "landscape smells of the sea" and sweeping storms, rolling surf and riptides lash the beach in a "limicole zone contested by wilderness and human order." This highly original approach to visual and environmental studies relies heavily on comparative lexicology, linguistics, etymology and argot to alert "thoughtful travelers to occluded importances" that underlie the meaning(s) of landscape encountered experientially. It seeks the connective fabric and evolutionary contours of the term itself, blurring boundaries of deconstructive linguistics in favor of eco-semiotics and philosophical inquiry through which he attempts to re-weave the threads of ecological heritage into a more integral and historically integrated relationship between humankind and its physical surroundings. Suffused with echoes of the past and images of impermanence, flux and evolutionary change, Stilgoe's scrupulous examination of arcane lore and anecdotal circumstance recalls the multifarious spectacle and wild silvaticus of the untamed habitat as much as such epochal events as the Norman Conquest, the Black Death or St. Lucia's Flood-- "nuances vital to any determined inquiry into landscape."

Although he leaves the particulars of "essential landscape" undefined, he alludes to its qualities by contemplating the role of natural forces, the fall of light, the passage of clouds, the blowing and drifting sand as wind arises. While he regards art historical usage of the term landscape to be much narrower and different from the coinage of geographers, oceanographers, mariners and others whose knowledge of the land and sea derives from direct engagement with the elements, he relies in large part paradoxically on obtuse nomenclature to explain the old Frisian roots of landschop, for example, winding from shovels to manufacturer's skips, American piles and English tip carts to arrive at coastal shelves in extended anthropological ruminations. But can the unused lawn of residential communities remotely connote the medieval meadow of a manor's orchard? Though language may or may not preserve vestigial traces of ancient immigration patterns and the transmission of agriculture, can such semiotic noumena reliably support assertions of subliminal motives for artistic representations of "views across water toward land"? At the same time, Stilgoe's consciousness conveys with great sensitivity the acuity of pondered perception and reflection itself, seeming at times to resemble rather closely that of painters in the initial stages of conceptualization, as when he contemplates the effect of ledges submerged at low tide that break and explode into surf when deep waves hit them. Hard not to envision Winslow Homer's coast of Maine.

Among Stilgoe's more evocative citations are perceptions of landscape by early pilots such as Anne Morrow Lindbergh for whom the sides of houses in the morning sun appeared as facets of cut stones; or fascinating descriptions of nineteenth century hot-air balloon flights with their sublime, atmospheric vistas; or airborne photography from cameras strapped to kites and the bamboo frames of dirigibles. He finds celestial illumination to offer a nocturnal field guide, with reflections from window panes, cathedral glass, flickering candles and gas lamps that lodge in the memory as brilliant signposts. Photographers often miss the fall of light, he cautions, a "magic" that differs from place to place just as color does. Citing M. G. J. Minnaert's seminal Light and Color in the Outdoors, he reminds readers of the wealth of outdoor optical phenomena that "even many painters" fail to realize. It explains, for example how smoke seen against the luminous background of the sky does not appear to be blue, but yellow.

The broad interdisciplinary swathe of Stilgoe's musings on color perception, from Goethe in Italy (1786) to Donald D. Hoffman's Visual Intelligence: How We Create What We See (1998) through early travel diaries like Hannah Hinchman's A Trail through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place is indicative of vast erudition culled from a lifetime of sweeping scholarship. Sources range from Randle Corgrave's 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues and the canonic Oxford English Dictionary, to gazetteers, thesauri, ship logs, manuals and cartographies. He cites histories of aviation, folklore, pyrotechnics, navigation, herbalism, estuary science, common and medieval law, art, urban studies, war, railroads, photography, cosmography and the high technology of Silicon Valley. An exhaustive bibliography stretching over twenty pages includes such titles as: John Milton's Poetical Works; A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Reading the Outdoors at Night; Lumberjack Lingo; and Rats, Lice and History.

In its contemplation of relationships between ideas and physical formations, the design and fury of human and natural forces, duration and extinction, this book is as conceptually valuable to architects, urban planners, civil engineers and environmental designers as it is to humanists, naturalists and the public at large. "Every individual creates landscape," he maintains, "but not by shoveling earth, erecting buildings, felling forest.... Each inquirer creates a concatenation of space and structure peculiar to himself or herself simply by noticing." Within a fragile universe, Stilgoe emphasizes, the restorative power of an all-encompassing nature deserves to be continually recognized, protected and preserved.

Last Updated 2nd January 2016

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