Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Parlor in the Wilderness: Domesticating an Iconic American Landscape

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Parlor in the Wilderness: Domesticating an Iconic American Landscape

Article excerpt

In his essay on "Symbolic Landscapes," D. W. Meinig argued that certain landscapes "are part of the iconography of nationhood, part of the shared set of ideas and memories and feelings which bind a people together" (1979b, 164). He identified three "symbolic" landscapes, described historically. The first comprised the seventeenth- through nineteenth-century New England village with its central green, or commons, Protestant church, and meeting house. This humanized landscape, according to Meinig, identified American values of democracy and community and the role of religion in shaping the foundation of the nation. As northeastern and midwestern villages and towns grew in the nineteenth century, their Main Streets dramatically represented the growth of commercial interests in the economy. They remain in story and memory today as the nostalgia of small-town community life, and their architecture of marble or granite bank facades and red-brick retail shops gave form to the concept of progress as economic, even as the county courthouse represented the role of law in an emerging society. Finally, Meinig identified the Southern California suburb as the defining landscape of twentieth century America: the single-family house on a small lot, an automobile-centered society of nuclear families, an antiurban spatial rearrangement where race and class were in tension between the former American values of independence and community.

All three symbolic landscapes were cultural landscapes; that is, they were constructs of U.S. society, images of social, economic, and political forces on the land. Meinig's choice of artifacts and images that constitute each of the three landscapes points to specific underlying themes in U.S. culture. Meinig described his interest in symbolic landscapes in an autobiographical essay, A Life of Learning:

  I have paid particular attention to symbolic landscapes as
  representations of American values and generally tried to use the
  landscape as a kind of archive full of clues about cultural character
  and historical change that one can learn to read with ever greater
  understanding. At the same time landscape is always more than a set
  of data; it is itself an integration, a composition, and one tries to
  develop an ever keener appreciation of that. It is here that
  geography makes its most obvious connection with aesthetics, with
  writers and poets and painters and all those who try to capture in
  some way the personality of a place, or the mystery of place in human
  feelings. (Meinig 1992, 16)

The power of Meinig's descriptions enables the reader to conjure up an identifiable image and recognize its symbolic value. These landscape images continue to influence America's understanding of itself and of the conflicting values that shape social and political policies.

Perceptions of the natural landscape, however, have equally formed U.S. culture and shaped social, political, economic, and environmental policies. A discourse on nature and its social representation framed America's historical narrative. Perceptions of and meanings attached to nature and landscape have changed over time. As both Donald Meinig and David Lowenthal observed, "any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but lies within our heads" (Meinig 1979a, 34; see also Lowenthal 1961; Meinig 1992, 16).

Landscape as nature is but one "version" of landscape, according to Meinig. In "The Beholding Eye" he offers ten versions of landscape that describe "the essence" and "the organizing ideas" that "make sense" out of what is seen (1979a, 34). Landscape as nature is the initial version in Meinig's typology. It is closely followed by landscape as habitat, artifact, system, problem, wealth, ideology, history, place, and aesthetic.

In this article I suggest that "landscape as nature" formed America's other symbolic landscape and that its transformation to a humanized landscape reflected perceptual manifestations of the idea of landscape as characterized by Meinig's ten versions (1979a). …

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