Oleksa Kovalyov (Nomad)
Article review «Dimensions of Landscape Storytelling» by Annie Palone
May 1, 2012
Environmental Readings: Theory
I was interested in Annie Palone's work, "Dimensions of Landscape Storytelling" in which the author addresses to a number of important landscape issues, some of which I have highlighted in my publications. So I decided to read this work and comment on some of the judgments of the lady Annie. I will touch only on general issues concerning the understanding of the landscape, its nature. The author's views on the influence of cultures, languages, and living conditions on the perception of the environment are considered important. But at the beginning of the text there is a statement with which I cannot agree. The first is the following: «Different societies understand and relate to landscapes differently …» (р. 1).
My position: Apparently, Lady Annie believes that the landscape really exists. But this is not the case. Landscape and relief are only integral images of the area - a certain area (place, terrain), the surface of which has a characteristic combination of elements of the day surface, which allows us to talk about a certain pattern. This explains the fact that, as the lady writes, «Different societies understand and relate to landscapes differently, whether speaking with different languages or simply different lexicons; our environments shape and are shaped by our understandings of them» (p.1). We do not walk on the landscape (or on the relief), we are not in the landscape - we are in a certain environment, shaping its image. The relationship between the material day surface and the landscape is as follows: the landscape is the face of the area (place, terrain) with its characteristic pattern (as in the case of the relationship between the material surface of the face and the face as its image). This pattern is formed by the action of many processes interconnected into a single landscape-forming process (mode). Therefore, the landscape is defined as the organization of the image of the day (visible, such that can be perceived in one way or another) surface: it is organized. On the other hand, the recipient (viewer) also organizes a variety of elements of the daily belief in an integrated image according to their experience, culture and individual peculiarities of perceptions. At the mental level, the landscape arises as a result of the organization of differences, which the subject perceives, in a compact image that has a certain meaning. The formation of landscapes in our minds is a way to simplify the observation, curb complexity, which helps to navigate the environment. In this way, people differentiate the environment, which helps, recognizing a certain type of area, to determine the mode of action in such an environment. Therefore, the formation of the landscape of a certain area requires certain diversity: surfaces that have a pattern like a chessboard cannot be a source of landscape.
The following question concerns the statement: «It also hints at the idea that places and whole landscapes, like texts, can be read (and perhaps written)» (p. 1).
My position: But this is not the case. The text is the day surface structure, it is what we can read if we understand the "letters" and "words", and the landscape is the general sense that is formed. The senses are not readable; they are organized in our consciousness from the data, signals that we receive during observation.
Annie Palone then refers to the views of several authors who spoke about landscape as a language. So, P. Bennett wrought: «Landscape is not ‘just like’ language, it is a language. And landscape architects use it” (Bennett 1999, 94)» (p. 2). And then: «There may be no more subjective experience than that of landscape. Like language, each person may read different types and levels of meaning into different landscapes» (p. 2).
My position: I cannot agree with this statement. Language is formed by signals coming from outside, which must be in some way ordered. This function is fixed by things that form the pattern of the day surface. Their order is ensured by a certain mode, which allows us to consider it as a language: this mode "writes" text. If the "letters" are the same (for example, one plant species), there is no text as such, respectively, such a surface cannot be a source of landscape. As an example, take the football field (Fig. 1), it does not allow forming a landscape (pattern) due to complete uniformity. The structure of the day surface is perceived as a text that contains a common meaning - the landscape. In a more general version, sounds can be added, which make such text more saturated. As for Bennett's second statement, I think the meanings are not read, they are formed by each subject on the basis of individual experience and relevant culture. The fact is that landscapes have an informational nature.
Fig. 1. a) Homogeneous grasses cover of football field, b) general view of the field, which does not allow which does not allow forming a suitable landscape due to the lack of drawing
Regarding the opinion that «each person may read different types and levels of meaning into different landscapes» I think that the term «landscape» should be replaced by the term «terrain».
The following quote from Annie belongs to Anne Whiston Spirn: «… all can learn to read landscape, to understand those readings, and to speak new wisdom into life in city, suburb, and countryside, to cultivate the power of landscape expression (Spirn 1998, 26)» (p. 2). This is a more complex option.
My position: Quite a difficult moment. Are we learning to "read the landscape"? First, as I have already mentioned, it is not the landscape that is read, but the structure of the environment, first of all, the day surface. If we are talking about the scientific aspect (geomorphological, geological, geobotanical, agricultural, urban, architectural, etc.), of course, we must learn. When it comes to artistic and aesthetic aspects, they affect the emotional sphere: a person can either perceive the aesthetics of the environment or not. And I completely agree with Annie about the importance of differences in living conditions and culture of people for their perception of the environment and the formation of landscapes as patterns. I clearly stated this in my monograph «Ландшафт сам по себе и для человека» (The landscape in itself and for a person), 2009.
Annie then notes: «Spirn proposes that landscape elements function grammatically like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, and in combinatory “sentences,” which express “pragmatics, poetics, and polemics.”» (p. 3).
