Three Landscape Approximations

There are landscapes in America separated by hundreds of miles that resembled one another to a bewildering degree… and this is largely a matter of accepting our national landscape for what it is:  something very different from the European.

– JB Jackson [the beginning and the end of his essay “Agrophilia, or the love of horizontal spaces”]

[Newburgh, 1996; image source]

[Newburgh, 1996; image source]

One of the most basic and recurrent arguments against the formation of a project of the American Landscape is that there is no singular American Landscape.  And if there were, then to claim one in our period of post-modern anti-essentialism would mean certain death at the hands of critics.  This sentiment is correct, of course.  After all, what could landscapes in central Maine possibly have to do with the high plains of Bolivia, and what does Iquitos, Peru have to teach us about New York City?  Journalist Jake Silverstein captured this bewilderment when he described the Pan-American Highway as “a system so vast, so incomplete, and so incomprehensible it is not so much a road as it is the idea of Pan-Americanism itself, scrawled clumsily across the earth in black streaks of pavement and dashed yellow lines.”

I have attempted to show that in terms of political economy, geography, geology, technology, demographic patterns, and social history– what we might call the fundamentals of landscape- there is much more that binds the landscapes of the Americas than mere contiguity.  But to sustain inquiry, a framework- a set of related, working concepts- seems necessary to make headway through such strange, uncharted terrain.  I refer to these concepts as approximations.  The are intended to be instrumental, an active part of the construction of knowledge rather than pure, true axioms.  In the words of William James, “[they appear] less as a solution, then, than as a program for more work…”  In this endeavor I hope landscape architects might adopt the mentality of the labrador retriever- not concerned with being the most beautiful or intelligent dog, but second to none in terms of its work rate.

These three approximations are put forth as foundational to an American Landscapes project; a useful lens for hacking through jungles, summiting peaks, orienting oneself in the desert, or deciphering the metropolitan subway map.  The result is not an Idea of the Pan-American Landscape, but rather a Trans-American Method.



[The Bonnet Carre Spillway on the Mississippi River, north of New Orleans; image source]

The bigness approximation does not refer only to large things, be they mountains, rivers, or megacities.  Instead this refers to a certain range or bandwidth of experience.  That is, what matters about bigness is that there are small things packed inside of, adjacent to, combining to form the foundation for, or adhered to the surface of really large things- the range of possibilities is itself big.  And the focus on experience here means that these things are not limited to objects of physical matter like mountains and trees but include all manner of objects and landscape dynamics including river channels, geologic strata, the tastes of ethnic groups, and patterns of use and habitation.  Experience also implies a historical aspect- these things have been in the past, and as a result they are informing the present and shaping possible futures.  Bigness is therefore firmly rooted in realist philosophies, concerned with what is and what might be, rather than what should be.

Implications of this approximation include the simple realization that concepts and strategies developed in a place not defined by bigness are not enough.  Flood control technologies for the Dutch Delta cannot be transposed onto the Louisiana coastline, light-rail systems deployed in the southern France do not work in the State of California (at least not in the same way), and Los Angeles cannot possibly be Copenhagenized.  The bigness approximation may lead to better comparative analyses and rigorous speculation, and perhaps a decrease in the importation of fashionable tastes (which nonetheless will, and should, continue).  Important river landscapes might be studied- classified and modeled- with an interest in their land-making potential.  American landscape architects might work with geologists and engineers to develop strategies for scenarios at the edges of feasibility, when the limits of the bandwidth are approached- for instance during an Arizona wildfire, a flood in the Ohio River Valley, or a rolling blackout in the Brazilian power grid.



[1972 EPA; “A clear-cut and burned-over hillside one mile from the entrance to the Hoh rain forest.  Although aesthetically unpleasing, this is basically good forestry practice.  The slash is not too thick and will decompose fairly rapidly;” Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Not only has South America been continuously subjected to the most extreme forms of violent conquest and exploitation since Columbus chanced upon it, but our understandings of it have been shaped within a narrative of a universalizing knowledge tradition and an abstract space…

David Turnbull

This argument has been made through the work and lives of millions of Americans, both North and South.  The violence of the Encounter between Amerindian and European cultures has been much discussed from vantage points as distinct as environmental history and feminist philosophy.  Of course, there had been violence in all its forms long before the Encounter- wars over territory and resources, as well as social injustice, have long been endemic to the Americas.  But the scale of violence set off during the Encounter was rather unprecedented, and this tendency continues to manifest in different forms (consider for instance the rates of incarceration in North America, or the mushrooming populations in informal settlements in Latin America).

However, it is important to note that this is not a sociological concept, but a landscape approximation.  And it is the violence of the landscape itself that matters here, both that which has been visited on the landscape and executed by the landscape.  Violence here means the intentional use of force or power to bring about the destruction, deprivation, or maldevelopment of another object including people, forests, piping plovers, and veins of shale.  In this way, violence is related to the bigness approximation (the scale of things matters) but there is an additional instrumental element- an intention and its effects translated through some instrument, be it the freeze/thaw cycle of water, the payload of a mining excavator, or the enactment of a new law outlawing voting for an ethnic group.  When violence is considered as a landscape approximation, then technology and the agency of the landscape itself become fundamental characteristics to any serious inquiry into an American landscape.


