Landscapes – Some Initial Thoughts on a Concept

I’ve come to Europe on sabbatical to study landscapes.  When you talk about landscape study in America, folks often think you are referring to shrubbery in a garden, but that is not at all what they have in mind with that term over here.  In 2000, members of the Council of Europe (a collection of European countries that includes EU and non-EU members) signed a treaty known as the European Landscape Convention that was intended to help guide them in the development of their individual policies and implementation of landscape planning.  The document defines landscape as, “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of actions and interaction of natural and/or human factors” (ELC, 2000 Article 1).  The document goes on to suggest that these landscapes include the ordinary, the extraordinary and the spoiled landscapes all around.  It further suggests that landscapes are places where people have an attachment because they are integral to the development of the person’s identity.  We are attached to place and those places help shape who we are through our interaction with them.  They are dynamic and ever changing, just as we are.  As such, it is an essential part of democracy that people be engaged in the planning and management of the landscapes they find themselves embedded in, because in a democracy, they must be engaged in the development of those things that are most fundamental to their own identity.

In short, landscapes are the “habitat” of not just flora and fauna, but people.  They are, in the words of Aldo Leopold, our biotic community and we are citizens of those communities every bit as much as we are citizens of our political-social communities.  It would be hard to think of a political community as “democratic” if the people weren’t engaged in the planning and management of that community.  The very word democratic comes from the Greek demos or people and kratia which means “to rule.”  Thus, the people, of a biotic community that shapes them and gives them identity, must participate in the planning and management of those communities as well, if they are to be democratic.  I will set aside, for now, whether this would also entail participation by other members of the biotic communities (landscapes) we find ourselves in, but it certainly invites further reflection at some point.

In the United States, particularly in the west, we make important and consequential demarcations between people and nature, between public and private lands, between ownership and stewardship.  The distinctions between people and nature allows us to believe that we are somehow different and apart from nature.  Our definition of Wilderness or Nature often bears some notion that we go out “into” nature, or that a land can be wilderness if and only if it has little or no signs of human engagement much less any permanent change as a result of human intentional action.  We so careful cultivate the myth that we are the sole authors of our own identity, that nothing can have a bearing on that identity unless we “allow” it to.  Certainly not anything that is “below” us in consciousness such as the “natural world” around us.  Many like to “connect” to natural landscapes, but still preserve the belief that this is a conscious, volitional choice.  They choose to allow “nature” or “wilderness” to be formative in their identity.  The reading of landscape as inherently involved in the production of our identities (whether we chose it or not) is revolutionary to this way of thinking.

We also make a distinction in the United States between public and private land.  We are the masters of our domain, if we “own” the land.  We insist that we can do “whatever we want” with our “own” land, even if it has a detrimental effect on the surrounding public land, or the feel of a broader landscape.  There is so much public land (over 70% of my home county) in the west that we feel entitled to claim sovereign domain on the lands that are not labeled as “public.”   We claim the right to rule over “our” space, and in the hierarchy of being, we feel entitled to rule over any flora or fauna that might fall under our sovereignty.  “Public lands” are an idea that came rather late in the human experience.  To be sure, there were lands set aside for the use of the monarch (crown lands), lands set aside for collective agriculture and grazing (commons) and lands set aside in limited quantities for community recreation and gathering (city parks); but large tracts of land set aside for generations to come, managed as a collective resource such as we have in the western half of the United States is an idea whose time came late.  Europeans were well settled in their lands, the lands had largely all been divided and allocated by the 19th century when the US established the first “national park” in the world.  They have not had the “luxury” of huge wide open and “unclaimed” spaces (note that the claiming of space itself is a colonial concept that marginalizes or silences the indigenous voice who inhabited the landscape long before it was “claimed”.), so they have had to develop cooperative concepts of landscape management.  They can’t “leave it to the experts” in a land management agency because landscapes move fluidly across and beyond the boundaries of public vs. private distinctions.  Fierce independence is a characteristic of the American west, fierce interdependence with others and with the land they dwell in is more characteristic of the modern European movement to manage landscapes.  These differences provide for a rich opportunity to reflect on the meaning of landscape, property, democracy and identity.  Such reflections will fuel the content of further essays in this area….Stay tuned.