The negotiation of life paths--past obstacles, toward goals, through environmental interactions--leaves a record of these goals, obstacles, and interactions in the landscape that might be read by observers. The American landscape has been slighted as a particularly incomprehensible--or even boring--text; curmudgeons such as James Kunstler and Peter Blake call it "placeless" and complain, in books such as The Geography of Nowhere and God's Own Junkyard, that the suburban landscape, particularly--driven by relentless exploration and escape--has too much clutter, too much change, and too little commitment to make good reading. Four centuries of consumption of new landscapes and flight to greener pastures has certainly not made for the carefully composed landscape poetry of the Japanese hill village or the tightly organized novel of European urban fabric, but American literature has a particularly rich history of shaping and being shaped by the landscape, and Canadian literature, facing a much more daunting wilderness from a more urban perspective, has paralleled this storied landscape with its own strong tradition of place literature.
One need think only of Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Sarah Orne Jewett, or Laura Ingalls Wilder to call to mind how important literature has been for experiencing and understanding the environment. And tourism-shaped development of storied places like Montgomery's Prince Edward Island or Thoreau's Walden Pond demonstrates the way that landscapes are shaped and experienced through narratives; landscapes are changed constantly to reflect what people have read about them, and the way they interpret them now. This literary understanding of the world extends down to a quite basic level: psychologists' understanding of the way human experience of the world is experienced rests on concepts such as "narrative" and "metaphor." In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson explicate how people organize ideas about the world in narrative form, and how basic concepts of thought are metaphorically structured. Narrative understanding of experience is built by drawing on more basic experiences to organize more complex ones, making metaphors central to the organization of experience. In this way, the meaning that individuals experience in, or attribute to, the environment is often symbolic, or metaphorical--some aspect of the environment triggers an association or stands in for something else.
Seeing that something is a metaphor or a symbol doesn't falsify or diminish it. Instead, it provides multiple layers in which to look at what sort of stories we tell ourselves and each other about the way we live and the way we want to live, and from what perspectives. This understanding of metaphor--something often discussed in the pages of OnFiction--is increasingly appearing in discourses of environmental planning and management. The metaphorical perspective also opens opportunities to decide--and change--how to tell and participate in those stories, rather than just be swept along by them. Understanding experience as narrative also makes the stories and metaphors of experience themselves richer, because it helps provide a framework for viewing human activities within the context of cultural and natural history--and for drawing on what other people have done facing similar opportunities and obstacles. Recognizing the ways human experience has been woven into the environment in this way may also help us to see our lives as much a part of as in opposition to the natural environment.
Peter Blake (1964). God's own junkyard; the planned deterioration of America's landscape. New York: Holt.
James Kunstler (1994). The geography of nowhere: the rise and decline of America's man-made landscape. New York: Simon & Schuster.
George Lakoff & Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Photo: Walden Pond.