[a picture of bicycle tourin g in 1980; image source]

[a picture of bicycle touring in 1980, the picture of mobility in the landscape; image source]

Mobility is a characteristic of American landscapes that once pointed out seems obvious.  Consider for instance the importance of the myth of the open road, or westward expansion in the United States or southern expansion in Argentina.  These seem so obvious that they almost fade into the background, hardly offering themselves as the subject of sustained intellectual and professional inquiry.  This is in part because one of the properties of landscapes is that their defining characteristics tend to become naturalized and so are taken for granted.  However, a recognition of the importance of mobility can occasionally be seen in the work of landscape historians and geographers such as JB Jackson’s “Agrophilia, or the Love of Horizontal Spaces,” Ethan Carr’s Mission 66, or Lars Lerup’s Everything Must Move.

The mobility approximation is a focus on the movement of things in time.  These things can be physical objects (people, pollen grains, paper money) or intangible things (political borders, capital, knowledge) but the mobility approximation does not refer to mere concepts or abstractions.  This distinction is important as it separates the mobility approximation from recent concepts with tremendous popularity in landscape design such as flux and flowThese are not real things; they are conceptualizations of real phenomena drawn from fields such as thermodynamics or ecology and used metaphorically as a heuristic or generative device in landscape design (often to good effect, and sometimes for good reason).  As noted recently by Douglas Spencer, they also tend to function “as the ideal paradigms of design through which territories [are] made accessible to neo-liberal imperatives.”

Sociologist Michael Emerson shows the relevance of the mobility approximation to a study of American landscapes in his discussion of population migrations in the Americas:

For 500 years, the Americas have been defined by their motion… Motion and movement across the globe is an increasingly defining characteristic of modern times.  But the level of motion and degree of shared collective memory and contemporary experience suggest that motion is a particularly useful concept for understanding the Americas… the Americas share a common heritage, are spatially separated from other continents by vast oceans… are not nationalistic in the way many nations are because they are internally diverse and pluralistic, relatively young, and have experienced dramatically fewer separatist movements…

This insight echoes the argument made by technology historian David Turnbull in his fantastic book Masons, Tricksters, and Cartographers.  There he illustrates how knowledge itself is local and mobile, as opposed to universal (as Western science-based knowledge is typically taken to be).  In the book he shows how indigenous knowledge in the Americas achieved a great deal of mobility through the creation of certain devices such as the Inca quipu system.

This alternative approach becomes even more intriguing when compared to the work of people such as Canadian philosopher Harold Innis.  His staples thesis showed that the history of Canadian political economy can be understood through a close examination of the extraction and transport of staple goods- furs, minerals, timber.  Or consider JB Jackson, whose work on the post-war landscape in the United States led him to conclude that “it is evident that increased mobility, and even more an increased experience of uninterrupted speed… brings with them a sharpened awareness of horizontal space…” which he recognized as an authentically different form of urbanism from those of Europe.

Recent discoveries of extensive causeways, platforms, and other types of geoglyphs being recognized in the Amazon basin, or the extensive canals and floodways constructed and managed in the American southwest by the Anasazi have caused all theories of human population and settlement in the Americas to be reconsidered in geography, anthropology, and archaeology.  In each case there is evidence of massive transportation and environmental infrastructure which required highly organized, complex societies.  Yet traces of large, stable population centers are lacking, and those that exist are much smaller than one would expect when interpreting the scale of things through typical European models.  These facts suggest highly mobile populations, perhaps in response to the dynamic desert and river environments they inhabited.  If true this realization could have a profound influence on future interpretations and speculations on forms of American urbanism, including sprawling metropolises and natural systems as landscape machines.

Much of this information is relatively new and comes from disparate fields such as archaeology, soil science, and forestry.  In addition, when considered through the prominent, received epistemologies of landscape architecture they seem to have little to do with one another.  Perhaps because of this it has yet to be incorporated into landscape and urban studies in the Americas.  However, the pattern and tendency that begins to emerge when considered together, anew, and on their own merits, suggests that there is a thread running through these historical landscapes.

The mobility approximation, if more fully developed, may be one lens that is useful for conceiving of and creating alternative future landscapes that are authentically American.  This does not imply that motion, movement, or mobility is a good thing.  In fact, often times is very bad, such as when kudzu proves its mobility through highway easement landscapes, or when the Inca rumbled along through South America, conquering a coastal empire spanning the continent in the span of a few generations.  But it is fundamental.

2 thoughts on “Three Landscape Approximations

  1. Pingback: Concluding with American Landscapes | landscape archipelago

  2. Pingback: Bigness, violence and mobility | Thoughts on Everything under the Sun or I am a guilty Secularist

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