My position: First, there are no elements of the landscape, because it is an indivisible image, there are elements of the environment, the day surface with its physiography. Second, can the structure of the terrain (area, place) be considered to be really a language? It all depends on how we define the language. Language - a form of organization of the sign system, the elements of which are combined with the conceptual content, which makes it a means of communication. Thus, language can be called anything that conveys a certain meaning to those who are able to accept that meaning. But such a language should not be given the attributes of human language.
Considering the work of Anne Whiston Spirn, Annie Palone writes: «Biologists, for instance, will read and understand the same landscape very differently than will ecologists, hydrologists, or geologists, even if these four groups share common languages, lexicons, and scientific backgrounds. Our cultural and educational experiences prepare and predispose us to read and understand words, texts, and stories differently. Imagine then, how varied the readings of a landscape might be when the viewers are from different countries, cultural backgrounds, educational experiences and religious denominations. … Her theory attempts to bring a common focus to varied landscapes. The possibility that she raises, that landscapes may be analyzed metaphorically by using poetic devices, strikes me as incredibly useful and practical, but perhaps it falls a bit short by not embracing the stories about landscapes, and the nuanced telling of these tales which are so much a part of cultural traditions around the globe» (p. 3).
My position: This is true, but I will note that I do not "understand the same landscape very differently", but the structure of the environment, first of all - the day (visible) surface. Landscape is an internal (mental) image, and no one will be able to detect existing differences in full. Moreover, we cannot even fully convey these images in words. But then we apply this image to the physical surface.
The next important point concerns the relationship between "place", "space" and "time". This is a rather complex question that Annie Palone considers in the traditional version of having something in space and time. She writes: «Geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote the seminal Space and Place in 1977, which has influenced the way that we understand place-making in time and space today» (p. 3).
My position: I think that a place is incorrect to consider in space and time, it should be considered in relation to other places (as we distinguish them), which is what makes it possible to form an idea of space and time (and these are images, illusions).
Dimension I: Landscapes in Literature
Annie Palone writes: «Without geographical context, or setting, literature would be rendered virtually meaningless» (p. 4). And then: «The landscapes in which literary events take place …» (p. 4).
My position: But geography is not a setting! This notion of
geography is extremely reduced and outdated. Geography has a definite
scientific domain - the organization of the geographical environment. It is a
complex formation in which abiotic, biotized and anthropized forms interact,
which leads to the emergence of integral formations, in accordance with which
we put the concepts of «geoholon» and «geoorg». As for literary
events, they do not take place in landscapes, but in places: the area is like a
scene with scenery - it is full of details. And the landscape, being an
integrated image, does not contain details.
Dimension II: Landscapes as Literature
Annie Palone writes: «In The Language of Landscape Anne Spirn divides her analysis of aspects of landscape language into three parts: “Nature’s Infinite Book” (language, reading, and literature), “Landscape Composition” (nouns and verbs, stories and context, landscape grammar), and “Using the Language of Landscape: Pragmatics, Poetics, and Polemics” (1998, vii-viii)» (p. 6).
My position: What I like most about the first parts is Nature's Infinite Book. Nature can really be seen as a book written in a special language (maybe even languages) that you should learn to read. But this requires the study of the languages of nature. The title of the second part of “Landscape Composition” begs the question: Isn't the landscape itself a composition? I think so. Moreover, this composition conveys the deep essence of the area, its significance among other areas. Composition (Latin compositio - assembly, binding, combination) - a whole that arises as a result of linking parts, content-formal integrity - the most complex and perfect type of structure. It reflects the nature of a single landscape-creating process, which, in turn, consists of many processes.
The term "timescape" used by Lawrence Buell is interesting. This is close to the idea of a landscape as palimpsest. The day surface is really a kind of "board" on which various processes leave their traces, which are erased over time, but something remains. This makes it possible to stretch the thread between the past and the present.
We cannot disagree with Anne regarding her assessment of the impact of our understanding of the natural environment on the further interaction of humanity with it. She writes: «Inserting storytelling back into the landscape may prove one way to affect the tectonic shift in worldview that this will require. Making landscapes’ meaning legible may be our most powerful tool in affecting change of this magnitude. What we understand or believe about our environment has very real impacts on our use of resources and our valuation of functional ecological systems and “ecosystem services.” We have allowed the dominant culture to overwhelm a perhaps innate human valuation of “nature,” in favor of greedy resource extraction and the primacy of the market economy» (p. 7). But the environmental aspect, which has been seen as dominant in recent decades, should be replaced by a broader geographical one.
On p. 9 Anne writes: «A walk through a very different cultural landscape …».
My position: But you can't walk through the landscape, because it's just an image of the terrain. We walk on the terrain, cross the terrain, but not the landscape. You can neither walk on the landscape nor cross it. As a terrain pattern, it simplifies terrain orientation.
ii. Landscape Metaphor
Metaphor - a term introduced by Aristotle: a word or expression used figuratively, which is based on the comparison of an object or phenomenon with any other on the basis of their common feature. At one time, I proposed to consider the landscape as a face (and this is a metaphor) of the terrain - part of the day surface with a different pattern from others. The selection of a good metaphor allows a deeper understanding of the phenomenon.
Next, Annie Palone discusses more specific issues that are quite interesting. I suggest landscape geographers to get acquainted with these ideas.
See Annie Palone's publications in her article.