Landscape and Culture

by Ray Grigg

“To walk through a landscape is to walk through a culture,” writes David Hinton in his book, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, “for it is culture that determines both what we are and what a landscape is for us.”

Hinton’s invitation is the opening to an awareness that allows us to understand the relationship between ourselves and our surroundings with a new and fresh perspective. So walk through your neighbourhood, the nearby countryside, your town or your city. What is its character? Is it welcoming, threatening, green, paved, quiet or noisy? Does it invite a peaceful and satisfying interaction between people? Does it allow for the co-existence of humans and nature?

These are important questions because the landscapes we walk, with the rare exception of wilderness, are landscapes we have wholly created, significantly changed or partially influenced. They define “what we are”. They are are the mirror of ourselves.

The second part of Hinton’s statement about landscape and culture asks “what a landscape is for us.” This is the reciprocal of the first question. We change landscapes but landscapes also change us, shaping us into the character of themselves.

We should know what this means. Cities comprised of freeways and concrete, of skyscrapers and suburbias, isolate and alienate people, not only from each other but from nature. Such cities begin to justify themselves for their own existence, like a living organism that thinks it is independent from the environment that sustains it. This illusion eventually becomes the illusion of those who live in these cities.

Smaller cities are better proportioned to people. Their landscapes are more welcoming and friendly, safe and convenient. They provide the necessary amenities without being so overpowering. Nature is usually nearby, even intermixed with streets and neighbourhoods, offering a feeling of tranquility, balance and security.

Rural and country living are other landscapes that shape us differently. These landscapes draw us closer to nature. The absence of urban crowds stresses the importance of people and draws them closer together. Alienation is less common. The seasons are more lived than observed. The constant interface of human and nature establishes a communication and intimacy, a fellowship that nourishes cooperation and understanding.

Wilderness landscapes define our distance from nature but also remind us of our identity with nature. This landscape is our access to the primordial selves that we keep forgetting. Culture is our laboured separation from nature; wilderness is our open communion with it.

Between the extreme landscapes of steel skyscrapers and primal forests is the definition of what we have become and what we really are, pulled in different directions by the polarities of our divided selves. Which way do we move with these seemingly opposing loyalties?

Perhaps the answer is in the middle place of comfort. We cannot live entirely in the sterility of concrete any more than we can survive wholly in the vitality of wilderness. Our task, it would seem, is to reconcile the two so both can coexist for their mutual enhancement. Making culture and nature equal partners in the greater dance of life seems like a practical and sustainable objective. The inclusiveness that sustains both nature and ourselves would be a commendable expression of our better character.