What is the Cultural Landscape and what benefit do we gain from studying it?
Let’s start with a common definition of the term “Landscape” because it is a concept that can have a different meaning to each person. For the purpose of this website we will use Michael Conzen’s definition of the term “Landscape” in The Making of the American Landscape, where he states that “Landscape” is,
A generic term that can be understood to encompass all the visible world. A particular landscape is that characteristic portion of the world visible by an observer from a specific position. Implicit in these notions is the dual nature of landscape: as object and subject. (1)
One would think that in the rural areas, even within the United States, it would be easy to locate untouched, natural landscapes, but it isn’t. In reality, it is difficult to find a pristine, untouched landscape. The forests of the Rocky Mountains and the grasslands of the Great Plains all have experienced human alteration. Donald Meinig described the relationship between the natural physical landscape and the culturally altered landscape in his essay “The Beholding Eye” in the following way,
Nature is fundamental only in a simple literal sense: nature provides a stage. The earth is a platform, but all thereon is furnished with man’s effects so extensively that you cannot find a scrap of pristine nature. The soils, trees, and streams are not “nature” as distinct from man, they are profoundly human creations. (2)
The point to be made here is that all landscapes, past or present, are modified by us. Each cultural landscape required human effort and energy to alter the natural landscape so that it exists in its present form. Pierce F. Lewis, in his essay “Axioms for Reading The Landscape,” offered us the reason why we study the landscape when he stated,
Our human (cultural) landscape is our unwitting autobiography, reflecting our tastes, our values, our aspirations, and even our fears, in tangible, visible form. We rarely think of landscape that way, and so the cultural record we have ‘written’ in the landscape is liable to be more truthful than most autobiographies because we are less self-conscious about how we describe ourselves.(3)
This is the key to understanding why we study the Cultural Landscape. How we modify the Natural Landscape reveals our deepest innermost thoughts about us. From studying our Cultural Landscape we can better understand our values, what we believe is important, and our future direction.
We believe the best place to study our Cultural Landscape is along the routes we travel every day. Roads and highways are the conduits that link our country together. We are a nation married to our automobiles and the roads we travel on and roadsides we live within provide us a showcase of what is important to us as a nation. The focus of this website is to bring to light the roadside culture that permeates our nation and make sense out of it.
Rick Marshall, our founder, wrote his PhD Dissertation on the cultural landscapes John Steinbeck created for The Grapes of Wrath. You can get a copy of “The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck’s Cognitive Landscapes as Commentary on 1930s Industrialization” by clicking here. Link.
1. Michael P. Conzen, The Making of the American Landscape, (New York: Routledge, 1994), 1.
2. D.W. Meinig, “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays, ed. D.W. Meinig, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 36.
3. Pierce F. Lewis, “Axioms for Reading The Landscape,” The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes: Geographical Essays, ed. D.W. Meinig, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 12.