Axioms for Reading the Landscape

«Our human 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. Grady Clay has said it well: “There are no secrets in the landscape.” All our cultural warts and blemishes are there, and our glories too; but above all, our ordinary day-to-day qualities are exhibited for anybody who wants to find them and knows how to look for them.

To be sure, reading landscapes is not as easy as reading books, and for two reasons. First, ordinary landscape seems messy and disorganized, like a book with pages missing, torn, and smudged; a book whose copy has been edited and re-edited by people with illegible handwriting. Like books, landscapes can be read, but unlike books, they were not meant to be read.

In the second place, most [people] are unaccustomed to reading landscape. It has never occurred to them that it can be done, that there is reason to do so, much less that there is pleasure to be gained from it. […] So unless one is lucky enough to have studied with a plant ecologist like Dansereau, a geomorphologist like Mackin, a folklorist like Glassie, or simply a Renaissance man like Jackson, one is likely to need guidance. To “read landscape,” to make cultural sense of the ordinary things that constitute the workaday world of things we see, most of us need help.»

Peirce F. Lewis, ‘Axioms for Reading the Landscape. Some Guides to the American Scene’, in: D.W. Meinig (ed.), The Interpretation of Ordinary Landscapes. Geographical Essays, Oxford University Press, 1979